Founders Unplugged: Re-inventing Women’s Apparel with Mitchella Gilbert
The entrepreneur space is competitive enough with everybody fighting over which VC they will land and who will come out on top. That is all without even mentioning being an African-American woman in a male-dominated space. As competitive as it may get though, Mitchella Gilbert always comes out on top. Mitchella, also known as “Mitch,” had a competitive spirit from an early age. Gilbert knew that she was going to come out on top and that nothing would stop her. Gilbert is the Founder and CEO of OYA Femtech Apparel, which specializes in high-tech clothing designs that promote happiness and health by utilizing natural ventilation to help prevent bacteria growth and skin irritation. Plug In had the opportunity to sit down with Gilbert to discuss her company, brand, and everything that drives her to succeed where others have failed.
How did you come up with your startup and then who or what influenced you?
Gilbert: I started my first business at six. I had a door-to-door rock selling business. I had always wanted to be an archaeologist. That business had great profit margins but was dangerous according to my mother. She shut it down very quickly, but fast forwarding to college, I went to the University of Chicago. I played rugby, I was state ranking for two years and, I was playing with olympians. I lived in leggings and since I wore them constantly, I had problems with recurring yeast infections. At the time, I was like, “no-one will ever love me”. I felt so insecure and gross. So it took me years to really work up the courage to talk to my friends who were training for the top events in their lives. Just to learn that they were suffering from the same issues with no real solutions.
From there Gilbert would be accepted into the UCLA Anderson business school. While there she would discover the connection between sportswear, fashion, and feminine hygiene.
Gilbert: I was recruited to the business school and had the good fortune of going to UCLA Anderson, cause I knew I wanted to create a business in fashion and L.A made the most sense and there are three ways to start a profitable fashion business, you can take the Louis Vuitton approach and spend a lot of money on marketing, which makes who doesn’t have your clothes more important than who has them, the second, you can take the fashion nova model where you are competing based on profit margins and so you are creating lots of styles not as much focused on quality but on the style count and getting those out as quickly as possible and the third you can be like Nike and fix a problem for a consumer who is underserved and who wanted to use a functional use for your product, like Nike creating the first running shoe or Gortex helping Skiers be outside more. So at UCLA my teammates and I were working on a school project together for 2 years and we were looking for our moment. So I go to the OBGYN’s office and she’s like “Stop wearing leggings,” and I was there with another yeast infection, and I was like “What! No, It can’t be true. How am I almost thirty and no one’s told me this”. We then did over 200 hundred hours of research talking to men and women about feminine health. Once we gathered all of our information together, we entered business competitions and once we had funds, we created prototypes and just had fun with it.
Gilbert’s fierce athletic background had a lot of commonalities with her new life as a founder. One being that she plays hard to win and plays with a team at all points.
Gilbert: Your team is critical. In Rugby, you can play with 15. There are a lot of people involved at OYA who are playing their very specific roles together to win. The second thing to know is that you need to know how to get hit. You can’t just get hit and not know what to do. If that is happening, then it is already too late. You have to be able to get hit and get back up. You are going to get hit. That really applies to startup life. There are so many setbacks on this journey, nothing is set in stone and at OYA we are creating a category. The teamwork and being able to take a hit are important.
Tell us about one challenge you’ve overcome personally or professionally and what did you learn from the experience?
Gilbert: I look young. The other night, I was sitting at dinner with one of my employees’ parents and the waiter said, “oh you are going off to school”? I had to tell him that I wasn’t going off to school. I had to tell him that I had adult problems- older people problems. You often hear that looking young is important, especially in our society. Where your worth can be impacted by your image. But when you are talking to investors, especially when there is so few of you in the room and you are talking to these movers and shakers, who influence your category, when there are so few women, when there are so few people of color, age can be perceived as a weakness.
How has Plug In’s Accelerator program (or PISLA) helped you build your company?
Gilbert: We had access to a lot of advisors, which is pretty cool! We were listening to their stories, while they listened to ours. One woman came in and talked about GOYA marketing strategy, which the team used to be successful. I was blown away by that and remember really admiring that. I was also introduced to a former senior executive at NIKE at Plug In, which has been a really great relationship. I would even say that this journey can get very lonely and sometimes it’s hard for people to understand some of the things you experience as a CEO of a startup. Especially a woman of color and female-presenting CEO. In the wake of 2022 with all these macro-forces that are against us, it’s important to create spaces where we can heal and find community for when we do get knocked down.
How do you define success?
Gilbert: At OYA, success is in every woman that we help in getting to grow. That can look like a lot of things. I once met a softball player in middle school, who came over, because she thought our clothes were cute. She was listening to what they do and it was like a light went off in her head and she ran away. I didn’t think anything of it and she came back with a credit card and she said that she needed the pants. You could tell that she didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to her, but OYA helped give her language. OYA helped her learn about her own body and when she learned about her body, she then knew how she could take care of it. Success is measured in every customer whom we have helped.
What’s your advice to anyone (especially black and brown folks) interested in starting their own company?
Gilbert: Figure out how to work for you or someone who looks like you as quickly as possible. Do not fall into yourself. There are a lot of spaces that we don’t have access to, equitable access to. Do not be afraid to go into spaces and take up space. Do not be afraid to work for leaders who inspire you. When you feel like you are attacked and start looking in the mirror for things you can work on, remember to puff your chest out. All brown people come from long lineages of strong people. We have culture. Nobody knows how to manage a schedule better than a mother of color, who is coming from a working-class where you have to be concerned about how to feed your children, and how to educate and clothe them against a system that doesn’t want you to have much. You have to lean into the people who believe in the future for you as long as you can.
How can listeners help you with anything in your startup right now? (Immediate needs, open positions, etc.)
Gilbert: Go listen, go get informed, go figure out how to help people with vaginas. Talk to them, show up for women in whatever way you can. Be an advocate. You don’t have to buy our products, but take care of your health. Sleep more. Be happy. Be healthy. The worst thing you can do is be cooped up inside.
By Noah Washington | August 10, 2022