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Entrepreneurship
January 9, 2024

A Winning Idea

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But for a chance encounter, Mitchella Gilbert might still be inching a “slow death toward partner” as a stuck-in-a-rut business consultant. Instead, she’s making waves as the co-founder of Oya Femtech Apparel, which is disrupting the lucrative female sportswear market, and as one of an elite group of young Black women entrepreneurs.
Her trajectory changed when she got talking with a fellow passenger on a business flight. He asked if she had ever considered attending business school, which she had not because “people like me”—from working-class Philadelphia—“don’t start venture-backed companies.”
But the man was a recruiter for Harvard Business School, who “kickstarted my journey into beginning to believe that I could do something innovative,” Gilbert says, rather than staying “in a corporate structure where I didn’t get to play around with new ideas and build something new.”
Galvanized by that conversation, Gilbert earned an MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Management as a Wooden Fellow, where she birthed Oya in 2021. The company marries her business smarts with a longtime concern from her years as an athlete—activewear that doesn’t accommodate the particular needs of women’s bodies. Dealing with recurring feminine health issues caused by her sportswear, “I was so ashamed: I suffered in silence,” she recalls.
 “Pants that help vaginas” is how Gilbert describes Oya’s line, whose $70 leggings are four times as absorbent as other fabrics and twice as ventilated, with replaceable crotch pads to avoid trapping moisture that can cause yeast infections. Then there are $41 anti-irritation bras for “boob rash, bacne; all the fun stuff up top.”
Focusing on what Gilbert says are the three essentials—fabric, fit, fashion—Oya’s innovative gear has been lauded as “the Goldilocks of leggings that help keep my crotch sweat-free” by one enthusiastic reviewer. Believing that you can be both direct and delicate while discussing intimate body issues, Oya’s website (www.wearoya.com) describes how items like its Happy Vagina leggings help “keep your lady parts clean and dry.”
Unlikely help
Oya takes its name from a Nigerian warrior goddess who represents fertility, rebirth and storms. “We thought that was a great name for a sportswear company dedicated to fighting feminine health issues,” says Gilbert (who goes by Mitch, describes herself as “female-presenting” and prefers they/them pronouns).
Oya-wear has been track- and gym-tested by scores of athletes and doctors across various sports, from cycling to soccer and basketball to weightlifting. A former college rugby player, Gilbert still hits the gym herself: “I train when I get stressed. If I don’t know what’s going on with my life, I’m up by 5 a.m., and we’re going to the gym and we’re going to do some pullups.”
Gilbert is a great believer in asking for assistance when you’re stuck, whether that’s posting an inquiry on LinkedIn or going to your investors with a question: “That process of just being open and bringing people along in your story; people will want to help.” That support can come from unexpected places: while Gilbert was burning the midnight oil at UCLA, one time, Alonzo Ward, one of the school’s community officers, asked what she was working on. On learning, he told her he used to make yoga pants and was able to connect her with manufacturers in the area.
 “He’s a very in-the-background adviser,” Gilbert says. “He’s been tremendously helpful, especially considering that I’m not from LA. Just having someone who’s there to support with everything from car troubles to moving to finding manufacturers has been wonderful.”
Identifying the company’s core market was an important step. “We quickly learned that there’s a lot of ways to make a lot of money in fashion, but also to lose money,” says Gilbert. High-end Zara-style fast-fashion needs a great supply chain. “We did not have access to capital like that, and so we were more looking for an underserved customer who we could supply, who we could innovate [with].”
Overcoming barriers
Offering advice to other young Black women who have an entrepreneurial dream, Gilbert says just go for it. “Start making stuff. Being a Black woman, you’re born with a checklist of things that people have said no against. When you find yourself stuck, what you are really listening to sometimes is a voice that predates you.”
That same voice probably spoke to your mother and your grandmother in the same way, Gilbert goes on. “The way you get around that is you just get started and keep doing things . . . taking baby steps. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes you believing in yourself and being committed and just doing it one step at a time.”
Gilbert recognizes how business school helped her pursue her dreams. While Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America, she says, there are “systemic barriers to capital that would preclude you from being able to scale your business.”
As a result, many of those fledgling businesses don’t make it past the two- to five-year mark “because we don’t always know the language or have the experience to know how to build a business . . . if you want to go anywhere where you have the power to shape your future, having additional credentials behind your name, whether it’s right or wrong, enables people to take you more seriously.” Business school “really helped me to be able to communicate with people who look different than me because of that language barrier.”
While she endorses education, Gilbert also advocates starting scrappy. Launching Oya after spending some time at Nike and Lululemon, she began selling her idea early on. “We started entering pitch competitions our first year, and we started winning, which was a surprise to us because we didn’t really know much about anything.”
For that first presentation, she wore another brand’s leggings with the prototype ventilation safety-pinned to where it would go. “But those initial business plan competitions really helped us be able to articulate our idea and our vision for the future and find advisers to help us refine things.” The cash prizes also helped finance company setups and early sample products.
 “Business competitions are a great start because they put your business on a platform in front of a lot of advisers who are interested in helping you. And so, they’ll reach out from there,” she says. Being part of UCLA’s Business Creation Option program, “where they essentially teach you how to build a business from soup to nuts,” also helped “because we had access to professors who would introduce us to people.” 
From an interview with Louis Carr
“There’s a lot of ways to make a lot of money in fashion, but also to lose money.”
“Competitions are a great start because they put your business on a platform in front of a lot of advisers.”
“Having additional credentials behind your name… enables people to take you more seriously.”
MITCHELLA GILBERT: MY WAYMAKER
My mom was a teacher who passed while I was in college. She had cancer… feminine health issues or just issues in general that she didn’t feel comfortable articulating or getting help with. Growing up during the crack epidemic, a lot of her siblings were impacted and so she was the first out of all of them to go to college, to buy a house. Being in my 30s now, I’m just understanding the type of pressure she put herself under and why she felt like she needed to perform even when she was sick, and why that didn’t matter to her because she really wanted to make sure that her kids had more options. My mother fought so hard to make sure that I was going to be in good schools so that way I had more options than that.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.