Jovana Mullins was born in Overland Park (Kansas) by a special education teacher. Although she had always longed to work in the fashion industry and she eventually did, her parents didn’t allow her to. She says, “I felt that I always had a greater calling.” She credits her mother for instilling the values that drove her to give back. She volunteered for many organizations that support people with disabilities throughout her 10 year career in fashion.
Her two worlds collided this year.
Jovana and Jovana meet at their respective homes to discuss Alivia the social-impact fashion brand that she created this year. The tiny space is crowded with boxes and racks of boldly printed dresses. She explains that technically, it’s a walk-in closet in the apartment. COVID has made it my office. Jovana laughs at it. Jovana is no stranger to creative solutions to unexpected problems. After all, she did launch her first venture into entrepreneurship in the middle of a pandemic.
Jovana had the idea for Alivia long before the pandemic. She quit her full-time job in 2018 to focus on consulting, which would allow her more flexibility and time for her volunteer work. Jovana and Brandon became volunteers at the Center for All Abilities, NYC’s Chinatown neighborhood. Jovana began arriving an hour earlier to lead art therapy sessions for autistic people.
Art was a powerful tool that allowed people with developmental disabilities express themselves, and it helped me get to know them.
Jovana states that some of these people are unable to communicate verbally. “But I found that the art was such an effective tool for people with disabilities to express themselves, and for me to get closer to them. She imagined the beautiful art as prints on scarves and dresses. She thought she could create a brand to raise funds for non-profits that focus on disability.
Stand for something
Although it is almost a expectation that new brands stand up for something, such as sustainability and ethical production, Jovana did not see any social-impact brands tapping into those with disabilities. She says, “The fashion industry is so exclusive.” “Whether it’s not making fashion adaptable or creating employment opportunities. She wanted to change that. She started with design and built inclusion into every stage of her idea.
He lit up when he entered the room. Because he was so excited, everyone was crying. He exclaimed, “This is mine. This is me. This is me.
Alivia is a voice for people with disabilities and shares their stories and work on every piece of clothing that the brand sells. Jovana explains that the QR code is located on the garment’s hang tag. You can scan the QR code to find out more about the artist and see their original artwork. Alivia pays artists to license their work, and 10% of each sale goes to the support organization.
Alivia’s first collection was created by one of her young artists. He had the chance to see his work transformed into garments during a photo shoot. She says that he lit up when he entered the room. Everyone was so happy that he had entered the room, and everyone was crying. He exclaimed, “This is mine. This is me. This is me.
Alivia is a designer who aims to do more meaningful work in an area where people with disabilities are often excluded. Spectrum Designs, an organization that employs autistic people, is responsible for a large part of the production.
Jovana continues to believe in her mission to make fashion accessible to people with disabilities as the company grows. Alivia collaborated with a model with Down syndrome for a brand photo shoot. For those who don’t see themselves in the brand ads, the representation has been a source of inspiration. One of our customers stated, “I showed my niece with Down syndrome and she is so inspired.” Jovana says that she now wants to be a model.
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The year of the sweatpant: Selling dresses
Jovana is driven by stories like these and the tangible impact she’s having on others. After all, it has been a difficult year to launch a new company. Alivia was impacted by the pandemic in many ways. As planned, the brand launched just before wedding season with a selection of summery frocks that are perfect for dress-up occasions. The COVID was a disaster and all weddings were cancelled.
Half of our production was done in New York. I was able to pick it up the day Governor Cuomo closed us down.
Production was also affected by the pandemic. Jovana says, “We did half of our production in New York.” “Thankfully, the day Governor Cuomo closed us down, I was able to pick it up.” Three months later, the remaining items were kept in India. Jovana admits that even without a pandemic worldwide, production was the most stressful part of her business. She says, “I never had to actually handle production as a designer.” “We had a team who took care of that wherever we worked.”
Alivia attempted to enter the market while the world was moving to work from home. She wanted to offer a range for going out. Jovana says that customer acquisition was difficult because of this. This brings us to the final challenge: funding. Alivia started her business on Brandon and Alivia’s savings. Since then, they have been bootstrapping. It would be difficult to launch the next collection.
However, 2020 has proven time and again that entrepreneurs are resilient.
Pajamas that serve a purpose
Jovana was quick to react to the changing world and found a place for her brand and to overcome adversity. She began by drafting designs for high-demand categories such as loungewear and pajamas. Alivia recently launched her sleepwear collection, which is available for pre-order. This was made possible through a successful Kickstarter campaign. “We have just met our goal!” Jovana tells from her multifunctional closet that she has just reached her goal.
Consumers are more aware of what they spend their money on and want to support brands that make an impact.
Jovana is thankful for her ability to save fabric scraps from production floors before COVID was implemented. She says, “I hate waste.” “Brandon was like, “Stop. “We don’t have the space to store this stuff. She couldn’t bear the thought of parting with this beautiful fabric. In the aftermath of a pandemic worldwide, her scraps were perfect for making face masks.
To complete the collection, small pieces were reimagined into scrunchies to make them more affordable. Alivia created accessories after receiving feedback from people who couldn’t afford to support the brand. Jovana states, “It is not fast fashion.” “Our margins can be very slim.” However, she has also discovered that the pandemic inspired those who can afford her product to do so. She says that consumers are more aware of what they are spending money on and they want to support brands who are making an impact.
One unexpected benefit of our collective isolation is the need to build community. Jovana states that “We are creating a positive, inclusive community that we don’t think would have been possible without COVID.” This community was built by using storytelling, which is an essential component of brand building. Alivia has kept a weekly commitment for Saturday Smiles, which features stories about people with disabilities doing incredible things. Jovana receives more stories from the brand’s growing network.
Jovana, a sole business owner who works from home during a pandemic felt the need to build a community around her. It was through an online women’s entrepreneurial group that she found it. She says, “I have my husband but he has a full time job. Day to day, I’m all by myself.” “Community has been huge.”
Jovana and my conversation was one week before Black Friday Cyber Monday weekend. She was hard at work launching sweatshirts in time for busy shopping season. While she was busy running her one-woman business, I asked her one final question. Where did Alivia get her name?
“This is my favorite question!” She says. “Alivia is Awareness, Love Inclusion Voice Individuality and Acceptance. These are the core values of our brand.
It is obvious now to me why Jovana’s business has defied all statistics. Alivia is a strong founder who was able to make pivotal decisions quickly and has had success in the most difficult time of starting a business. This is due to her clear understanding of who she is and what it stands up for.
Evolution with the times
The times have changed, and Meena is acutely conscious of the need for her company to adapt.
Phenomenal faces new challenges and new opportunities as a more socially-aligned government. Meena questions, “How can we keep people involved in advocacy and caring about the world’s issues when we don’t have someone to focus on who is attacking and targeting communities?”
She thinks beyond clothing to achieve this.
We’ve done a lot in the apparel and products space, but we see ourselves as a 360 degree media company. We have proven our creativity at the intersection between product and content. Now we want to expand our work in the community and content space.
She published Kamala & Maya’s Big Idea in 2020. It is about two girls of color who empower their community to make positive social changes. In an effort to normalize and encourage women’s ambition, she published Ambitious girl earlier in the year.
She teamed up last year with Funny Or Die’s Brad Jenkins and launched Phenomenal Pictures, an all-service creative production house that creates content for communities of color or underrepresented voting blocs.
Phenomenal has its sights set on a larger audience through partnerships with Netflix. These include a series of swag to promote hit shows like “To All the Boys” and “Bridgerton”, which feature a bi-racial love story as the central plot.
Meena is sensitive to the fact there are still so many injustices. Recently, she turned her attention to the racial disparity of vaccine distribution. Meena states, “We will be doing more work about the vaccine and this health crisis that is still being lived through and thinking about.” “We have an influential platform that creates accessible content to allow people to learn about the world from the perspective of underrepresented groups.
More women entrepreneurs are needed in the world
Meena’s first T-shirt, “I’m a entrepreneur, bitch,” was a special one. It’s also what sparked her entrepreneurial journey. Meena felt the T-shirt brought light to the unique challenges and obstacles women entrepreneurs face.
It is no secret that the pandemic has negatively affected women-owned businesses. Many of them have had to close their businesses permanently to care for their families and take on new responsibilities. It is also a persistent fact that funding has a gender bias that negatively impacts women’s outcomes.
Meena claims that even for women entrepreneurs who “make it,” they are still treated differently by society.
I do not believe we should allow women entrepreneurs to make mistakes or fail.
“The most successful entrepreneurs are problem solvers who can fail, learn and then iterate on their successes to create new ones. Meena states that she doesn’t believe we allow women entrepreneurs to make mistakes or fail as much as they should. “And when they don’t, it’s excluding them from the opportunity.”
There are many stories in startup history about founders who made big mistakes but then turned the page and created a new chapter. Can we make the same statement about female founders? Meena states that if the culture is not changing how women view ambitious women, we won’t see any progress in equity, representation and access. There is an instinct to dismiss women and say that you can be ambitious but not too ambitious. Keep it in your box.
Meena hopes that Phenomenal will help raise awareness about the unique challenges faced by ambitious women, from shirts to books for children to partnerships that support under-represented voices in media.