When senior Caitlyn Kumi felt her self-esteem sinking in the wake of a difficult relationship, her aunt gave her waist beads symbolizing the power of femininity in her family’s West African culture.
The waist beads wrapped Kumi with the confidence of both body and business and the jewelry item became the foundation of an entrepreneurial venture she launched as a junior at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
While some might wonder why Kumi didn’t wait until after graduation to launch her women’s empowerment fashion-lifestyle brand Miss EmpowHer, for Kumi, building a business as a student simply made sense — especially as a student at a school like UNC Hussman.
“UNC Hussman has shaped me into a social impact entrepreneur,” said Kumi, now a senior specializing in the school’s advertising and public relations track. “UNC Hussman has invested time and money into creating opportunities for me and my peers and inspired me to pay it forward and build a brand that positively impacts people.”
Her brand, Miss EmpowHer, which launched in June 2020, not only sells waist beads but clothing such as a recently released hoodie collection emblazoned with women’s empowerment messages.
“Caitlyn is constantly curious to try new approaches. Most of the material we’ve covered in the classes we’ve had together have been very new processes for her and she never backs down. She doubles down — in a good way — taking the risks she needs to grow,” said Dana McMahan, a UNC Hussman professor of the practice who has taught Kumi in the courses “MEJO 371: Advertising Creative” and “MEJO 592: Workroom FashionMash Product Design.”
Kumi cites McMahan, as well as Teaching Assistant Professor Gary Kayye, with whom she has taken the courses “MEJO 137: Principles of Advertising and Public Relations” and “MEJO 477: New Media Technologies” as two of her biggest UNC Hussman mentors.
Kumi also cited Associate Professor Steven King’s course “MEJO 588: Emerging Technologies” as directly influencing her digital branding strategies, teaching her to ask social media data questions like “Who are the people that my target customer follows? What are their interests?”
Since Kumi launched Miss EmpowHer, the business has received over 300 orders and has developed an Instagram community of over 2,000 members.
But for Kumi the business isn’t just about the numbers, it’s about the “family” that the business creates — a family of diverse women around the globe who are empowered, confident and supportive.
By sourcing waist beads from female African artisans, to embroidering hoodies with words like Ohemaa — a Ghanaian word for “queen” — the theme of women’s empowerment threads through Miss EmpowHer, as do Kumi’s West African roots.
The child of Ghanaian immigrants, Kumi describes women from her parents’ native country as cultural “backbones” and natural entrepreneurs.
“I am the woman I am today because of the women who have positively impacted my life — the women who have supported me through my highs and lows and the role models that inspired me,” Kumi said. “I wanted to build a brand that focused on women’s empowerment to encourage women to support each other. I believe women accomplish amazing things when we support each other.”
Miss EmpowHer supports women’s causes by hosting Women Supporting Women fundraisers (an initiative Kumi created) as well as creating economic opportunity for Ghanaian women who make the waist beads.
Kumi supports other UNC Hussman students by providing internships — currently, she has 14 interns — within her growing company.
“Caitlyn is the ultimate ‘girl boss’ that I aspire to be,” said Samantha Casolaro, a junior and UNC Hussman student who works as a creative director and social media marketing manager with Miss EmpowHer. “Caitlyn makes me feel like we’re learning together.”
Kumi’s curiosity and willingness to learn are strengths noted by her UNC Hussman mentors.
“I think the two most valuable assets that Caitlyn possesses right now are curiosity and her desire to learn. Her curiosity keeps her open-minded to learning creatively, and her desire to learn creates an evolution of her presence and allows her to see trends and leverage them strategically,” Kayye said.
Kumi knows that learning trends and best practices on the job — from how to leverage social media to sourcing labor and materials — provides an insight the classroom can’t.
“You can read something and think you know it, but when you get hands-on experience you know if you can really do it,” Kumi said.
However, the lessons Kumi and her staff learn from Miss EmpowHer reinforce philosophies sewn into UNC Hussman’s teachings — including that, in the 21st century, all communicators need a solid business acumen.
“Today’s media environment means every kind of communicator has to really work to be heard, so you’ve got to understand the role the business environment plays in moving the message,” McMahan said. “Throughout UNC Hussman, Caitlyn’s getting a deep immersion in what it takes to make a creative, communication-based business successful: great strategic insight into consumers, engaging storytelling, excellent writing, sharp technical skills, insightful historical perspectives, deep understanding of the social impact of the media, top-notch communication skills and actionable leadership insights.”
Kumi credited the UNC Hussman’s Career Services staff and resources as crucial in her success. Director of Career Services Jay Eubank and Assistant Director of Career Services Jenn Sipe worked with Kumi to advertise Miss EmpowHer internships through their network of students.
“What’s been so impressive about Caitlyn is not only the entrepreneurial skills she’s used to start her business, but her authentic desire to help others and the way she’s wanted to pull other UNC Hussman students into the venture,” Sipe said.
After graduation, Kumi plans on taking a consulting job with Ernst & Young, while continuing to build the Miss EmpowHer brand on the side — she’s excited about new product launches and deepening the company’s commitment to women’s issues.
She knows that wherever her journey takes her, in business or in life, the lessons she has learned at UNC Hussman will guide her every step of the way.