How Jonathan Malveaux and David Sajous Built a Thriving Mask Business From Scratch
Reinventions is a questionnaire series with people who are making pivots in their lives. Meet Jonathan Malveaux and David Sajous, a pair of entrepreneurs who came from finance, corporate law, sports and entertainment. They've since launched Desavo Masks, part of whose mission is to bring safe, trusty masks to the least-considered communities.
What were you before?
Jonathan: Over the last 30 years, I have been engaged in a constant process of learning and growth, pivoting and adapting. As a Puerto Rican kid born and raised in the South Bronx, none of what I have done was expected or "part of the plan." In hindsight, I realize none of it would have been possible were it not for lessons learned at an early age, and the grit and determination that only comes with such upbringing. I suppose much of my story is about reinvention while staying true to myself and my roots.
My connection to and roots in Asia go back nearly 30 years. After graduating from Harvard University, I started my career in Japan at Panasonic doing patent licensing; I was the first and only non-Japanese person in my department so it was an adjustment but I learned a ton, walked away fluent in Japanese, and started to develop a trusted network.
After getting a JD/MBA from Columbia University, I worked at Latham & Watkins in New York as a corporate attorney in the bank finance group; I always knew I wanted to focus on the business side but appreciated how important law and structuring are to transactions. I wanted to build that foundation first.
I transitioned into investment banking at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse, where I did transactional work in leveraged finance and restructuring. There was a steep learning curve on the finance side, but I was blessed with peers who helped me get through. In late 2008, the entrepreneurial bug kicked in and I founded a sports and entertainment agency with David Sajous, scoring sponsorship for athletes and sports properties, including arenas, stadiums, leagues, etc.
David secured our first client, Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat. Our focus for him was Asia-based sponsorship; timely, given his outstanding performance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. We soon partnered with the largest agency in the world to leverage our perspective, expertise and network in Asia across a broad portfolio of sports properties in the U.S. and Europe. For a few years, I spent every other month traveling throughout Japan, South Korea and China, sourcing and structuring transactions for athletes and properties. Each step along the way, I made the foundation broader and deeper.
In 2011, I was given the chance to keep the agency and jump back into investment banking at Deutsche Bank Special Situations Group (principal finance), where I led the effort to source transactions and investment opportunities; the group was industry agnostic and had the latitude to invest up and down the capital structure, so the mandate was extremely broad. It required more creativity to structure outside the box, which I loved, especially given the law background.
Over the years, I developed a broad international network and unique perspective that I could not fully tap into, given most traditional corporate roles. The comfort and safety net was nice, but I felt prepared to take the risk of forging ahead. My first daughter was just born so I knew my window for risk taking would close soon.
I decided to form a family office/business advisory firm, where I could strategically invest personal capital and resources in other businesses, whether from startup to publicly traded companies in the U.S., Japan and Europe. Since 2014, I have been investing in and advising companies across many industries, primarily in the U.S. and Asia.
David: I didn't quite have a vision for what I would be when I grew up. My family left Haiti, after years of political and economic turmoil, to move to Miami when I started junior high. My father stayed back in Haiti to work, running his own business, and my mother worked what seemed like 20 hours a day as a nurse to support us. So I didn't put a lot of thought into it, other than I knew I wanted to go to law school. I worked my way through college and law school, and landed that coveted law firm job.
I was living the dream of almost every (most) law school graduate. I was an associate at Latham & Watkins, a top-tier "Big Law" firm in New York City. I had it all: I was on the frontlines negotiating headline deals, all of the client contact and responsibility that I could handle, international travel, and the respect and trust of partners I worked for.
I was on the path to partnership. But in the back of my mind, it was something that I couldn't quite picture for myself. The long hours … I had gotten accustomed to that. The difficulty of the work and client development, not an issue. The hard work was ingrained in me, seeing how hard my parents worked to support us. The unpredictability was part of the business.
I loved being a lawyer, but I constantly thought, what else could I be doing? Lawyers are trained to analyze risk and make recommendations to pursue objectives that minimize adverse outcomes. I was living a low-risk, high-reward life. But I needed a change.
I loved law and business, and wanted to start my own. Jon and I joined Latham at the same time, and became close friends. He had moved on from Latham by that time, but as it turned out, we were hit by the entrepreneurial bug at the same time. We gave notice at our jobs within days of each other and we started a sports agency. The financial crisis happened within months of embarking on our own, so we had to be nimble and pivot with a new focus on the Asian market.
Sometimes you don't always hit a home run on your first at-bat, but that experience, and our time building our network in Asia, would prove invaluable to us later on.
I took a step back and went back to the safety of law firm life at Latham. Shortly after, I was given the opportunity to join Barclays. It was a great opportunity for me to keep practicing law, but this time I was one step closer to business.
But the entrepreneurial bug never really went away. I just couldn't get away from the feeling that I could be doing more. I had an endless number of ideas I wanted to try, so I took the plunge again. I joined Jon again and we began investing in and advising companies of all shapes and sizes, spanning from blockchain and finance, to entertainment, sports and technology.
I understand it's not the low-risk, high-reward choice, but I appreciate the different challenges and new opportunities that we are confronted with every day.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
Jon and David: The pandemic.
Jon: In early 2020, as a native New Yorker in NYC, I found myself at the epicenter of America's Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of sheer human devastation and the country coming to a grinding halt, I felt relatively helpless; I couldn't help but notice the disproportionate impact on Black and Latino communities, which was devastating. I called my close friend and business partner of nearly 20 years, David.
David: We made a commitment to do whatever we could to help. Given our experience in Asia, and closely following what was happening in Japan and South Korea, where mask adoption rates were high, clearly a big part of the answer was readily available access to quality masks from trusted sources. At the time, there was no vaccine in sight and it was next to impossible to find good masks in the U.S. In fact, the benefits of masking were not yet widely understood here.
What did the first steps look like?
Jonathan: The first steps were daunting at best. We had never dealt with anything in the related space, so we lacked industry and product expertise.
But more perspective here is important. Personally, I was recovering from ankle surgery, still on crutches, and relatively immobile. My daughters were home doing virtual schooling and my wife was two months away from giving birth to our son; things were hectic at best. Given the difficulty and risk of traveling at the time, we had to do this completely self-financed and without in-person meetings. But we knew we could not do this by ourselves.
David: Without a doubt, this was going to be a challenge. We had to educate ourselves quickly in an industry now rife with stories of fake and defective products, layers of middlemen, keenly aware of the desperation out there, driving up prices for the limited quantities of the personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply; sellers with no product; and buyers without the funds to buy.
All while the FDA and the CDC were trying their hardest to adapt regulations and guidance to fit an environment, where the needs of first responders and everyday people had to take precedence. It was a time of daily change and adaptation for my family, like many others: kids pulled out of school, working from home, no personal contact with friends or family, scrambling for food and other supplies.
In the best of times, starting a new business venture is as tough as anything you can do. In these times, it was on the verge of Mission: Impossible, particularly as a minority-owned business.
Jonathan: We reached out to a close friend and absolutely brilliant artist and creative genius, Ariles De Tizi. He said, with zero hesitation, "Yes, we can do this, let's go now." Ariles is not just a rock star from a talent perspective; he is one of the hardest-working and most selfless people I know. He was born in Algeria, and moved to Paris during the Algerian Civil War and has been adapting, fighting and reinventing himself ever since. Ariles' work, which spans street art, paintings, photography and film, has been presented in galleries and museums, including the Louvre Museum, Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), Basilique St-Denis, France; and the Centre Pompidou.
We needed an equally genius and creative person on the tech and analytical side, so I reached out to my brother, Gabe Malveaux, who handles anything and everything technical across all the various platforms globally. Though Gabe was working full time at Hasbro, he committed to getting this done. The four of us created a chat group, "Nothing is Impossible," and worked nonstop since then to bring Desavo to life.
We all knew this was bigger and more important than anything else we have done so far and bigger than anything we will do in the future.
David: Much of the beginning related to identifying the best technologies in the world, determining how to best manufacture and source quality products, then building the shipping, warehousing, fulfillment and logistics infrastructure to transport and deliver such products in a cost-effective and timely manner. These basic steps had to be done right and are required for any business to scale. It is one thing to have 50 shipments of orders per day, and another to have 10,000 shipments of orders per day.
Getting any brand rolling is hard at first. Even when you are able to build the logistics infrastructure in a reliable and scalable manner, how do you market the product in a cost-effective way, build brand awareness and drive traffic to your site? We were doing D2C online sales for the general public, so all of this was critical. At the same time, we were engaged on the B2B side, which also required brand awareness, trust and credibility from a product perspective, and ability to deliver at scale.
Fortunately, we had early success on the B2B side with large corporate partners and professional sports teams, committed to sourcing only the highest-quality products from trusted sources. It became a meritocracy game, not a "who you know" game, and that helped considerably since we were judged on the quality of our product and offering.
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
Jonathan: On a macro level, a hard obstacle we have to overcome over and over is being limited in external resources and lacking prior experience. To move at the torrid pace needed, we have to rely on each other and learn new things all the time. On any given day, we are each wearing multiple hats, but this is normal in Year 1 of any business.
On a micro level, we had to overcome a big obstacle right out the gate. Within three weeks of launching our D2C site, we were discovered and featured on the Today show on NBC on July 15, 2020. This was a blessing; it put us on the map nationally and immediately, but our infrastructure was not built to handle such volume, and we fell way behind on order fulfillment. The following day, the Today show on NBC featured us again and put us even further behind.
For the next few weeks, we worked closely with UPS, our warehouse and shipping partner, to institute best practices across the board. UPS committed to a higher capacity of 10,000 orders per day, which helped us mature and scale on the logistics side. We could not have overcome this obstacle without the counsel and support of Ken Rivera, a UPS veteran with 30 years of experience in logistics. Ken believed in us and the mission when we were just an idea on paper. He helped us grow to scale smoothly.
David: As we expand internationally, we are creating local logistics infrastructure in Japan, Europe and Canada. While the challenges are similar, we are in a better position to execute on this, given the experience we had early on, which forced us to grow up really fast.
What was easier than you thought?
Jonathan: Fortunately, our relationships and network facilitated us having good conversations with the right people to move things forward quickly. Those companies and organizations were focused on looking only for the best, which helped tremendously. Though we had zero face-to-face meetings and did not get on one single flight, we were able to drive the B2B business using the phone and trusted direct relationships.
The other piece that proved to be easier was the actual distribution to dozens of teams across multiple sports leagues all over the country. When the NBA decided to upgrade its Covid protocols, it publicly announced it would source the best masks available.
A vetting and testing process was conducted with the CDC/NIOSH's NPPTL (National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory) testing lab, and we ranked highest from a performance perspective, with filter efficiency over 99.9 percent. Comfort and breathability was also important, because players and coaches would need to wear masks virtually all the time. We then had the challenge of delivering hundreds of thousands of masks across the country to over 70 teams.
Many times, we did not have more than a few hours' notice to ship and deliver within one to two days. The sophisticated logistics infrastructure we built with UPS made it easy to execute and deliver without hesitation or frustration. The early struggles and improved infrastructure prepared us to execute for that opportunity.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
David: Starting with an excellent team that is fully committed, and ready to take on any and all things that come up on a daily basis, is critical and common knowledge. In addition to the core internal team, it's widely understood that having good outside legal counsel is key to doing things right.
What sets Desavo apart is the internal team we have on the creative, visual and branding side, led by Ariles DeTizi; and our team on the tech side, led by Gabe Malveaux. They do so much heavy lifting, and execute almost immediately so we can move forward very fast. Without Ariles and Gabe, none of what we do would be possible. Some companies would outsource some of this to an agency, but we could not afford to, from a time or cost perspective.
The takeaway is to know what matters most, and ensure those assets are in place to execute, especially when things start moving really fast.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
Jonathan: I have been inspired most by my family and children, since much of what we fight for every day is helping make the world safer, so we can resume some level of normalcy. We would be happy to pivot and focus on something other than masks, but want to make the world better, and demonstrate that you can commit to doing something good, and make a difference, in a way most people would find impossible.
Given how much work was done from home, my family witnessed many of the highs and lows first hand, for better or worse. That was inspiring. Our families made personal sacrifices, for which we are eternally grateful.
David: I wish I could say I get my inspiration from a famous philosopher, musician or some titan of business or law. But no; I pick up my inspiration a lot closer to home.
I'm inspired by my parents, seeing them work so hard to provide for me and my siblings. I'm inspired by my wife and kids, because I want to do my part in making our lives today and tomorrow better. And from my family, whose constant encouragement and support make it worth it to keep persevering. And from the countless number of people who tell us every day that what we are doing makes a difference in their lives.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
Jonathan: The one constant now is the sheer unpredictability on a day-to-day basis. We try to plan in advance as much as possible, but spend most of the day creatively troubleshooting and exploring ways to mature and grow as a business. I enjoy thinking quickly and creatively, and staying calm in the face of chaos, but that is one of the biggest changes.
David: Things can get relatively chaotic in any business, and transactions in finance are no exception. But the range of chaos that stems from growing a business with so many moving pieces, that has both D2C and B2B channels, across multiple geographies, is especially challenging.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
Jonathan: No, I cannot imagine going back to traditional finance. I enjoy being able to challenge myself in different ways every day, and bringing all my experience and resources to bear to do the impossible.
We are nearly complete with our next phase of international expansion across Asia, starting with Japan, Europe and Canada. The challenges are unique, but we take pride in knowing we are helping make a difference, and saving lives. We will continue to leverage our collective resources to build businesses, and invest in other businesses that help make a difference.
David: You never know what tomorrow brings. I've gotten used to the idea that there is only one constant: change. I caught the entrepreneurial bug, and that has not subsided. But we've invested so much into this new endeavor, and seen that what we built has truly had an impact on people's lives, more than what we could have imagined when we started this.
Tell us your reinvention song.
Jonathan: "Empire State of Mind," Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys.
Desavo, like David, Gabe and myself, was born and raised in NYC; Ariles was living in Brooklyn.
David: We all grew up listening to hip-hop, and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys (also born and raised in NYC) are among our favorite artists. At the time, there was endless stress and negativity from the pandemic, from the political environment, the economy and all of the human suffering. To help stay focused, motivated and positive as we made this huge pivot, "Empire State of Mind" rang true in every way. The swagger that comes from being New Yorkers helped us power through.
In New York (uh, yeah)
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do (okay)
Now you're in New York (uh, yeah)
These streets will make you feel brand-new
Big lights will inspire you (okay)
Let's hear it for New York (come on)
New York (yeah), New York (uh)
How would you define yourself now?
Jonathan: I am a co-founder of Desavo. We make high-performance masks available directly to consumers through desavo.com, as well as to businesses, including: 75 teams across major sports, the NBA, WNBA, and G League; airlines like Delta (chartering flights for pro sports teams); large corporations like Google; award shows such as the Oscars and the Kennedy Center Honors; and TV and film production studios, including HBO Productions, among others. I spend most of my time building the Desavo brand and driving the sales and marketing of our products, as well as brand collaborations and integrations.
David: I am a co-founder of Desavo. We built a company that made an impact in a time unlike any we have seen in over 100 years. And we hope that we serve as an example to other minority-owned businesses that there is a path to success.