What drew you to the design field? As a child, I loved art, but my favorite thing to do was to solve problems in new and unexpected ways. My parents rarely gave me a hard no, which allowed me to discover more than just one solution to a problem. As I got older, I continued to find ways to use creative problem-solving, from planning my weekly list of chores to scoring a sleepover with friends to persuading my parents to buy me the latest doll. As an adult, I have found that design, which has the ability to challenge your thinking, inspire you and help you take positive action, is the ultimate problem-solving tool.
What inspired you to launch your company Able Made? I started the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation (UMBF) in 2009 in honor of my late husband, Ucal, who passed away from sudden cardiac arrest playing soccer, the game he loved. UMBF continues Ucal’s work by supporting city youth through soccer and health education. We operate soccer camps, clinics, and educational sessions, including hands-only CPR, nutrition, hydration, mindfulness, stretching through yoga, financial literacy and mental wellness.
In the foundation’s early stages, when I was getting it off the ground, I reached out to my design community to work on fundraising projects. After the success of an annual poster calendar I designed, which featured original art from the country’s most recognizable designers, studios and artists, I secured a meeting at Vogue to discuss my idea of working with a designer or brand to develop a fashion-inspired T-shirt. After that meeting, I got the idea to create a platform to help fund and bring attention to my nonprofit and activate others who are passionate about doing good through design.
We launched Able Made with limited edition accessories created through collaboration like a scarf by Project Runway winner Anya Ayoung-Chee, a global design T-shirt challenge with Threadless, a special hydration-inspired S’well water bottle and socks for Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. Our products are made mostly in the United States or responsibly produced globally, with many pieces using sustainable materials, including high-quality organic canvas and cotton. We’ve raised awareness and thousands of dollars through sale proceeds, not only for UMBF but also for nonprofits like the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, Pencils of Promise and the VH1 Save The Music Foundation.
How has your expertise in branding and design helped you develop the Able Made brand? I’ve learned that ideas, design and execution could bring major attention to causes, and that the world’s best creative talent wanted to be part of those campaigns to help spark change.
For example, early in my career, when I was working on an antismoking campaign at Arnold Worldwide, we hired fashion photographer Richard Avedon to shoot portraits of women who were terminally ill from cancer. The images captured their reactions to the idea of saying goodbye to those they loved most. Since these women were too sick to write their goodbye letters to their loved ones, I hand-illustrated one of the letters that accompanied a story in the campaign. The concept, art, copywriting and design carried the message of the dangers of smoking in a highly emotional, impactful way. Collaboration was a gateway to social impact.
What have been the greatest challenges of starting your own business? As an entrepreneur, my days are never the same. One day you can have a lot of success, and the next can bring a series of difficulties. Managing the emotional highs and lows that can happen even hourly can be a challenge. You have to stay levelheaded and not get discouraged when things get hard. I encourage anyone starting a business to celebrate your wins, no matter how small. This will keep your energy up and reminds you that you have momentum and success is near.
Are you seeing a rise in social entrepreneurship? Social entrepreneurship is definitely on the rise, and not only in sustainable fashion. There is a global shift of consumers seeking authentic, caring brands, and they are making the switch from the status quo brands they were once forced to buy when there were no other options. For example, I love how Elon Musk disrupted the auto industry with Tesla. This year’s Super Bowl television commercials were swamped with auto brands introducing new electric car options to compete with Tesla. Warby Parker disrupted the eyewear industry by cutting out the middleman and passing the savings on to the consumer. 1 Hotels, a luxury lifestyle hotel brand, was founded by Starwood’s cofounder, Barry Sternlicht, to give people a green option for hotel stays. And today, many vegan and plant-based food companies—more than ever before—have the environment, health and compassion for animals in mind.
What are some ways that designers can use their skills to support social causes? The design community is one of the most compassionate groups of people I have ever worked with. So many options are available for engagement: getting involved with AIGA to support design education and the next wave of talent, working with a cause or nonprofit on a project, or thinking about more creative and sustainable ways to produce your projects, even from your material choices. Hiring an inclusive and diverse team is as important as any initiative a company can take on.
What excites you about design right now? I’m seeing sustainability being addressed in fashion now more than ever before, not only by startups, but also by large, global and luxury brands. Fashion is a 2.4 trillion dollar industry. It must be at the table and accept its role in order to reduce its impact on the environment.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? Never be afraid to ask. Many of the opportunities I have are because I made a cold call. Take a risk and tell someone your idea, ask to collaborate, say you are right for a project—put yourself out there. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.