Sonia Smith Kang is a proud military brat who transitioned from being a critical care registered nurse to launching Mixed Up Clothing – a children’s wear brand celebrating cultura y diversidad in major retail stores like Macy’s and Belk. The Puerto Rican-born AfroLatina entrepreneur generously offers her expertise on what it takes to get your brand on the big shelves.
I’m a firm believer in breaking barriers and turning dreams into reality. Today, I want to share my non-traditional entrepreneurial journey and provide guidance on how BIPOC-owned brands can secure a coveted spot on the shelves of a large retailer. As an RN-turned-designer and mom of 4, I understand the unique challenges many of us face, but I’m here to tell you that nothing is impossible!
Educated as a critical care registered nurse, I had plenty to learn about starting and running a business. There was a steep learning curve I needed to understand about the fashion industry, but after years of making mistakes, learning, growing, and scaling, I was ready to pitch large retailers. We just celebrated our one-year anniversaries with large retailers Macy’s and Belk, where we are honored to be just one of a few certified Latine-owned and Black-owned designers in kids wear.
Tips to Get from Sueño to Shelf
BIPOC-power is our super-power.
Before diving into the strategies, let’s talk about the incredible progress made by BIPOC-owned businesses, particularly Latina entrepreneurs, in 2023. Latina-owned businesses have been flourishing, with a remarkable 87% increase in their numbers over the past decade. These businesses generate billions of dollars in revenue, contributing significantly to the economy and job creation. It’s a testament to the unyielding spirit and talent of Latina entrepreneurs like you. ¡Wepa!
Leveraging diversity initiatives.
Now, let’s get down to business. One of the first things I did when I knew I wanted to partner with large retailers was to learn about their diversity initiatives. It’s important that your values align. Many retailers actively seek to diversify their product offerings and understand the importance of including brands (like ours) that cater to a broader range of customers. I am a member of many advocacy groups and organizations that help hold retailers to their DEI pledges. Although applications take time and there are costs involved to receive minority-owned certifications, there are companies like JP Morgan Chase that can provide support and offer reimbursement to help you obtain them.
Know your target retailer.
Mixed Up Clothing is exploring ways to increase the lifecycle of our clothing. We focus on designing quality products through circularity and sustainability initiatives utilizing slow fashion, organic fabric, ethical sourcing, and manufacturing practices. Doing research is key! Understand how your values pair with the values and goals of your target retailer. What are their diversity and sustainability initiatives? How are they committed to supporting BIPOC-owned and minority-owned businesses? By aligning your brand with their vision, you increase the likelihood of catching their attention. I learned a great deal as a graduate of Macy’s The Workshop at Macy’s, and it empowered me by teaching me what retailers look for and what a retail partnership looks like. Check out which retailers have programs to support you and your growth.
Craft a pitch rooted in your origin story.
I’m a proud military brat born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico to an African American father and Mexican American mother. After Puerto Rico, we moved to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. From Hawai’i, my family moved to Los Angeles, where, today, I am married to my Korean American husband and raising our four multicultural and multilingual children. I am intentional with the products I bring into our home which I call ‘culture proofing’. This means I surround them with items that look like us: books, art, foods, and music. We also celebrate diverse holidays, and I love putting them in traditional garments to celebrate special occasions or holidays. The pride they feel wearing the clothes of our cultures during special occasions is the same feeling I wanted to instill in them every day. When I couldn’t find clothing for my children that celebrated who we are, I asked myself who better to tell our stories than me?
I emptied out my 401k, took a leave from being an RN, and went all in. Mixed Up Clothing is trying to solve the lack of multicultural representation in children’s fashion. I am thankful for my multicultural heritage and household yet, like many of us, I didn’t see accurate reflections of my heritage. I yearned for people that looked and felt like home, so I went after it, using children’s fashion as my vehicle to talk about culture and diversity.
Understanding your ‘what’ and ‘why’ helps craft a compelling pitch which is crucial to pitching. Clearly communicate your brand story, emphasizing its unique value proposition and how it resonates with the retailer’s target audience. Highlight the qualities that set you apart, such as sustainable practices, innovative design, or your dedication to social causes. Make sure your pitch is concise, persuasive, and tailored specifically to the retailer you’re approaching.
Build strategic partnerships:
Collaborating with like-minded individuals and organizations can significantly boost your chances of success. Seek partnerships with influential figures or industry experts. Be of service to others. Join and network with organizations or local community leaders who can support your brand. By leveraging their networks and expertise, you’ll enhance your brand’s visibility and establish credibility and trust. Just remember to be intentional and align with businesses and brands that have similar values and goals to amplify your parallel missions together. Alignment is key.
Showcase your brand’s diversity:
Emphasize the diversity within your brand. It’s not just about being a BIPOC-owned business; it’s about celebrating diversity in all its forms. Highlight the diversity of your team and supply chain and the inclusive representation in your marketing campaigns. As a kid, I didn’t see myself in ads or marketing which is why Mixed Up Clothing challenges the status quo and pushes back against current standards of beauty. There is beauty in our diversity and Mixed Up Clothing is, literally, changing the face of fashion in our campaigns. From skin tone to hair texture and from sizing to ability, we want children to see accurate reflections of their reality. We center inclusion and our brand understands the diverse customer’s unique needs and desires because we are them.
Be persistent and resilient:
Transparency is important when building a brand with a loyal following and is essential to the growth of your business. For the third time I am unsuccessful in getting into Target’s Accelerator. I felt down and cried over it but I’m not giving up because perseverance is key. Securing a deal with large retailers has been a long road and it has not been easy. I receive “no’s” every day. Be prepared for potential rejections and setbacks but don’t let it deter you. Learn from each experience, refine your approach, and keep pushing forward. Every “no” can bring you closer to a “yes.” I want our multicultural children to see themselves across all industries and fashion is no different. Always remember your why. You’ll need that to draw on when things get tough.
As BIPOC entrepreneurs, numbers don’t lie. We possess incredible power to inspire change and make a lasting impact. The retail landscape is evolving, and opportunities for BIPOC-owned brands are on the rise. By leveraging diversity initiatives, knowing your target retailer, perfecting your pitch, building strategic partnerships, and showcasing your brand’s diversity, you’ll position yourself for success. You have the talent, passion, and determination to bring your brand from dream to shelf. Stay focused, stay resilient, and never stop believing in yourself. As a 12- year-old I daydreamed while riding a bus to school. I dreamt of someone who looked like me to bring about the change I needed. It wasn’t until I started Mixed Up Clothing that I realized I was the person I’d been waiting for! So to all the amazing chingonas out there: let’s conquer new horizons and grow together!
About the Author
Sonia Smith Kang
Sonia Smith-Kang is the founder of Mixed Up Clothing, now available at Macy’s. As a former Registered Nurse turned fashion designer and mom of 4, Sonia saw a lack of diversity in children’s fashion. She then created Mixed Up Clothing, a childrenswear line designed through a multicultural lens inspired by her Black and Latino heritage, to fill a gap in the market and solve for the lack of representation in fashion. Married to her Korean husband, Sonia calls Los Angeles home where she is a writer, multicultural expert, advocate, and activist serving as vice-president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California.