DIVING IN THE DEEP END
Wharton proved a fertile space for growing her idea. “I sort of made up my mind during the summer that I would commit my time to building out Mwayi,” Aráuz-DeStefano says. “The beauty of recruiting for investment banking is that you do the hard part in the first year … and you get an offer by the late summer, so I was able to commit my time to working on Mwayi.”
For her, pitch competitions proved particularly helpful. “They really force you to go through the nitty-gritty details and to put your thoughts on paper. I had ideas, but they weren’t in a structured format,” she says. She seized an opportunity as one of three finalists to pitch at the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Conference, an annual event hosted by the Wharton African American MBA Association.
“This was three or four months into the company,” she recalls. “The other [finalists] had teams, employees, and a board of directors. And then I’m there with just me and my idea. I didn’t win, but it was definitely great practice. Looking back, it was kind of funny that I dove right off the cliff into the deep end with the other companies that I was competing with,” she recalls. She did, however, win funding though the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund, a competition run solely for students by students.
A WHARTON PROF SERVED AS A SOUNDING BOARD FOR HER LAUNCH
She plugged into the Venture Initiation Program Community, a resource out of Wharton’s Entrepreneurship Department that provides support and programming to early-stage startups. Through the program, Aráuz-DeStefano connected with a Wharton alumna who cofounded Of Mercer, a women’s business-wear brand. The alumna advised Aráuz-DeStefano to work with designers on a per-project basis before hiring them full time and encouraged her to do a beta launch at Wharton.
Courses also proved helpful, particularly Social Entrepreneurship taught by Jim Thompson, a South African who’d spent extensive time in Malawi and coauthored “The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook.” “He knows the reality of operating in Malawi. He was a sounding board for me and helped me think about things specific to retail – like the level of returned merchandise you might receive and how to factor that into a business model,” Aráuz-DeStefano recalls.
She leveraged her final project to prepare Mwayi for launch. In the first few days of class, students can pitch their business ideas for a chance to develop them during the course. Mwayi was selected. “I had a team of first-year students working on my idea — former consultants, investment bankers, a woman who’d worked in development for a nonprofit in India – they brought a diverse set of skills that pushed Mwayi forward more than I could have myself,” she recalls.
‘IT WAS TIME TO BITE THE BULLET’
After graduation, Aráuz-DeStefano traveled to Malawi for six weeks to prepare Mwayi for launch. She brought on a production manager and prepared the team for Mwayi’s first collection, a collaboration with designer Allison Pearce, who’s also part of the “Saturday Night Live” design team.
Doing business in Malawi presents its own unique obstacles, particularly when every item must be customized. “Our biggest challenge is quality control. We’re basically creating our own factory … you have to focus on things like standardization and attention to detail when you’re tailor-making individual garments,” Aráuz-DeStefano says. She recounts going back and forth with her lead tailor after discovering that the waist measurements she’d sent simply didn’t match the specs on the fabric cut in Malawi. She quickly discovered that for her tailor, the “natural waist” ran from the base of the neck to the bottom of the spinal cord. “I was sending pictures back and forth with the tailor standing in the mirror with a measuring tape,” she recalls. “Now we have an amazing measurement chart, and the body part measurements are numbered.”
With the wheels in motion, Aráuz-DeStefano hopes to stay involved in Mwayi on a part-time basis; she’ll devote her evenings and weekends to thinking through business strategy and logistics. “A lot of people are skeptical about my ability to do both. But I think for me, Mwayi is so important from a social impact angle — five apprentices are coming Monday through Friday trying to turn their lives around through the skills they’re gaining — that I can find the motivation to stay up all night working on it,” she says.
As for the launch timing, Aráuz-DeStefano acknowledges that starting a new job and a social enterprise on the same day is a bit ambitious, but then again, there’s never a perfect time for anything. “I was sitting in on a panel of entrepreneurs, and one had a tattoo of the letters JFDI, which stands for, ‘Just f*cking do it.’ We could always hire a few more people … and come up with an endless list of excuses to delay, but it was time to bite the bullet,” she explained. “I don’t know that I’d get that tattoo on me, though,” she says with a laugh.