October 20, 2020

How to Use Your Life Experiences to Start a Business

Sonia Kang is a critical care registered nurse turned fashion designer and founder of Mixed Up Clothing, a children’s fashion brand that creates multicultural apparel. Like many businesses, Kang’s company took a financial hit due to COVID-19, but when America experienced a mask shortage, she saw a chance to help. Using her RN and fashion skills, she created cloth masks that comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards and are made of fabric with multicultural designs.

With the skills she gained from her previous field and her appreciation for diversity, Kang’s business has been able to thrive and help other businesses do the same. Here are three lessons from Kang’s entrepreneurial journey.

1. Use your skills from past professions.

From COVID-19 to the resurgence of racial tensions in America, many businesses have been forced to make changes. When Mixed Up Clothing’s business began to slow down, Kang had to let workers go, but it was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call to fashion designers to create masks that helped Kang keep employees and stay in business.

“I was in the unique position to be able to put on my RN hat and my fashion hat,” Kang told business.com. “I followed the CDC’s regulations, and within five hours of hearing Gov. Cuomo, I had a mask prototype in place.”

She began taking orders and made the transition from children’s clothes to tightly woven, double-ply fabric face masks. Like Kang’s clothing line, the masks use fabric inspired by several different cultures, including eclectic colors and patterns from Latin America, Korea, Japan, and Africa.

It was also important to Kang that her masks were accessible to those who were most vulnerable to the virus. Through her “Buy 1, Donate 1” deal, for every mask purchased, one was donated to a healthcare or other essential worker. Her products were also made available to migrant workers, immigrant detainees and the homeless. Although Kang is no longer a practicing nurse, she still felt that it was her purpose to keep as many people safe as she could.

“There are folks still out there pulling vegetables that need to get to your grocer and those that are transporting it,” Kang said. “There are folks who were putting themselves at risk because they need to earn money for their families, and they didn’t have money to fall back on.”

2. Take the risk to start your business, even when it’s scary.

Before Kang launched her business, she dressed her children in her own designs. It started with dresses, T-shirts and diaper covers.

“We would get stopped on the street and asked, ‘What is that?’ and ‘Where’d you get that?'” Kang said. “They would ask what culture that represented, and I found that it was a conversation-starter that needed to be bigger than the conversation I was having at the park or farmers market.”

Realizing that other moms were interested in her designs, Kang took a gamble and began trading hours at the hospital for business classes. She eventually went all in with Mixed Up Clothing, even emptying her 401(k) to start the business.

“I’m a mom of four, so it was definitely scary,” Kang said. “I had a steady income and then I said, ‘I’m going to go and do something completely different, and I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’ The thing that kept me going, despite everyone throwing their own concerns at me, was that it was scarier for me not to do it.”

3. Value inclusivity and diversity within your business.

Growing up as a half-Mexican and half-Black girl who was born in Puerto Rico and raised on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, Kang knew firsthand the importance of diversity and how it felt to be excluded from mainstream representation. After marrying her Korean husband, she wanted to use her business to help create a platform that reflected the world her family lives in.

“When we started having children, I wanted to be intentional about how we were raising them with diverse cultures,” Kang said. “In fashion, there wasn’t anyone who looked like them, and there wasn’t anything that resonated with us or the culture we had. So, I sourced fabric from everywhere in the world.”

Kang wanted to showcase the beauty of all cultures and provide something for everyone, from African mudcloth to Japanese designs. As a result, Kang has customers from all kinds of backgrounds. [Read related article: Why Diversity Marketing Is Good Business]

Kang also saw the value of diversity beyond fashion and in its impact on her company’s culture. Mixed Up Clothing’s employee engagement, productivity, creativity and innovation all thrive, due in part to its inclusivity.

After the death of George Floyd, many businesses scrambled to create campaigns and workspaces that echoed the need for diversity and supported disadvantaged groups. Kang’s business community looked to Mixed Up Clothing as an example of the importance of inclusion, and other companies reached out to Kang for advice on creating diverse and inclusive workspaces.

“Look at your executive board, and look at who’s part of your team,” Kang suggests. “Really ask those questions, because it’s more than a share or a blackout post on Instagram – it’s ongoing. It’s not a moment. It’s a movement.”

She also advises business owners to take the time to educate themselves on social issues and go beyond marketing campaigns.

“There’s a level of education that first needs to happen in understanding institutionalized racism,” Kang said. “The burden should not be on Black and brown people to teach basic history, because it isn’t just Black history, but all our history.” [Read related article: How to Make Your Corporate Activism Really Count]

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