Graduating Senior Anna Shah Made Her Time at GW POP!

The international business major is taking over a sustainable thrift store business she and three others co-founded in 2021.

May 9, 2024

Anna Shah outside the Textile Museum

GW graduating senior Anna Shah in front of the The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, where POP! had its first-ever pop-up thrift shop two years ago. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Anna Shah faced a fork in the road. The soon to be international business graduate of the George Washington University was the last remaining co-founder of POP!, a sustainable thrift shop she and three other women started from scratch in spring 2021, still in school. Her other co-founders, Stephanie Cheung, Rachel Cohen and Maya Lavine, had all graduated and were beginning careers in their respective fields.

Shah pondered two possibilities. Either end POP!’s story as a wildly successful undergraduate venture that placed highly at local, national and even international competitions, or continue the business on her own.

The answer, it turned out, was situated on the path that brought her to this crossroads.

Last December, with the future of POP! still hanging in the balance, Shah traveled to Dubai on behalf of GW to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference.  While there, she met people from small island nations and Indigenous populations whom climate change had truly affected. She also reaffirmed just how much of an impact the fashion industry has on the world’s carbon footprint. The World Bank estimates that the industry contributes to 10% of all global emissions.

The conference only reignited her passion for sustainable fashion, and the thrift store had its fate decided before she even got back to the United States.

“I just thought ‘wow, I have to do this and do my best.’ If I fail, I fail, but I didn’t think I could live myself without trying,” said Shah, who was selected as the student speaker for the School of Business’ commencement ceremony on May 16.

“The urgency is there, and the passion, community and all that excitement around it is also there. I want to build on the momentum now.”

And thus, POP!—short for the Power of the Purse—was sustained, and Shah has spent the time since returning from Dubai laying the foundation for its new iteration.

Being customer conscious has been one of the pillars of POP! since its inception in 2021. The target audience, Shah said, has always been people who are socially conscious, on a budget and looking to explore their style.

Knowing that, she made a Venn diagram of students on campus—between the Women’s Leadership Program, students involved with Sustainable GW and business fraternities and sororities—who fit this mold. From there, she conducted focus groups and interviewed 45 of those students to identify retail patterns. What she found was surprising. More than 80% of respondents preferred in-person shopping as opposed to online.

Anna Shah at pop-up event
Anna Shah at a recent pop-up prototype event showcasing the Brooklyn apartment aesthetic she envisions POP! eventually becoming. (Submitted photo)

She at first envisioned an e-commerce approach with the continuation of POP!, but her mentor at the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE), Bob Smith, asked an important question: Would POP! be about volume or experience?

Shah knew the answer to that question. POP! was about the curated experience for others, not the bottom line.

“[Thrifting] is just not really an experience you can recreate online because of the unique and inclusive community that forms in the store,” Shah said.

From there, she led two different groups of eight women to different thrift stores throughout the city to get a sense of what POP!’s physical space might look like.

The customer discovery experiments showed her how important all five senses were to the shopping experience, noting how one participant was drawn to Madewell in Georgetown because it played international music in the store. That kind of attention to detail is unsurprising to Smith, who lauded Shah’s coachability and hunger to learn.

“Anna is an excellent illustration of someone going through real business pivots and using what you learn to figure out the best pathway to market,” Smith said. “For me, and I know for the rest of the [OIE] team, that’s why we show up for work.”

Eventually, Shah settled on designing a Brooklyn apartment aesthetic for a future physical space, complete with wood floors, an open floor plan, natural light and greenery.

She showed that off at several pop-up prototypes throughout the spring at Tishman Speyer on I Street, which OIE supporter Joseph Nicynski helped facilitate.

Shah is currently working with Sandy Richardson of GW Real Estate on securing a physical location on campus, which she hopes to have by September 2025 after spending the year identifying which leases will be up and which of those will best accommodate her Brooklyn apartment look. In the meantime, her goal is to build community by continuing to build the brand, engage with fashion and sustainability organizations and involve other universities from D.C. and beyond.

Her ultimate vision is for POP! to become a B Corp (a for-profit corporation certified for its social impact). She sees POP! as being a standard for a new era of businesses that are both profit and purpose based.

As POP! has done from the onset, Shah is utilizing Sustainable GW clothing bins to gather inventory, noting that she leaves essential goods alone so they can go to those in need. She has also started collecting from sororities, seeing as they have plenty of events both formal and informal that would lend itself to reusable fashion.

Planet Forward Summit
Anna Shah, far right, was a panelist at the 11th annual Planet Forward Summit in April. (William Atkins/GW Today)

As she graduates from GW, Shah is grateful for everything the university has offered her, and she is proud of just how much she—and her co-founders—took advantage of its resources.

“GW gave me everything, and I think also what's so important is they just supported me in every single thing I did,” Shah said. “Whenever I asked, I received, and that's just so nice to know how much the university was always in my corner and supporting me in so many different ways.” 

She hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect. Understandably so, as she’s co-launched a business, traveled across the globe to different summits, spoken at university events such as Planet Forward and taken heavy class loads in international business.

But when she looks back at all the memories and specifically with POP!, from winning $25,000 at the GW New Venture Competition to placing eighth at TCU’s Values and Ventures Competition to then placing 22nd in the entire world at the Hult Prize Challenge last summer, she is almost rendered speechless. Shah remembers sitting in her residence hall room as a first-year student dreaming up the possibilities of starting a thrift shop, and then the thrill of the thousands of people who came to their first pop-up shop at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.

Now, she’ll take the business for her own and run as far as she can with it.

“You have so much more power than you think you do, and I think I really showcase that, and I hope that I can be an example for others to just go for it and make the change they wish to see in the world,” Shah said. “I'm just proud of the impact I got to make and the smiles I put on people's faces, and I've loved every second of it.”