AZ Life Apparel

Arizona. The 6th most populated city in the US with a rich labor pool,
competitive labor costs and aggressive tax credits & incentives.  And
before you start thinking tumble weeds and cacti, get a glimpse of
Frankie’s brand. The founder of AZ Life Apparel, a clothing brand that
offers a glimpse of the Arizona life with a street wear touch. The
vibrant design selection celebrates the culture of the Copper state
featuring palm trees, cacti, and the Arizona flag. Elements that
transmit the warmth, and active outdoorsy nature of Arizona. Since I
last spoke to Frankie, AZ Life Apparel has partnered with
shops like Sibleys West, Roosterbus and will now be at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, all within the first year of the brand launch!

Arizona is one of the fastest growing states with a growing culture, my motive is to capture the culture and create a brand that native Arizonans are proud of.

Where does your entrepreneurial drive stem from?

 “I heard people say that they are a product of their environment and
for some that means having a role model or a mentor in their life that
they are able to use as an example. For myself I did not have that
growing up, my father was not in my life and left at an early age.
Growing up I knew one thing, I did not want to be like him and that is
what drives myself to be a successful person. I started working at a
young age and quickly moved up into leadership roles at different jobs
I held. I was propelled into fashion when I started working at a shoe
store where I fell in love with the sneaker and streetwear culture.
Following brands like The Hundreds and Crooks and Castles I had this
fire inside to create designs and possibly have my own brand one day.
Now I’m at the time where I’ve made my dream a reality and with my
business being new, I’m driven by the support from my family and
internal drive to prove to myself that I can do it.”

What were some of your biggest challenges when launching your brand?

“Prioritizing was the most important and impactful thing to do first as
well as where to allocate your initial investment. I spent almost a
year working on different designs as well as figuring out what type of
apparel I wanted to use. All of this takes time and consistency, which
is difficult when you want to get your brand launched as soon as
possible.”

What do you think other minority business owners could be more of or
differently?

“Utilizing social media to it’s full potential to tell their story and
dive into their community. We are at a time where we want to support
the underdog and the non-corporate businesses. Another big opportunity
is for us is to connect as minority business owners and utilize our
resources to grow.”

With the emergence of big online retailers, apparel companies with a
traditional brick and mortar business model have found innovative ways
to take advantage of their showrooms and personal contact with the
consumer by hosting customer experiences that are sure to make an
impression. The concept of costumer contact with the brand is clear
for AZ Life Apparel. The clothing line often has pop-ups at the
monthly First Friday art walks in downtown Phoenix and partnering with
locations that celebrate the high vibration of the state.

“Big online retailers are focused on quantity, where my focus is on
quality as well as being personable. I also love the ability to
interact directly with my consumers as this gives me the opportunity
to tell my story and offer a product that is made and designed by
myself.”

What is next for AZ Life Apparel?

“Our goal is to contribute to our community and give back as much
as we can. We are working on releasing our season 2 designs and widening our collection to offer multiple options for both men and women.”

Photo taken at the AZ Apparel Launch party May 2019

AZ Life Apparel is approaching one year since launching and it has already began to expand at a global scale, exporting to Australia, Canada and Mexico and this is no surprise as minority businesses are twice as likely to export compared to non-minority businesses and have operations abroad. Their cultural ties puts them at an advantage, easing their ability to find importing partners in their home countries. These liaisons, their language skills and agility, catapult them to dominate global market and AZ Life Apparel is well on its way.

Immerse yourself in the Arizona culture and check out the designs at https://www.azlifeapparel.com/

Welcome to the desert.

Bravo Tip or Pay

As we move in a cashless society, a mobile payment app is as necessary as your wallet. The Bravo Pay App scored a $150,000 investment from ABC’s Shark Tank and ever since has revolutionized the industry. Running on its own blockchain platform, the Bravo App has tens of thousands of active users across the US. The seed to create something bigger than herself was watered by her economic circumstances in Puerto Rico. With a single mother and 4 other siblings, it was not an option for her to not pursue an education that would later enable her to explore entrepreneurial opportunities. In my conversation with Maria, we discussed the disadvantages that have incapacitated minority owned businesses, her approach to facing disparities in capital access and the principles adopted from her upbringing that have contributed to her success in business.

Humble Beginnings

“In my case, I wanted to find the fastest way I could get out of poverty. My teacher told me to study really hard, and I did all those things, I graduated and did my masters degree but I had that entrepreneurial drive to become resourceful that my mother instilled in us.” Maria remembers picking out a name out of a basket during Christmas time, and for the entire month of December, would have to do something nice for that person. It was their way of being resourceful. “From there I realized, to give something of value, it doesn’t necessarily have to be something material. Then I applied the same tactic and realized if I do something nice for my neighbor, she would give me ten cents and then I could buy candy for my sister, etc. I realized, okay, doing stuff, people pay, and then I save. As a college student, I came to live with 14 women who were sharing one house. And then I realized they did not have time to cook, so I started cooking for them and charging to prepare their meals and started making money doing that. After college I went into the corporate world but I always knew that at one point I wanted to do my own thing.”

Is entrepreneurship innate or adopted?

“I think an individual must have that little spark in their heart to become an entrepreneur, but I think it’s something that is totally teachable. There are some people that are innate business people but I think that if you want to pursue it, there are skills that you can definitely learn.”

Integrating cultural values with business

“My north and my guiding principles in life are just the same if I’m going to do something personal or for business. To give you an example, the strong work ethics that I learned from my community and people around me are not just something that I put into my business, but if I commit to volunteering or do something personal, I’m going to apply the same commitment regardless if I’m going to be paid or not. The other is the integrity and the mutual respect. I grew up in a family that was poor on resources but we were absolutely rich in terms of values and love. So one thing that I would say, my mother raised us alone and we were 5 children with limited resources so she was really strict and there were rules of mutual respect. I was the youngest and regardless of my age, my brothers and sisters respected me the very same way I respected them. So I applied that to my business to the point that every single employee that comes to work with me, signs a mutual respect policy and that applies to not only within each employee, but to anyone that we encounter and walks trough the door.”

Acquiring the building blocks

Entrepreneurship was always in the back of her head and everything she did in her professional life was done with a double purpose: to excel in her career, but also use the same skills earned towards her own idea. “I always had aspirations of being an entrepreneur. Before Bravo, my first corporate job thought me a lot about research, taking a product to market and they also taught me a lot about lean operations. After that I worked in the pharmaceutical industry and then I decided to test the waters with entrepreneurship, but instead of selling something, I started to sell my services as a consultant for launching new products or new businesses. The reason I was good at it was because in my years of experience, I learned how to do lean launches and how to take a product to market with very few resources, without spending a lot of money. I did consulting for 7 years. After that I gathered that confidence. I thought, If I can advice other people, then I have what it takes to invest in my own idea. I took notes, for example, I picked up that if you do not instill your company culture and values from really early on, even at the interview stage with prospective employees, then you are not putting your best foot forward. You need to weed away the people that would not agree with those values. I took notes of do’s and don’ts that have helped me with my own company now. And there’s nothing wrong with jumping right into an idea without many years of experience in launching a product, but because I come from that ‘lean’ mentality, I wanted to go to the market with the instruments that I thought I needed at the moment.”

Minorities and disadvantages

Instead of being discouraged by the statistics that plague minority owned businesses today, Maria utilized those same numbers as a compass, pointing her towards diverse conscientious investors.”It’s true, the statistics, if you look at VC investment in minorities, specially female minorities are close to zero.”

That taught me to be more precise in my research, that encouraged me to try harder and whenever I put my foot forward, I prepare for it, I just don’t go and wing it. I know my numbers, I know my pitch and I am ready.

“One of the things that I learned is to learn your circumstances, and learn as much as you can but not to get discouraged by the statistics, but instead focus on groups that are paying attention and are trying to flip the coin. I tried to identify those companies. There’s one that I can think of from the top of m mind is Chingona Ventures, this is a woman that is walking the walk. She changed her own circumstances and now wants to pay it forward. And that is something that I plan to so with my own success: help others. And right now I am doing it through knowledge, but one day I want to do it through capital.”

A ripple effect of empowerment

“There’s two things that we can do as a community. Number one is educate ourselves about everything. About our business, about what we are doing and become the best. Number two is educate our children and instill in them to pursue higher education. There is a lot more work to do in order to pay it forward. Always keep in mind that it is not necessary to wait until I have millions of dollars to help others. Spending time educating and mentoring, and public speaking so we can paint the picture for people that look like us or have the same accent.”

Cryptocurrency for the future

Maria shed some light into Cryptocurrency. The medium of exchange that deviates away from a centralized financial institution such as a bank, that some would say, would benefit developing countries or nations ruled by oppression. “Cryptocurrency is here to stay, there’s a need for those types of services I just hope for the good of humanity that there is also a lot of transparency in the process so that it does not serve money laundering. But I think that as long as the technology in blockchain facilitates transparency with contacts that execute themselves and are not in the hands of people that can rip other people off then it would be great. I think in terms of ecosystem in general, let’s not think about crypto only, but let’s say the entire financial ecosystem, I think it’s going to continue to evolve into putting it into the palms of the people, instruments to empower them in different aspects of their lives”.

Maria opened doors for herself and is making sure she is leaving them wide open for others to follow. Her innate determination to get out of poverty, work ethic adopted from her upbringing in Puerto Rico and the words from Mrs. Santiago advising her of the power of education became an insurmountable force that enabled her to become a catalyst of wealth creation and innovation.

MB CATALYST

MB Catalyst aims to positively stimulate growth of Minority (owned) Businesses by serving as a progressive platform for exposure by capturing the challenges, building blocks to success and cultural perspectives and values that ultimately serve as a competitive advantage at a global scale.

Minority owned businesses have made a significant contribution to the U.S. economy by generating $661 billon in total gross receipts in 2002. They are responsible for the employment of  4.7 million people with an annual payroll totaling $115 billion. According the U.S. Department of Commerce,  the growth of Minority owned businesses outpaced non-minority owed businesses from 1997 to 2002. It is safe to say that entrepreneurship has a new face with minority representation in various industries such as Healthcare & social assistance, Science and Technology, Administrative support, Waste Management & Remediation, Transportation & Warehousing, Real Estate among others. And there is room for advancement.

It is important to note that racial discrimination forms part of the entrepreneurial landscape for minorities as they have a lower access to capital and markets. They are 3 times more likely to be denied loans than non-minority business owners or face a higher interest rate. Not to mention, they also secure a lower number and dollar amount in contracts. According to the U.S. Small Business Association, racially diverse Small Business Investment Companies are more likely to investments in minority-led and minority-owned businesses, however, the great lack of minority representation in small business investment companies and among venture investors does not ease the journey. Nonetheless, Minority owned businesses continue to gain momentum and are found to invest substantially less capital at startup and have less than half the average amount of recent equity investments and loans than non-minority firms.

MB Catalyst aims to be a light source for minority owned firms in the obscure path of entrepreneurship by providing an exposure platform to market their products and inspire upcoming businesses. The U.S. is projected to depend vastly on Minority owned Businesses by 2044 as they have the potential to cater to a growing population and seize opportunity gaps not yet identified. This is key to strengthening American competitiveness and MB Catalyst plans to capture it all by featuring innovative businesses that breathe their cultural traditions into their businesses and form part of this venture.