Cat Pfingst – Fashion Designer in the Making

Cat Pfingst

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.

Phingst Girl Wearing Leaf Dress
Girl Wearing a Leaf Dress

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 Phingst Jewelry
Jewelry made with Unconventional Found Objects

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.

Humor is a part of Cat’s aesthetic. Her designs are whimsical and funny.

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.

Or visit https://catpfingst.myportfolio.com/.

Hidden Gems – Sheetal Bahirat

AvocadoSeeds

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!

SheetalBahirat
Sheetal Bahirat

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.  

Sheetal and Co-Founder, Zuri Masud

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!

HiddenGemsReveal

For more information about Reveal and Hidden Gems, visit http://www.drinkreveal.com/.

Sheetal and her co-founder, Zuri, will be sampling Reveal at Drexel University’s Women’s Empowerment Summit, on Monday, March 9th, at Behrakis Grand Hall, 3250 Chestnut Street Philadelphia. Admission is free. RSVP here.

Nohra Murad of Camino Kombucha

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 (very slightly), 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.

Nohra Murad brewing at her Maken Studios facility.

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.

Visit  https://app.honeycombcredit.com/en/projects/10941-Camino-Kombucha-Co to learn how you can invest.

Nohra Murad (right) and her Operations Coordinator, Tatijana Taylor-Fehlinger (left).

Thu Pham of Caphe Roasters

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.

Failure is a Choice: Michelle Carfagno of The Greater Knead

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.

The Greater Knead CEO Michelle Carfagno

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: The Sustainable Fashion of Lobo Mau

Photo Lobo Mau Ribbing
Nicole Haddad of Lobo Mau

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. 

Minissales
Nicole’s Great-Grandmother’s Dress Boutique

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.  

Photo of Nicole and Jordan Haddad of Lobo Mau
Nicole with Jordan

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. 

Photo Lobo Mau Ribbing
Ribbing Detail
Photo of Lobo Mau Clothing

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.

Raising Entreprenuerial Kids

kid-entrepreneurs

As parents, we don’t completely understand that we are raising these creatures to leave us. They have to. But you don’t get that until it happens. – Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

When you are in the trenches of parenting, it feels like it will last forever, but then, poof! One day, your kids are grown and out of the house. And you mourn the time when you felt like you couldn’t catch a break.

As Julia Louis-Dreyfus says, “we raise these creatures to leave us” and a big part of raising successful children who can leave us, is the fostering of their entrepreneurial spirit.

There are many desirable qualities that constitute the entrepreneurial spirit: independence, adaptability, risk-taking, resiliency, creativity, curiosity, among others. These qualities, though mostly innate, can be nurtured through encouragement and example. Setting an example is one of the most important things a parent can do to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset.

Last weekend, I stopped by my sister Deirdre’s house. She was outside with her daughter, Nora, having a driveway sale. Deirdre is the epitome of a parent who leads by example. Nora is in the 3rd grade and this spring marks her second year in business with her mom. Together, Deirdre and Nora browse thrift stores to look for vintage vases that they can re-sell, with flowers or plants that they purchase for cheap at Produce Junction or cut from their garden.

One cannot minimize the value of their little cottage industry. Nora is as invested in this business as is Deirdre. The positives are numerous: Nora is learning the value of earning money through work; she is earning the reward of selling beautiful things that brighten a person’s day (and seeing their reaction) and she is learning resiliency. As in any retail business, there are good days and there are disappointing days. Sometimes, hardly anyone stops to buy what they are selling – that doesn’t deter Nora and Deirdre from showing up. Another important benefit of their entrepreneurial pursuit is the time spent together.

Deirdre is an expert in the field of gig-economics. In addition to her business with Nora, she earns a living by singing at weddings and funerals, is the lead singer in a rock band, performs as a sole cabaret singer, and, as a member of Artists Equity, she directs, choreographs and stars in local theatre productions.

We are raising our children to leave us.”

Every parent knows this. It is a gut-kicking, hard truth.

But when we raise our children to have entrepreneurial mindsets, we can take comfort in knowing that we are raising them to lead the most interesting, independent life available to any of us and as Deirdre shows us, we can have fun doing it.

A Portrait of the Artist as an Entrepreneur

I recently said goodbye to my ten-year career working at a non-profit arts center. As a painter and a writer, working for an arts organization made sense to me: it checked all the boxes – my need to be creative, my need to be surrounded by creative people and my need to earn money.  Until it didn’t make sense anymore.

A few months ago, I switched careers and began working at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship.  At first glance, one would wonder what made me think I was qualified for this job. (Damn, I thought that!).  But then I dug a little deeper and started researching the field of entrepreneurship. I realized that many of the qualities that it takes to be an entrepreneur are the same qualities that it takes to be an artist.  Actually, me + Drexel University + the Close School made sense.

An example: In the mid 2000’s, I took a leap of faith and launched my own entrepreneurial venture – MamaCita – A Mother’s Cooperative in the Arts.  I was a stay at home mom at the time with two young children and I was an artist.  I felt fulfilled but a connection to other artists was missing. Once the idea to form an artist cooperative popped into my head, that was it – I was done. I knew it was the best idea EVER (said with a valley girl accent and the same thing I said when I launched this blog site!) I believed with 100% conviction that even though I knew literally no other moms who were also artists (or any artists at all for that matter), I knew that they had to be out there. If I built it, they would come. 

And they did – out of the wood work and across the fields of corn, they came! And more than a dozen years later, MamaCita is still going strong with 25 members who also are moms. 

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I wanted to take the opportunity to honor the artist-entrepreneur members of MamaCita by writing about five of the characteristics that artists and entrepreneurs share and five of the artists of MamaCita who exemplify these qualities.

Characteristic One Creativity 

The most obvious of the characteristics that an artist possesses is creativity. But creativity is also critical for entrepreneurs – it is responsible for the ideas behind successful start ups.  

Artist Teresa Shields is one of the most creative artists I know.  When I first met Teresa, she was creating paintings that featured circular patterns. Teresa has always been obsessed with circles. Over the years, her art evolved and she returned to her first, true love – fiber arts.

Teresa writes:  “I am happiest when I am making things with fiber…it feels like home. I have denied it many times in my life by calling what I do with fabric and fiber ‘experiments’, but the truth is I love the act of making.

I am inspired by circles and have been drawn to them for close to twenty years. When I thought I was ready to change directions, I became obsessed with wood grain patterns and then realized it was just another way to look at circles. I use circles in my art to magnify the complex insides of vegetables, cloud formations and microscopic cellular structures.”

A definition of creativity is “the use of the imagination or original ideas in the making of something.”  Teresa uses her imagination to see the circles that make up the world around her and then transforms them into something surprising and out of the ordinary. 

teresashieldsart.com

Characteristic Two – Openness to Experience 

Higher brain plasticity is the result of exposure to stimuli. People who prefer variety in the day over fixed routines have more bendable brains that are open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Openness to new ways of thinking is essential for the success of an entrepreneur in an ever-changing world and market.  Artists use new experiences to stimulate creativity.

As artist Rebecca Schultz writes: “My creative practice has two primary manifestations: two-dimensional works, including drawing, printmaking, painting, and collage (the personal and spiritual); and participatory, community-engaged installation and performance (the public and pluralistic).”

Rebecca uses her community-based art experiences to feed her inner extrovert and to inspire her when she is working alone in her studio on her abstract, nature-influenced paintings, drawings and prints. Rebecca also uses her extensive travel experiences to expand her mind and inform her art. Despite the fact that she is a mother of three, Rebecca has completed residences in Iceland, Ireland, Ontario and Wyoming. These new experiences are essential to her artistic process and Rebecca knows it! rebeccaschultzprojects.com

Characteristic Three – Passion 

Passion is a feeling of intense enthusiasm or compelling desire. Without this intense emotion, both entrepreneurs and artists would never be able to withstand the failure and rejection common to both entrepreneurs and artists. 

Artist Rashidah Salam is extremely passionate about her art. She is constantly creating, moving from one project to the next, without hesitation or fear of failure. Born and raised in Malaysia, Rashidah is inspired by the verdant flora and fauna of her native country. One can see this floral motif again and again in Rashidah’s work as well as the influence of Malaysia’s craft traditions in her inclusion of shoe imagery, patterns, linear details and silhouettes.

Rashidah lets her passion take her from one idea to the next. One day, she will work on a traditional stretched canvas; the next, a series of mixed media wreathes that celebrate the lives of people near and dear, here and gone; and on the third day, an element from one of her works will break free and find a central place of its own on a gallery wall. She is passionate about the art-making process; the finished piece of art is a by-product of the process.

Rashidah Salam is represented by the Muse Gallery, Philadelphia. Her show at the Muse Gallery runs from May 1 – June 1, 2019. Check it out!

Characteristic Four – Vision 

Whether an artist or an entrepreneur, creative people perceive the world differently than others.  It is vision that allows a person to see a problem or outcome in their own unique way. As Karen McLaughlin, puts it, 

“In 2000, I had a vision and jumped into business.

While working my day job (print graphics for over 20 years), I created my very first HTML website. It was fun and I loved learning to code! Over the course of several years I redesigned that first company site a few times. I taught myself as I went, and then jumped into designing for others. KM Digital Design in part-time/mini-mode was born.

As the print industry changed, and digital marketing grew in leaps and bound, my day job closed its doors for good. I decided to take my business to the next level, to follow my vision, and turned KM Digital Design into a full-time business.”

Karen saw the inevitable death of the print industry and she saw that digital design was the future of marketing. She took a situation that might have knocked a person with less vision to their knees and turned it into an opportunity. Additionally, the success of her digital design company gave her the confidence and the freedom to pursue her fine art career.  Not only is she the CEO of her own company, she is also a successful artist/printmaker who exhibits her work nationally. 

kmdigitaldesign.com – karen-hunter-mclaughlin.com

Characteristic Five – Risk Taking

When an artist puts her art out into the world, she runs the risk of rejection and failure. It takes a strong stomach to keep moving forward with the possibility of failure looming overhead. The same is true for entrepreneurs.

Gillian Bedford is an artist whose paintings personify risk. From her website: “Gillian’s paintings often reflect on the contrast of “inside” and “outside”, perhaps as a metaphor for life as we know it, and also, life beyond our senses. Gillian is unafraid of painting what is physically impossible.”

Gillian never compromises her art because of fear of a negative outcome. Although her paintings are based in this world – they depict flowers, nature, everyday life – she fearlessly attacks her canvases with color and gesture, turning what could be considered just a pretty scene by a lesser artist into a multi-dimensional piece of art that is as much about the “outside” appearance as the hidden “inside.”

She is also a risk taker in her life. She recently convinced her husband of 25+ years to pack his bags and take a work sabbatical so that they could nomadically travel the country together (not once, but twice!), with Gillian painting along the way. gillianbedford.com (BTW, her website was designed by Karen and KM Digital Design.)

These five artists are just a sample of the wonderful artists who comprise MamaCita. On April 27th, stop by the Elkins Park Station for MamaCita’s Mother’s Day Show and Sale and to meet more of the artist-entrepreneurs of MamaCita.

Roxannelava – Punk Rock Rebel Shoes

This is the story of Anne Cecil, a Punk Rock Girl who grew up to be a Punk Rock Entrepreneur. Anne is the founder and visionary behind Roxannelava Shoes.

Anne is a Maker and ambassador for the DIY movement. As a child of two working parents, Anne was a latchkey kid who filled her time making things. Her dad was a Pediatrician and her mom, a Child Psychiatrist for the Philadelphia School system. A product of World War II England, her mom learned needle work and knitting as a child. She carried on with these skills throughout her life and taught Anne how to knit at the age of 3. Knitting came easy for Anne. With a visual mind that thinks in three dimensions, she has always had an interest in how things are made – figuring things out by taking them apart and putting them back together again.

Anne grew up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, and as a teenager in the 1970’s, she was heavily influenced by the Punk Rock Movement – not only by the music and fashion, but also by the ideology. DIY was the battle cry of punk rock. Self-reliance, independence and non-conformity were the name of the game. Punk rock groups booked their own venues, silk screened their own posters and taught themselves how to play the guitar (after all, you only need to know 3 chords to be in a band.)

Now Form a band

South Street was the center of the Philly Punk scene. As a young adult and teenager, Anne would ride Septa into Philadelphia to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the TLA at midnight, shop at the punk rock retailer, Zipperhead, and see her favorite bands – The Ramones, Blondie and Joan Jett and the Runaways – at all-age shows. Punk Rock was anathema to the conservative Reagan-era and reflected Anne’s liberal world-view. She was drawn to its DIY attitude and her English ancestry (her mother is 1st generation American and her father’s family traces back to the English statesman, William Cecil) manifested itself in an affinity for punk.

Anne went to college at Drexel in the early 1980’s where she studied Design & Merchandising. She became a hat maker, a web designer and ultimately, a professor and program director of D&M at the Westphal College of Art and Design at Drexel. Anne frequently travels to the UK – to teach, to see friends and to visit family haunts. In the summer of 2014, while in London, she enrolled in a shoe making workshop at Prescott & Mackay Shoe Making School where she learned how to make sandals from component parts using the cement construction method. (If you are interested in learning more about this type of shoe construction, watch this fascinating video). 

In 2015, she was awarded a Westphal Faculty Development Grant.  She used the grant money to attend an intensive, 7-day fashion pump-making course in Ashland, Oregon. For further practice, she combined a favored handbag and rescued shoe components into a new sandal. (pictured)

Favorite Handbag Sandals

The following year, she attended a national shoe symposium, where she not only met small batch suppliers who would sell materials to businesses as small as hers’ but also, where she discovered a basket of vintage shoe lasts (a mechanical form in the shape of a human foot). Included in this basket, was a size 7 last (Anne’s size) from the 1980’s. (below)

Vintage Size 7 Lasts

Inspired by the retro last, Anne decided to make a pair of mules. As she wore the metallic orange stunners, people stopped her on the street to ask, “Where can I get those shoes?”  Anne realized that there was a desire for this show-stopper shoe. Not only was it gorgeous, but it was incredibly comfortable, made entirely from hand and built to fit your foot.  From her friend and owner of the site Shoedo.com, Georgine Kim, she was able to secure the complete size range of this last and on July 1, 2017, Roxannelava was launched.

Metallic Orange Stunners

As a small hand-made brand, Roxannelava embodies the punk tenet of individualism. As Joe Strummer said, “I will always believe in Punk Rock, because it is about creating something for yourself.”

Anne is concerned with social and environmental issues such as sustainability; she uses excess furniture ends from a local furniture maker to construct many of her shoes. And she believes in animal rights: if you are going to kill an animal to make a pair of shoes, then use all of the animal’s hide, even the imperfect parts. 

There is beauty and visual interest in leather that contains scars, wrinkles and veins, just as there is something raw, elemental and true about punk rock music. Punk fashion featured imperfect clothes – torn, cut, and held together by safety pins and duct tape. Construction and the bones of a garment were not disguised by expert sewing and hidden seams; rather they were highlighted.  With flaws, mistakes and imperfections, comes authenticity. And authenticity is valued above all else in punk rock.  Anne Cecil’s Roxannelava shoes are authentic and painstakingly made by hand, using materials that revel in their imperfections.

According to Joey Ramone “punk is about real feelings. It’s not about, ‘yeah, I am a punk and I’m angry.’ … It’s about loving the things that really matter: passion, heart and soul.” There is a lot of passion, heart and soul in Roxannelava shoes. That is for sure.

Punk Rock Girl Anne Cecil

Remaining Relevant Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography

My February Ladies who Launch profile is Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography. MKC Photography is an “eco-friendly, hand-made home décor company” that creates its wares by combining original photography with salvaged wood and paper.

Although Michelle didn’t major in photography in college – she was an English Lit major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA – she has always had an interest in photography and enjoyed taking photographs as a hobbyist. Her father, a Vietnam veteran and an amateur photographer, took his 35 mm camera to war with him. However, instead of photographing the gritty scenes typical of war, he was drawn to more contemplative subjects – like ducklings swimming in a soldier’s helmet. One can see his interest in the poetic reflected in the themes of Michelle’s work. 

It was in grad school, that Michelle’s interest in photography grew from hobby to vocation. She was completing her Masters Degree in Women’s Studies at Oxford University when she began working with a cancer researcher, developing slides of cancer cells. It was there that she first worked in a darkroom and learned the technique of “burning and dodging”.  

When she graduated from university, she came back to the US and began working in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection – a research library whose mission is to “gather, preserve and make accessible material that documents non-governmental efforts for nonviolent social change, disarmament, and conflict resolution…” 

Michelle worked in their technology and photography department. There, she studied the black and white photographs that comprised the collection and her love for the dreamy quality of early imperfect black and white photography blossomed. These images became imprinted on her brain and her own photos began to reflect the feel of these antique prints when she retrofitted her digital camera with a vintage 2 ¼” camera lens. The technical limitations of this vintage lens allowed her to create images that had the look and feel of early 20th century photography, with their square format and vignette edges.  

At the start of her photography career, Michelle considered herself primarily a fine artist – solely creating fine art prints. But as she began to show her work more and more at local craft shows and exhibitions, she heard the same objections over and over: “I don’t have room”, “I’m not sure if so and so would like it”, “How would I frame it?” Like any good entrepreneur, Michelle listened to the market and pivoted. She began producing her prints in smaller sizes which lowered their price point and she mounted them on reclaimed-wood so they no longer required framing.  She also began using pages from old, damaged library books that she had collected over the years as a backdrop for her photos – accentuating the vintage feel of her prints and appealing to the nostalgia that people in the age of Kindles and Nooks feel for the printed word.  The library book pages and the physicality of the salvaged wood made her work more tangible. Potential buyers could pick it up and hold it in their hands – feel its weight and imagine themselves wrapping and giving it as a gift. 

This new strategy increased the commercial viability of Michelle’s work (and her sales) and today, her work is sold in 60+ retail outlets across the United States and is also available online.  

I can’t talk about Michelle’s work without addressing the elephant in the room – Instagram! 

I heard a segment, recently, of the podcast “How I Built This”. The moderator, Guy Raz, was interviewing the founders of Instagram – Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Systrom was telling Guy about the “aha” moment that catapulted Instagram into the mainstream. The story goes that he asked his future wife why she wasn’t posting her photos on his new photo-sharing app.  She replied that they weren’t good enough to post. Now, if they were as good as their professional photographer friend so and so, she would post all the time! Aha! Instagram added a menu of digital filters which allowed even the most-inept amateur to create share-worthy photographs. 

This story was driven home yesterday as I was commuting on the train. Two college-age girls were sitting across the aisle from me. I could clearly see one of the girls as she scrolled through the pictures on her cell phone. She had what seemed like hundreds (I am not exaggerating) of selfies of her and her friend, each edited differently using Instagram filters. From where I sat, her photos looked like they were taken by a professional photographer. But no professional photographer was necessary! Just a cell phone, selfie stick and Instagram. (I wasn’t going to mention how judgmental I was in that moment, but really! How many self-gratuitous selfies does one need?)  

I had to ask Michelle: did the advent of Instagram and the ease with which literally anyone can create share-worthy photos cause prospective buyers to devalue her work? Her reply:   

“Instagram has taught everyone that any photograph that seems dreamy or creative must be the result of just slapping a filter on that baby and calling it done. I love it when buyers ask me to answer their most typical question: ‘What kind of filters do you use on your photographs?’ I love being able to explain how my work isn’t the result of filters at all…I adore seeing the look of surprise/genuine interest that invariably comes over someone when we talk about digital photography, collage, and the antique lenses I’ve adapted and continue to use – it’s tremendously gratifying.” 

When Michelle first began shooting photos, Instagram wasn’t invented.  But the world is ever-evolving; new technologies are constantly being invented that make almost anything seem impossibly easy and make us question the relevancy of artists and craftspeople.  Michelle’s ability to look objectively and dispassionately at Instagram’s effect on photography and to listen to the needs of the market is what will allow MKC Photography to remain relevant.  

Michelle’s work will be included in the MamaCita Biennial Exhibition “Process”, opening this Sunday, February 10th with a reception from 2 – 4 at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Road, in Cheltenham. The exhibition runs until March 6. (www.cheltenhamarts.org). 

For more information about Michelle’s work, visit https://mkcphotography.com/