The woman who built her name on chalk
National chains carry the artwork of Valerie (Henderson) McKeehan '07   

Sometimes, success is written in the stars. Other times, it’s drawn. Picture the phrase “love you to the moon and back” drawn in white chalk atop a yellow moon against a black chalkboard sky.

“I’m the classic hobby-turned-full-time-job story,” said Valerie (Henderson) McKeehan ’07, who draws chalkboard art. “’Love you to the moon and back’ was one of my first pieces and remains by far my best seller.”

McKeehan, a marketing major, began making her creations for fun in 2012. She and her husband ran an advertising agency, and drawing became a soothing stress reliever in the evenings.

“I started thinking, ‘How could I sell this? How I could I ship this, since it’s a temporary medium?’” McKeehan asked herself. She turned to paint—a more permanent method—and sold hand-lettered chalkboards in her Etsy shop called Lily and Val. “Lily is a nod to my mom, because we both love flowers. The marketing major in me said it was a good brand name.”

In six months, business was booming. Selling hand-painted pieces quickly grew to be unmanageable. Clearasil, the national skincare brand, called and commissioned her pieces for its ad campaign. Then, manufacturing companies began asking her to license her artwork. Soon, her husband joined Lily and Val full-time to help with the business side.

Now, she photographs her designs, which are then printed for stationary items carried in national chains such as Target, Nordstrom, Home Goods and Barnes & Noble. Starbucks contacted her help them with its Valentine’s promotion this year. “Everything I do it built on those photographs,” she explained. “I don’t do the hand-painted pieces anymore. I’m actually drawing it all with chalk.”

The Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company, which still maintains an Etsy shop, has its own e-commerce portal. Being an entrepreneur has involved some growing pains along the way—mostly in the form of protecting her own work.

“Stolen images are the problem. That was my biggest lesson learned.  I remember [Messiah Assistant Professor Emerita of Business Administration] Yvonne Martin told us to hire a great copyright attorney—especially when it comes to art licensing,” said McKeehan. “To have a copyright lawyer on speed dial is an unfortunate necessity.”

What’s next for the woman who built her name on chalk? McKeehan plans grow the Lily and Val brand by branching into hand-drawn illustrations. “I really felt confident in marketing after leaving Messiah,” said McKeehan. “Everything I’ve been doing has been building a brand and marketing that brand. That has been such an important part of what I do.”

--Anna Seip

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