In the lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch”, from the musical “Company”, Steven Sondheim roasts/toasts the rich, middle-aged, woman of leisure. Women who while away their days in meaningless pursuits (such as luncheons with friends). Women who will do anything but be productive, in their efforts to stave away what they know, deep in their hearts, to be bitterly true:
…Everybody tries. Look into their eyes, And you’ll see what they know: Everybody dies…
Cheery lyrics, aren’t they? But I digress: this blog is not about the ladies who lunch – it is a tribute to the opposite – the ladies that launch – women who spend their days turning their entrepreneurial dreams into reality. Independent, bad-ass women who are building a legacy for their future and their families.
These are the stories of women who are walking in the turn of the century foot steps of the Red Rose Girls (pictured above), four original bad-asses who thumbed their roses (I mean “noses”) at societal norms to begin their own graphic design and illustration businesses. Ahead of their times, these women also created an artist commune to share both the bills and moral support. Now that’s forward thinking!
And so, Let’s hear it for the ladies who Launch! Everybody rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!
This blog post (my second in a series of posts featuring creative, young, female entrepreneurs) is based on a written interview that I did with Chloe Coltharp, a Fashion Design and Merchandising Student at Drexel’s Westphal School of Art and Design. I asked Chloe to describe her first creative experience; I asked her about her influences and I asked her who she considers her artistic ancestors. These are the same questions that my instructors posed to me when I was a college student, studying painting, thirty-some years ago. Although these questions got me thinking about my place in the creative world and in the trajectory of the history of art, they are basically un-answerable: only time can answer these questions: time spent – hours and years, in the studio, creating a body of work.
And now, about Chloe…
Chloe Coltharp grew up outside of Pittsburgh in a small borough called Bradford Woods with her parents and brother. Bradford Woods was developed in the early 1900’s as a summer getaway for Pittsburgh’s city-dwellers. The homes, built on large, tree-laden plots, are more modern than the majority of Pittsburgh. Chloe’s childhood home was mid-century modern in style with an open floor plan and an entire wall of windows, providing a warmth of natural light. Her grandfather’s home, also contemporary in design, had an Eames lounge and cantilever chairs. Growing up surrounded by modern shapes set in a natural environment was a force in the development of Chloe’s aesthetic sensibilities and is reflected today in the juxtaposition of the angular and the organic in her fashion designs.
Both of Chloe’s parents were architects and so Chloe grew up in a household that encouraged the exploration of the visual arts. When she was four years old, they enrolled her in art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art. One of her clearest childhood memories is walking through the museum after class and being awed by the colors, shapes and emotion of the art exhibited on the walls. Her reaction was completely instinctual and unbiased. Chloe knew then that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up.
Chloe enrolled at Drexel University as a Fashion Design major; her early experiences at the Carnegie Museum of Art influenced her decision to minor in Art History. Her interest in art history is a big influence on her fashion aesthetic.
Her fashion silhouettes reflect a Post-Impressionist emphasis on the formal elements of shape, line, and composition.
Renaissance art is another influence. Below is a dress design inspired by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, “The Birth of Venus”. One can see the scallop-shape reflected in the ruffle of the dress and it’s off the shoulder silhouette and model’s stance reflect Venus’s pose.
In addition to being influenced by the art of the Renaissance era, Chloe is also influenced by its fashion. Her ruffled collar (pictured below) is reminiscent of the detachable collars worn in the 15th and 16th centuries by Renaissance women and men. Its adornment with screen printed hair combs is not only a nod to grooming implements of the era, but it is also a subconscious nod to the commonplace objects used as subject matter in the screen prints of Pittsburgh’s most famous son, Andy Warhol.
They also tell a story. Hair combs are an intimate part of a grooming ritual. This collar evokes an image of a woman sitting at a vanity, gazing at her reflection in the mirror. She fastens the buttons on the bodice of her dress. She places the collar around her neck and ties its black satin ribbon into a bow. She runs a comb through her hair. Satisfied, she is ready to face the world.
This desire to tell a story first began for Chloe during a visit to a Paris flea market. She found a skeleton key and placed it on a chain that she wore around her neck. She was curious about the key’s backstory: where did it come from, what did it open? She began actively looking for other curios. When she returned home from Paris, she found her grandfather’s baby spoons which she then turned into charms. She loved how the act of wearing these objects felt experiential. It made her think about clothing design and how fashion is an act of self-expression. Fashion tells a story about who we are – our moods, our personality, our history, even our sense of humor. Through the clothes that we choose to wear, we write the story of who we are.
When I asked Chloe who her artistic ancestor was, she mentioned being inspired by contemporary British designer, Simone Rocha. I can see that – Rocha’s work similarly has a strong art history influence.
I mentioned Andy Warhol as a possible artistic ancestor, but Chloe didn’t see it because of his Pop Art leanings. But I would like to suggest, Chloe, that you take another look.
Andy Warhol’s style and execution may not speak to you, but I feel his connection to you – not just in his interest in screen printing and the repetition of commonplace objects in his art and his Pittsburgh roots – but also because of his penchant for storytelling.
There is a collection of ephemera and objects that Warhol collected during his life and his travels that is displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum (Have you been there? It is amazing.) These objects had a life all their own and their stories sparked his imagination and his creativity.
Chloe, I hope that someday, in the future, maybe when you are my age, you will look back, read this, and think about who you were then, and who you are now. Perhaps it will show you how far you have come; perhaps it will remind you of how much you are the same!
This blog is the first of a series of blogs that feature young and upcoming creative entrepreneurs.
Catherine (“Cat”) Pfingst is an undergraduate student, studying fashion design and merchandising at Drexel University’s Westphal College School of Art and Design.
Cat grew up in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, in Bluebell, in an historic farmhouse full of character – creaky floors, horsehair plaster walls, antique furniture, and an accumulation of knick-knacks collected over the years by a family that, according to Cat, “loves their stuff.”
She also spent a lot of time at her family’s second home in Talbot County, the heart of the eastern shore of Maryland. Cat’s childhood summers are filled with memories of the Chesapeake Bay, being out on the water, crabbing for Blue Claws and learning how to sail. These summer memories are an integral part of who Cat is and what she is attracted to visually: think of the Susquehanna River spilling into the Chesapeake Bay – its dark blue-black waters under a cirrus-streaked cerulean sky, punctuated by snow white geese and steel gray herons; salt tidal marshes dominated by blue-green sedge grass turning a soft yellow in the fall.
Her fashion aesthetic reflects the impact of these early, formative summers spent in nature. The color palette of her clothing designs leans toward neutral and agrestal colors. The fabrics she gravitates towards are tactile and textural, not sleek and man-made, but natural.
As a child, Cat was always finding ways to express herself. She would draw on place mats at restaurants, write stories and songs, and sculpt characters out of Model Magic clay. She would bring home natural objects that she had collected while exploring outdoors that she would later incorporate into artwork or store away in one collection or another. One of her earliest artworks is a collage of a a leaf transformed into the dress of a girl wearing long earrings. It hangs in her parent’s kitchen to this day.
Looking at this, Cat’s first significant piece of art, it is easy to see its correlation to her fashion design work. Her designs are inspired by unconventional found objects or textures she sees while walking down the streets of Philadelphia, such as the concrete surface of a city sidewalk. She enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to turn these “not-traditionally-fashion” things into “fashion”.
Cat began to realize her love of fashion design when she was in middle school. It was at that time that she began to push herself out of her comfort zone by choosing clothes that expressed her individuality. She also began shopping at thrift stores, buying used clothes and reclaiming them as her own.
Cat felt exhilarated by the idea that she could communicate information about herself and her perceptions of the world through the language of clothing. In the fifth grade, a fortune teller predicted that Cat would be a fashion designer one day.
The person in Cat’s life who has influenced her most is her mom. Cat’s mother went to Tyler School of Art for graphic design in the late 1970’s, and later studied textile design at the Philadelphia College of Textiles (now Jefferson University). Cat has always been surrounded by her mother’s creativity and passion – she grew up having unfettered access to her mother’s drawers of art supplies. She credits her mom with teaching her the value of observing the natural world and with training her to be observant.
Today, Cat’s fashion design continues to focus on up-cycling. She looks through her own closet for clothes that she can re-purpose and she still shops at second-hand stores. She enjoys the process of transformation; she likes the idea of breathing life into something old and its role in sustainability.
Cat says, “I think we have enough clothes out there. We all own so much fabric in the form of clothes, so why not use that? All it takes is some imagination.” To that end, she and a friend are collaborating to make a coat entirely out of re-purposed home textiles, such as potholders and tea towels. Humor is very important to Cat. Fashion is meant to be fun, and she hopes that people can see the whimsy in her work.
One day, Cat would like to have her own line of made-to-order clothing. She wants her line to be versatile and comfortable and her silhouettes to be “gender-less”. She sees this unisex realm as another way to increase an item’s sustainability – its universality extends its lifespan.
Of the process of fashion design, Cat writes: “… it’s like you create this world and decide what lives inside of it— what shapes, what colors, what textures— it’s like the manifestation of something living inside of you … and your job is to pull out what’s going on to visually represent it.”
You can explore Cat’s world at “The Proving Ground Pop Up, Women’s Edition” on March 9th, 3 – 6pm. Behrakis Grand Hall, Creese Student Center, Drexel University, 3310 Chestnut Street as part of the Maguire Empowerment Summit for Women Leaders. Cat will be showing and displaying her designs as one of the female entrepreneurs and makers featured at this event. For more information about the Summit or to RSVP for this free event, visit http://bit.ly/WomensSummit20.
Sheetal Bahirat was born in India in 1986, but spent her early school years in Cupertino, California, before moving back to India with her family to Bangalore, India, when she was in the 8th grade. Like all of India at that time, Bangalore was in an economic boom. Information Technology was exploding; in fact, Bangalore was, and still is, considered the “Silicon Valley” of India. It was there that Sheetal launched three startup businesses, all before the age of 30!
Sheetal started her first business while studying Business Management in undergraduate school at Sri Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain College. As a student, Sheetal was struck by the difference between her educational experience in California compared with her experience in India. In California, the education system included experiential and project-based learning techniques that helped in a child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development. In India, the system focused on a teacher-based system, leaving a big gap in the development of students.
Born with an innate sense of fairness and a penchant for social responsibility, Sheetal saw how India’s educational system could be supplemented. Sheetal’s first business tackled this issue. Seed Leads, as it was called, attempted to bring the California educational model to India’s primary school system. Seed Leads quickly landed its first Elementary School client; but, Sheetal had little actual business experience and Seed Leads closed at the end of that first school contract.
Her next venture, Voonik, was a personal styling and shopping app geared towards wealthy housewives of Indian CEO’s. Voonik was extremely successful: it grew from 6 to 600 employees and raised over $10 million dollars.
At first glance, Voonik and Seed Leads seem like two very different businesses. But there is a commonality: both businesses are about learning, self-help, personal growth and the idea that change comes from within.
The belief that change can be affected from the inside-out was even more evident in her third startup, Big Blender (a cold-pressed juice company). Sheetal had always had an interest in whole foods and their positive impact on a person’s well-being. There was just one problem: as the company grew, Sheetal became increasingly bothered by the amount of food waste generated by the production of her juices. Sheetal began researching ways to utilize every part of the fruit and plant and eventually found herself at the website for The Culinary Arts and Food Science Program at Drexel University. She contacted Professor Jonathan Deutsch, the director of Drexel University’s food product development program and Food Lab, Drexel’s culinary innovation testing ground. Deutsch was so impressed with Sheetal, her history of entrepreneurial ventures, and her passion for the science behind food that he offered her a position (which she accepted) as a Research Assistant in Drexel University’s Culinary Arts Graduate Program.
It was there, while making guacamole, that Sheetal and her co-founder, Zuri Masud, first started thinking about the avocado seed and whether it could be used to create a food product on its own. Could it be a resource, rather than a waste product? Guacamole only used the fruit’s pulp – but what about its seed and skin? Sheetal discovered that the majority of the healthy antioxidants contained in an avocado are found in its seed and skin. Her discovery that these antioxidants are also water-soluble led to the creation of a beverage made from the avocado seed. Sheetal used the resources at her disposal – all that she had learned in her Food Science classes and in her experiments in Drexel’s Food lab, as well as her experience in product development with Seed Leads, Voonik and Big Blender – to create a tea from the avocado seed which she named Avoh Tea. In the process, not only did she create a delicious and refreshing beverage, she made a sustainable drink that is zero-calorie, sugar free, probiotic-rich, with three times the antioxidants of green tea.
In 2019, Avoh Tea was awarded a cohort with Food-X, a prestigious food incubator located in New York City. She has since re-branded her company, changing its name to Hidden Gems, and the name of her flagship beverage to Reveal. It’s mission:
Hidden Gems wants to change the way we look at our resources. Our mission is to create beautiful, environmentally safe, and socially responsible up cycled products by discovering the hidden value in the food people would normally call trash. Our hope is to reduce food waste, continue to create and support sustainable systems for sustainable living, and inspire everyone to discover the hidden gems in the world around us.
At the heart of Sheetal Bahirat’s entrepreneurial journey, from Seed Leads, to up cycling Avocado seeds, is the goal of making the world a better place. Hidden Gems provides consumers with a healthy beverage alternative (healing again from the inside out – a reoccurring theme in Sheetal’s story), it keeps food by-products out of the waste stream and it educates consumers about the possibilities of sustainable living. I can’t wait to taste what comes next!
Sheetal and her co-founder, Zuri, will be sampling Reveal at Drexel University’sWomen’s Empowerment Summit, on Monday, March 9th, at Behrakis Grand Hall, 3250 Chestnut Street Philadelphia. Admission is free. RSVP here.
Let me start this blog post by asking a question: do you drink kombucha?
If your answer is no, you should start!
Kombucha has multiple proven health benefits. First, it contains probiotics and is good for your gut health – a healthy gut not only makes you feel physically better, it helps you lose weight and has a positive affect on mood. Second, kombucha contains antioxidants and therefore, has the potential to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer. And third, there is evidence that kombucha helps patients manage their Type 2 Diabetes.
What did you say? You’ve tried it, but don’t like it?
Admittedly, kombucha is not to everyone’s liking. Kombucha is a slightly alcoholic (veryslightly), bubbly, fermented, sweetened tea with a hint of vinegar. Nohra Murad, the owner, founder and brewer of the Philadelphia-based kombucha company,”Camino Kombucha”, knows this and has set out to create a kombucha that delivers all the health benefits with a delicious, more universally-palatable taste.
Nohra first started making kombucha completely by happenstance. She was a Drexel University student working at her third Coop in Washington DC when her boyfriend gave her a pickling kit for Christmas. He thought she would have fun pickling vegetables. But instead, a small tag that read, “Can be used to brew kombucha”, sparked Nohra’s interest. Nohra liked kombucha but, as a student, she couldn’t afford to drink it on a regular basis. She decided to give brewing it a try.
Norah was lonely in DC – she was far from her Philadelphia home and friends. The act of brewing kombucha became a life-saver. Not only did she enjoy the process but she also loved to share the results with friends. The power of shared food to form community is an important motivator for Nohra. She was hooked.
Nohra’s parents had immigrated to the United States from Iraq, settling in the Phoenix suburbs of Arizona. A large Assyrian community existed there and the dry, desert heat reminded her parents of Baghdad.
They joined the Assyrian Church of the East and church became central to their life. The Assyrian Church of the East was welcoming and not only shared their Assyrian traditions, but also their food. Black tea, samoon, lavish, dolma, booshalah and goopta thoomurta (a poor man’s fermented cheese which involves burying a cheese blend in a hole in the ground for three months – sounds delicious??? hmmm…not so sure) were foods that they bonded over.
As a young girl, Nohra would also travel to the midwest to spend part of her summer vacation with relatives. Memories of hours spent, sitting in her aunt’s kitchen on summer days, eating and learning how to make Assyrian dishes resonate with Nohra to this day.
Nohra had a distinct idea about how she wanted her kombucha to taste. Nohra was studying Biomedical Engineering at Drexel and her engineering brain kicked in – she loves to figure things out. Through experimentation, she was able to perfect the technique and the taste that is unique to her Camino Kombucha brand. Camino Kombucha is a traditional kombucha with a slight variation. Nohra brews a typical 50/50 black to green tea ratio but she slightly reduces her fermentation time and adds more sugar, decreasing its vinegar taste. She also adds CO2 for consistency. The result is a sweet, effervescent, light kombucha.
When Nohra graduated with her Bachelors and Masters in Science in June of 2019, she decided to concentrate on brewing kombucha rather than finding an engineering job. Nohra had been inspired to study engineering by her dad who had his PhD in Engineering. Nohra’s father never encouraged Nohra to be an engineer. He was passionate about history and had wanted to be a History teacher. However, when Nohra decided to pursue her own passion making kombucha, he was not on board. He was proud of his daughter’s academic achievements and was afraid she was throwing her Drexel degrees away.
Nohra was not discouraged by her dad’s unenthusiastic response. She is a tenacious pursuer of her goals. Once she sets her mind to something, there is no stopping her.
When Nohra began taste-testing her finished recipe, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Even people who had tried kombucha before and claimed to dislike it, liked her kombucha. This was Nohra’s aha moment: if hers’ was the kind of kombucha that a person who thinks they don’t like kombucha likes, then there was a huge opportunity to bring a niche drink to a much wider audience. Nohra’s kombucha had the potential to be the next Vitamin Water or Snapple.
Nohra decided to go for it. She moved quickly. Within a year of brewing her first kombucha, her company was formed. She decided to call it Camino Kombucha and branded it to have a retro feel, reminiscent of Route 66 which had its heyday in the 1950s. Route 66 runs through Arizona and reminds her of home.
Through a series of lucky breaks, Camino Kombucha also moved out of Nohra’s West Philly apartment kitchen and into its new home – a space in Kensington’s Maken Studios, the same launchpad for entrepreneurs that Thu Pham and Caphe Roasters (read previous blog) calls home.
She now brews four signature flavors from her Maken workspace – Prickly Pear, Rose, Lime Ginger and my personal favorite – Grapefruit. You can purchase Camino Kombucha at 3 locations: 1) the Pennsylvania General Store in Reading Terminal Market, 2) V Marks the Shop and 3) The Tasty.
Starting a new venture is hard and requires capital. Camino Kombucha has been self-funded almost entirely by Nohra and her family. In order to grow, she is going to need to find other sources of funding. Banks won’t lend her money – she has no proven track record and is too big a risk. Nohra is looking for people who believe in her product to invest in her idea.
And her idea is a good one. In November, at Drexel University’s annual Start Up Fest, she impressed a panel of New Venture experts with her Camino Kombucha pitch and was awarded a cash prize plus space in Drexel’s prestigious Baiada Incubator, beating out some serious competition.
If you would like to support Camino Kombucha and help Nohra Murad realize her dream of seeing her kombucha sold everywhere (including in your local Wawa), consider investing.
In 2017, Thu Pham was approached by the founders of 12PLUS, the nonprofit organization for which she was working as a Fellow in Kensington. (12PLUS matches recent college graduates such as Thu with under-served Philadelphia high school students to provide mentoring and advocacy). They handed her a flyer advertising the application deadline for the upcoming Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge – a competition inviting small businesses to propose ideas to revitalize troubled Kensington Avenue. For the winning proposals, up to ten applicants would receive free rent for a year in the Maken Studios, and funding and mentoring from Shift Capital and its partners. Located in North Philadelphia, Maken Studios is a launchpad for makers that occupies the large, industrial building that used to be home to Jomar Fabrics.
“If you were to enter this competition, what business would you enter?” they asked. She thought for a moment and replied, “a café”. She had long been dissatisfied with her experience of cafes in Philadelphia. In theory, they seemed like a pleasant place to hang out with a friend or to use as a remote work space. Instead, they tended to be over-crowded and she often felt rushed and unwelcome. The right cafe had the potential to become the beating heart of a re-imagined neighborhood.
Thu was born in Vietnam and when she was four, she immigrated to Orange County, California, and eventually, to Northeast Philadelphia. Both places had large Vietnamese refugee communities. Thu had always been fascinated by the customs surrounding the drinking of coffee in her homeland. She remembered seeing men and women (but mostly men) sitting outside at Vietnamese restaurants on short stools, spending hours drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and chatting. She remembered the unhurried sense of warmth and community that she felt. What if she could recreate that feeling in Kensington?
Another powerful memory from her childhood was that of her sister lifting her up to sit on their kitchen counter while she brewed Vietnamese coffee. Her sister would pour hot water into the phin and together, they would watch it slowly run over the coffee and through the phin’s filter and into a cup. (It takes 4 to 5 minutes to brew a cup of Vietnamese coffee). Her sister would add condensed milk and shaved ice and then offer Thu a sweet spoonful. In American restaurants, Vietnamese coffee is usually made from inexpensive Café du Monde coffee beans, a nondescript blend roasted in Louisiana that achieves its smoky flavor through the addition of chicory. Coffee beans grown in Vietnam are naturally smoky. Volcanic soil, hot temps, humidity and high elevations give Vietnamese coffee beans their unique, nutty, bold flavor.
For the competition, she proposed the opening of a Vietnamese coffee roastery and eventually a cafe that would donate a portion of its profits back into the community to support 12PLUS. Within two months of entering, Thu found out that she and her partners (the founders of 12PLUS) had won and Caphe Roasters was born – the first and only Vietnamese roastery in Philadelphia.
There was one small problem – Thu had absolutely NO knowledge of roasting and/or brewing. She spent the next six months researching brewing and roasting techniques. In her parent’s poorly ventilated row home kitchen in Olney, she would experiment, trying to discover the perfect ratio of water and temperature. She used Rival Brothers beans (When Thu was studying Marketing Research and Psychology at Drexel University, class of 2015, she liked drinking Rival Brothers coffee from their truck located on campus), but, eventually, she switched to South Asian beans she sourced from a supplier. Over her family’s gas stove, she created her roasting profile by using a $20 Whirley-Pop popcorn popper that she had purchased at Williams Sonoma. She has come a long way from those days in a very short amount of time – she now operates a professional roaster that she considers her baby – a San Franciscan, manufactured out of Carson City, Nevada.
Thu sells her coffee beans to local Vietnamese restaurants, and at farmer’s markets and coffee shops. In the not-too-distant-future, she plans to open her café in Kensington. Last summer, she partnered with Weckerly’s Ice Cream in Fishtown to create a popular seasonal Vietnamese coffee ice cream. Part of the profits from sales of this flavor went to support 12PLUS. Partnerships with businesses such as Weckerly’s that are working to transform the communities where they do business is in perfect alignment with her values.
Thu was raised a devout Catholic and taught, by her parent’s example, the value of leading a life of service. She believes strongly in the work of 12PLUS – how it empowers young people to continue their education and to become entrepreneurs like herself. No matter how delicious or potent it may be (Vietnamese coffee delivers a caffeine punch 3x greater than a cup of espresso), for Thu, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about community.
Join Thu and four other female Philadelphia food innovators for a panel discussion on November 14th at 12:30pm at Drexel University’s Food Innovation Startup Fest. To learn more and to register, click here.
Yesterday, I rode the wrong train – obliviously, to the end of the line, waiting to get off at a stop which never came. I felt like an idiot. It would take me over an hour to reverse direction. I decided to give up and call it a day. However, I could not stop thinking about the words of Michelle Carfagno, CEO of The Greater Knead: “failure is a choice”. So, instead of pulling down the shades, putting on my pjs and binge-watching Netflix, I took the bus home, got my car, set my GPS and drove to my original destination. I am so glad I went. I met some great people and made some excellent connections. And most importantly, I no longer felt quite so incompetent. I chose not to fail.
The number of failed startups is high – about 90% by some reports. Michelle Carfagno began her start up bakery, “Sweet Note”, in 2012 and over the years, her business has faced many near-death moments. Michelle credits her survival with a conscious decision to choose success over failure. And her ability to pivot.
Michelle has wanted to be a baker for as long as she can remember. When her grandfather and sister were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Michelle began experimenting with gluten-free dessert recipes. The diagnosis of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance had become widespread and the need for gluten – free foods was increasing. In 2011, she bartered a deal to use a local bagel shop’s kitchen after hours in exchange for baking gluten-free goods for the shop to sell. With access to bagel-making equipment in her test kitchen, it was a no-brainer for Michelle to hone in on baking gluten-free bagels.
Michelle wanted her bagels to taste like the traditional Jewish bagels that she grew up eating every Sunday morning. It took Michelle fifteen tries to perfect the sample that she then took to local cafes. She was elated when the Green Line Cafe placed an order for a whopping THREE bagels. As the popularity of her bagels grew, so did the size of their order (thankfully!) and eventually, Michelle was selling enough bagels out of her little night kitchen to garner the interest of the owner of the bagel store (and his lawyers).
Said, greedy, owner tried to claim proprietorship of her bagel recipe and Michelle was forced to shutter her operation. Another customer offered her their kitchen. This time, she signed a formal rental agreement that protected her against litigious claims.
Sweet Note continued to grow and from one employee it grew to five and from five to fifteen. At the start, she looked for a copacker to manufacture her recipe. She had a hard time finding a manufacturer willing to work with a business as small as hers’ who could guarantee no cross-contamination and a high-quality product. After a bad experience with the quality of bagels produced by one copacker, Michelle decided to manufacture her bagels herself. But first, she needed a bagel-making machine capable of working with gluten-free dough. Experts in the field told her it could not be done. Bagel machines were designed to stretch and shape dough, and gluten-free dough has no elasticity. Michelle changed direction and instead of buying a new, $25,000 bagel making machine, she bought a $3000 used machine on Ebay that she “McGuiver-ed” to work with gluten-free dough. She still uses that machine today.
Michelle outgrew her little rental kitchen and moved to a larger space in Manayunk and then to her current, much larger, space in Bensalem. The space in Bensalem was much more conducive to larger quantity baking and Sweet Note was able to increase its efficiency. What took five days to bake in Manayunk only took two days in Bensalem. Michelle now had time to take on the manufacturing of two other brands with similar allergen-free manufacturing needs. (A Gluten Free Brownie and Sweet Megan’s Cookie Dough, sold at Wawa Stores.)
Around this time, Michelle started to question her company’s direction. Sweet Note had shifted from being a small hands-on brand to a copacker. Michelle was not baking – her first love and creative outlet – at all. But, at the same time, she was proud of her path as an entrepreneur who learned everything she knew through trial and error and through a stubborn unwillingness to fail. She began to share her story, knowledge and expertise with other female business owners in the food industry. Through mentoring and soul-searching, she realized where her passions lie. She was passionate about helping other women realize their dreams and she was passionate about producing food that was absolutely safe for people with food allergies. Her manufacturing facility would not only be gluten-free, but wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish – free.
With this realization, came the rebranding of her company. Sweet Note became “The Greater Knead”. Her business would focus on the food industry’s “knead” for an allergen-free manufacturing facility that would help other businesses with a similar mission get their products to market.
When I asked Michelle “what next?” her answer was wide open and includes continued growth of the contract manufacturing side of her business. Someday, she dreams of opening a food incubator to guide female entrepreneurs from idea to finished product. Whatever the future holds, Michelle is excited and open to any possibility – whether it be more co-branding opportunities such as the one she entered in 2018 to produce a sunflower butter and bagel chip snack, (“Sunsnackers”), or the expansion of her bagel sales nationwide or some other possibility that she hasn’t even considered yet. One thing is certain, for Michelle Carfagno, failure is not an option.
Michelle will be speaking at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship on Thursday, October 24th at 12pm. The topic of her talk will be “My Start Up Journey: How I Funded by Start Up Using Non-Traditional Funding Sources.” To RSVP for this free event, click here.
Please visit The Greater Knead’s website: www.thegreaterknead.com to find where you can purchase The Greater Knead’s gluten free bagels and bagel chips.
Nicole Haddad had her “Aha” moment when she was 24 years old, two years out of undergraduate school and doing data entry at a law firm. She was unfulfilled and trying to decide her next move when a childhood best friend suggested, “Why don’t you become a fashion designer?” The light flicked on and within a week, Nicole applied and was accepted to the graduate program in Fashion Design at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. This is the story of Nicole’s journey to becoming a fashion designer and how she built Lobo Mau, her distinctive Philadelphia-based fashion line.
Nicole grew up in the town of Lansdowne, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her girlhood home was artistically rich and culturally diverse. Her father, Orlando Haddad, was born and raised in Brazil and studied jazz composition and guitar at the North Carolina School for the Arts. There, he met Nicole’s mom, Patricia King, who was studying voice. Patricia is 3rd generation Sicilian. Together, they are part of the Grammy-nominated Brazilian duo “Minas”. Nicole still lives in Lansdowne – in a house around the corner from where she grew up.
Nicole was a creative kid – she played the guitar and piano, and she was a maker who loved to draw. She especially liked to draw her own clothing designs. Not surprisingly, Nicole comes from a long line of dressmakers and clothing designers.
Her grandmother was a bridal and evening gown designer. Her great-grandmother, Annunziata, owned three clothing boutiques in her lifetime. The embodiment of the American Dream, Annunziata, an Italian immigrant, opened her first clothing store on Chestnut Street. Celebrities and socialites such as Grace Kelly shopped at Minissale’s.
At the age of 13, Nicole traveled to Brazil to visit relatives. Across the street from where she was staying, was a seamstress shop. Nicole boldly took her drawings to that shop and asked the dressmakers to turn them into clothing. Over a decade later, when she applied to Drexel, those clothes formed the basis of the portfolio that got her admitted.
In graduate school, Nicole learned the fundamentals of sewing – how to cut and make patterns and how to work with knits. She also developed her unique point of view and began her Lobo Mau line. After graduation, Nicole took a job at a costume jewelry factory. Her work there was mindless and she took advantage of what it offered – access to a multitude of women of different shapes and sizes who were willing to try on her clothes and give her feedback.
Eventually, Nicole was offered an opportunity to join a fashion co-op in Olde City, where she and other fashion designers could sell their work in a storefront boutique and fabricate their designs in its communal basement workroom. When her business outgrew the co-op, she moved her studio to the Bok Building, a former vocational high school located in South Philly, becoming its very first tenant. At Bok, Lobo Mau has continued to grow and evolve. Three years ago, Nicole’s younger brother, Jordan, joined Lobo Mau, and as its CEO, he has pushed the business forward. This fall, Lobo Mau will open its flagship boutique in Queen Village.
What is behind Lobo Mau’s success?
First, Nicole and Jordan are warm, welcoming, and down to earth. They genuinely care about the happiness of their clients – they want them to look and feel good about their purchase. And the Lobo Mau line of clothing does both those things.
Lobo Mau clothing is for every woman (and man) – any shape, size, or age. It is fun, contemporary, and functional (and machine-washable) with a nod towards the evolution and history of fashion (Nicole has her undergraduate degree in Art History to thank for that.) Its silhouettes are flattering and the unique textural combination of original monochrome patterns with colorful, linear ribbing sets the Lobo Mau collection apart.
This year, Lobo Mau was named Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly “Best Sustainable Local Brand”. The fashion industry, and especially Fast Fashion, are a huge threat to the health of our planet. Out of six of the largest industries in the world – coal/oil, tourism, beef, transportation, fracking and fashion – fashion is the largest polluter after coal and oil. The process of producing new fabric, especially cotton, is the main culprit. The amount of water required to grow cotton is exorbitant – it takes 4000 gallons of water to grow the cotton for one pair of jeans! Additionally, pesticides used in cotton farming and toxic dyes contribute to the problem. (Check out BBC1’s “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets”.)
Lobo Mau’s “Slow Fashion” ethos is a reaction to the un-sustainability of Fast Fashion, where quantity and low cost is valued over everything. Nicole and Jordan intentionally consider the resources required when making decisions regarding the production of their clothing line. They use higher-quality leftover or “deadstock” fabric that lasts longer, they utilize scraps, use inks whose pigments do not contain heavy metals and buy eco-nylon thread. They support the local economy by working with Philly family – owned businesses, including the company that supplies their signature ribbing material. Becoming zero-waste (they are almost there, but not quite) is a goal for the future.
On Thursday, August 29th, I will be co-hosting a party at Lobo Mau’s studio. Nicole will share her fashion line, the story behind her business, and her passion for “Slow Fashion.” Join me for a light bite to eat, a glass of wine and a chance to learn how you too can make a difference by supporting local sustainable brands such as Lobo Mau.
Lobo Mau is located in the Bok Building, 1901 S. 9th Street, Suite 501. 610.316.9821. If you would like to come to my Lobo Mau party, please do! Everyone is welcome. Message me and I will add you to the guest list.