As the Jack Morton Auditorium emptied after the annual night celebrating winners of the New Venture Competition (NVC), George Washington undergraduate students Anna Shah, Maya Levine, Rachel Cohen and Stephanie Cheung—and their four newly acquired large checks—finally found quiet solitude in a green room backstage. It would remain that way for only so long.
After reeling in $25,000 in prize money during last April’s final round, the quartet who brought sustainable fashion to the GW campus finally let out a jubilant, emotional exhale together.
“It was seriously one of the best moments of my life,” said Cohen, a senior human services and social justice student.
It’s easy to understand the magnitude of that moment. Less than a year earlier, the co-creators of POP! (short for Power of the Purse) eagerly Metro’d across the Potomac to Virginia armed with laundry and duffel bags to rummage through thrift stores while gathering inventory for their startup business that still had its wheels on the runway preparing for takeoff.
What started as a semester-long research project through the GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility in spring 2021 has blossomed into a thriving business with a loyal customer clientele and always crowded pop-up events. POP! gives GW students an option to find trendy clothing that is accessible enough to not require voyaging to a Tysons or Bethesda thrift shops and affordable enough to not burn pocket holes at fashion stores such as Reformation in Georgetown. They knew the need because they were their own target market.
“We were meant to be customers of our own brand,” said Shah, a junior international business major. “This idea came kind of out of the intersection of our research and our own lived experiences being on GW’s campus itself. We realized there was nowhere for us to shop based on our socially responsible, socially conscious values.”
POP! is also multi-dimensional, which was important for the four co-owners who all have their own academic backgrounds and thinking processes (they see their diversity in interests as a great strength to the business). In addition to being accessible and affordable, the startup has social and sustainability contracts, and the co-creators encourage their customers to “vote with their dollars.” Purchasing with POP!, they say, is a vote against inhumane working conditions and environmental degradation sometimes susceptible in corporate retail.
“Every individual consumer gets to choose how they spend their dollars to make a conscious impact,” Shah said. “And people underestimate how their choices have values.”
The World Bank states that the fashion industry contributes to 10% of the world’s carbon footprint, and POP! has made calculated decisions to help reduce that. The packaging for the business’ e-commerce venture is compostable, and the startup uses biodegradable tape. And, of course, the mailers hold second-hand clothing. Last year alone, POP! sold 2,522 items in pop-up events and online, diverting what they say is approximately 2,017.6 pounds of clothes from landfills that release methane emissions, saved 9 million gallons of water and reduced 12,105.6 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
“We are taking on climate change in a very specific way,” said Levine, who is a senior environmental studies major. “This feels really empowering because this is our way of tackling this massive crisis, and we can do it at a very micro level.”
The quartet has partnered with various campus outlets to help them turn their visions to reality. After realizing that trekking to thrift stores with laundry bags wasn’t necessarily a business model with staying power, not to mention realizing many of those stores are strategically placed in communities that need clothing, the co-founders worked with the Office of Sustainability to utilize donated clothing collections in residence halls. Not only has that been their primary source of inventory ever since, but it’s helped them create a circular economy within campus rather than the entire D.C. community, since most of the clothes are targeted to the college audience. Their inventory, thanks to a partnership with the GW Innovation Center, is stored in the basement of Tompkins Hall, should one ever wonder why it smells like second-hand clothing down there.
They have also collaborated with GW Compost to hold clothing donations at Kogan Plaza from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays, and students who donate get a 10% off coupon for their entire purchase at a pop-up. Most pop-ups have taken place at the GW Textile Museum.
The NVC forced them to think about scaling, as they gained valuable feedback about how to invest in the business and make it bigger than just day-to-day operations. With their prize money, they formed their limited liability corporation in D.C. and utilized help from the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to navigate the technical and legal waters that came with it.
“GW has been over the moon helpful in so many different ways,” Shah said. “That’s why we care so much about giving back to GW.”
Right now, 100% of profits go toward operations as all revenue goes toward buying more inventory, pop-up décor and marketing materials. They also have a team of 22 interns.
The whole thing is honestly just hilarious, Levine said. She often takes a moment to sit back and laugh when she and her team are talking about the financial projections of the business—rooted in intrigue and fun—they started two years ago. They haven’t lost sight of that, maintaining close friendships and laughs as their business has grown to a place they couldn’t have imagined when it started.
Now, the work continues. Shah, Levine and Cohen are figuring out ways to continue build POP! after commencement. Cheung, who graduated last May in political science with a public policy focus, currently serves as an adviser. They know the challenge ahead, especially being women entrepreneurs. According to TechCrunch, women-founded startups raised just 1.9% of all venture capital funds in 2022, a drop from the previous year. They recognize the statistic and have felt stereotyped explaining POP! to people who have thought they only sell dresses—which is far from the truth as their clothing drops cater to all backgrounds.
They agree that confidence is their greatest asset in the march forward.
“We’ve never been intimidated or scared off by [gender discrimination],” Shah said. “It just kind of pushes us further because we believe in us, and so does everybody else.”
No matter how they expand their business and blow past barriers, they plan to always be mindful of POP!’s original mission that excited them enough to drag laundry bags of clothes on Metro’s Orange Line.
“We're really proud of what we’ve built, and we personally have gained a lot from it,” Cohen said. “But ultimately, we're not the center. Customers are the center, and we want customers to be able to create change.”