Upon coming to UNC, current Senior Caitlyn Kumi did not think she would be an entrepreneur. But after winning UNC’s Carolina Pitch Party in 2018, she knew she was interested in starting a company one day. She just didn’t know what yet.
In 2019, Kumi and a friend started Spice and Nice, which provided affordable, home-cooked meals to college students. Although it was a successful venture, Kumi really found where her entrepreneurial passion lies when she founded Miss EmpowHer, the women’s fashion-lifestyle brand, in June 2020. Founded amidst the racial unrest and protests last summer, Miss EmpowHer celebrates and uplifts African culture.
Kumi originally founded Miss EmpowHer as a way to raise money for her grandmother’s charity in Ghana, Children’s Health International, which rebuilds facilities like bathrooms for school children. The child of Ghanaian immigrants, one of Kumi’s favorite traditions is wearing the waist beads her aunt gave her. Waist beads are a traditional form of body jewelry originating in Africa and most common in West African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Kumi reached out to people in the UNC community to gauge customer interest in selling traditional waist beads, and the positive feedback she received motivated her to shift from creating a quick fundraising initiative to a full-fledged company.
Kumi said wearing the waist beads helped her at a time in her life when she was struggling with body insecurities. Because the beads helped her own confidence so much, Kumi set out to make an e-commerce shopping website to make this African tradition more accessible to other women who could benefit from them too.
Miss EmpowHer’s beads are handmade by female small-business owners in Ghana and come in several colors and styles. Other products, like hoodies, are also sold on the website from time to time and come embroidered with the word “Ohemaa”—Ghanaian for “queen.”
“I am who I am today because of the women in my life,” Kumi said, “and I believe women accomplish amazing things when we support each other.”
Beyond the hoodies and beads, Miss EmpowHer’s message of female empowerment is woven through every aspect of its business model, Kumi said. With an Instagram following of more than 2,000, Miss EmpowHer’s mission is focused on spreading body positivity and creating a community on social media where women support other women.
“I wasn’t seeing a lot of e-commerce websites that felt very personal,” she said, “so I wanted Miss EmpowHer to be more than just a one-time transactional experience for these women. I wanted to build a brand that empowers women in all aspects of their life.”
Through a seasonal internship program, the company supports young women—mostly UNC students—interested in pursuing tech, fashion, business, public relations, and similar fields. Through the Women Supporting Women Fundraising Initiative, Miss EmpowHer partners with local women-run organizations and groups who receive a percentage of the profits made from orders from participants in their group.
With more than 350 orders received so far, Kumi said she is happy with the customer response so far, but the company’s launch was not without its challenges.
“As a black-owned business, a female-owned business, and a women-serving business, I definitely found challenges in terms of obtaining funding,” says Kumi.
Kumi received grant funding from the 1789 Student Venture Fund and was selected to be a part of the 2020 Adams Apprenticeship cohort, an experiential learning program where 32 UNC students build up entrepreneurial skills. Kumi said she is currently seeking additional funding and strategic partnership opportunities to help continue growing Miss EmpowHer’s brand.
As a Diversity and Inclusion intern for the UNC Eship Center, Kumi helped spearhead the creation of the Eship Scholar Program, which awarded its first $50,000 in grant funding in 2020 to 10 student-entrepreneurs with backgrounds and identities that are underrepresented in entrepreneurship. The $50K came from an ECOSYSTEM grant from NC IDEA. (Francis Amponsah, the Founder of MamaVero’s African Fabric and a GrepBeat story subject, was one of the recipients).
“Lack of representation in funding is a huge issue in the entrepreneurial space, with boards not being diverse or inclusive,” Kumi said. “There needs to be more funding and mentorship opportunities now and in the future.”