Caitlyn Kumi’s love of entrepreneurship dates all the way back to childhood — she just didn’t know it at the time.
“When I was a little girl I used to just love, I guess, selling things,” she laughed. “So in my home, I would take the water and snacks my mom bought from Costco, and I set up a little shop called the Kumi Cafe."
This taught her the value of running a business for reasons deeper than just selling a product.
By the time she was a sophomore at UNC, she knew entrepreneurship was the path for her. She switched from her pre-law track and took a business class called business and entrepreneurship planning. In June of this year, she launched her business: Miss EmpowHer.
The brand encourages inclusivity, empowerment and body positivity for women of all shades and shapes.
During the same year she switched her major, she participated in the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party, an entrepreneurship contest for UNC students.
“I ended up winning with an all-female, minority-led team, which was super incredible,” she said. “That's kind of when I was like, you know, I might be onto something. I always knew I wanted to start a business. Now I had the skill set. I just didn't know what my business was going to be.”
It wasn’t long before she had her answer, Kumi said. In 2018, she flew to Ghana to visit some of her family and get in touch with her roots. In Ghana, she was instantly immersed in a wide array of clothes and accessories, including a form of body jewelry called waist beads, which are typically worn under clothing and are prominent in many West African cultures.
Kumi said one day when she was exploring her family’s village, a dilapidated school building caught her eye.
“I saw the local schools and the bathroom facility and how inadequate it was,” she said.
From this visit, Kumi said she got the idea to sell Ghanaian waist beads at UNC to raise money to build a bathroom for these kindergarten students.
Forty-eight hours later, she already had 30 pre-orders for her beads. The rest of the waist beads sold within days, and she quickly began planning and promoting an endeavor to sell these same products under her own business. She received a grant from the school to test out her product theory, and spent months perfecting her inventory and creating her brand.
Then, COVID-19 hit.
Kumi said she had no idea what was going to happen.
“I had just bought my inventory, so I was freaking out. I bought all this product and then COVID happened and I was like no one's gonna buy, I should just quit. But I decided to launch anyway,” she said.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the launch, she said she's glad she took the leap of faith. Her business has grown into a female empowerment movement and internship program that has already impacted the lives of many interns, according to public relations and digital marketing intern Jerry Yan.
“After we launched, I was mainly responsible for reaching out to tons of different media platforms or organizations who have similar visions as we do,” said Yan. “So that's feminism, women empowerment and uplifting underrepresented groups.”
Yan said his internship with Miss EmpowHer allowed him to focus on what he really wants out of his career.
“Personally, it definitely gave me more clear directions in terms of where I want to be and which companies I'm going to apply to in the future,” he said.
The interns aren’t the only people who have benefited from Kumi’s work, according to UNC senior Michaiah Wilson. Wilson was recently featured on the Miss EmpowHer Instagram as a #EmpowHerBabe of the week, which is a way the company recognizes women who are actively making a change in the world.
“It was honestly a little unexpected, but it was cool to be recognized and highlighted, especially on a page that has such a large platform,” Wilson said. “And kind of just to be encouraged, you know, to know that someone was seeing the work that I was doing and wanted to highlight it and recognize it.”
Through these shout-outs, as well as women-focused fundraisers, Kumi said Miss EmpowHer continually pushes the ideal of ‘women supporting women.’
Aside from the beauty aspect, Kumi said another way that waist beads benefit all types of women is through physical fitness. Rather than becoming discouraged by a number on a scale, many women use their waist beads to keep track of their weight loss and weight gain.
Kumi said she has received countless Instagram DMs, from customers to followers to strangers, telling her about their own body insecurities, especially with their waist and stomach areas.
“My love of waist beads came after my struggles with body insecurities that I overcame,” Kumi said.
To account for size inclusivity, Miss EmpowHer sells waist beads that are self-tie, and come in a 50-inch string that fits sizes 00 to 18.
Despite initial setbacks with COVID-19, Miss EmpowHer has already grown to be a widely successful business.
Kumi said she plans to expand the internship program, diversify product options and increase the brand's presence on campus.
“We're just hoping to really be recognized by all Tar Heels,” she said. “Really making sure that Miss EmpowHer is something that the Tar Heel community falls in love with and continues to support.”
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