Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show coming to you today from WorkFlourish where I’m very pleased to have as my guest Ericka Graham, the Founder of Unitee; Ericka, welcome to the show.
Ericka: Thank you; thanks for having me.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Unitee.
Ericka: Unitee is a values-based T-shirt company and we are centered around five core values that all of our T-shirts correspond with. Our hope is that through kids wearing these shirts we can start a conversation about what matters to us and what we value.
Russ: So they’re not the standard T-shirt with the standard sayings that you see these days that are pretty off the wall, right?
Ericka: I think what makes Unitee different is we think that we’re more than just a T-shirt company, we think we’re a conversation about what matters. So they’re not just cute, funny phrases, they’re phrases that we inspire a really deep meaning behind.
Russ: Cool. And so how do you spell Unitee?
Ericka: It’s U-N-I-T-E-E.
Russ: And do you mainly sell them online?
Ericka: Yep, we’re at Unitteekids.com. We’re an online retail shop and that’s where all of our sales take place.
Russ: First what are the five core values?
Ericka: We have Grit & Growth and in education right now growth mindset is a really big deal; not having a fixed mindset but thinking about growth. We have Courage, we have Kindness, Creativity and Friendship.
Russ: Now do those words actually appear on some of the T-shirts?
Ericka: They do and don’t, I’ll give you an example. Our Courage shirt we have “This is my Brave Face” so the word brave appears on it. But the idea behind that is that we often think of this a heroic act and that is what a brave person is, but your kid being brave could be something as simple as taking the next pedal when the training wheels are off and trusting that that bike is going to keep them up and safe. And so instead of trying to preach to parents about how they should parent we’re trying to change the conversation to hey look, these values are what your kids are already doing and here’s how you can notice it.
Russ: Okay, wow, you’re kind of sneaking in on them. So what did you say, one of them is Grit & Growth? What’s an example of a Grit & Growth T-Shirt?
Ericka: An example of Grit & Growth is we have a shirt that says “Mistakes are Proof I’m Trying” and so having a growth mindset doesn’t mean you’re going to get it right every time, it means over time you’re going to grow. And so “Mistakes are Proof I’m Trying” and the other one is “Slip, Trip, Find my Grip” and that’s our most popular selling onesie. All of our shirts come in onesie size – almost all of them. And “Slip, Trip, Find my Grip” is really cute on like a 2 year old because they’re always slipping and tripping and it’s the perfect T-shirt to remind kids but also remind parents that if they fall down 5 times they’re going to get up 6. And that’s just kind of life and it’s a metaphor for parents to be inspired too.
Russ: Absolutely. So what age – you said one size fits all on these T-shirts?
Ericka: No, they are all unisex – we don’t have boys and girls shirts – we pick the color scheme that we think works for both, but they come in all different sizes.
Russ: Okay, what’s the age span of what you’ve been selling to so far?
Ericka: We have a 6 month onesie all the way up to Youth Large, and I can actually fit in a Youth Large, which wasn’t the plan. But we haven’t targeted adults as part of our audience but we’re finding adults are loving the Youth Larges.
Russ: I asked the age question because I’m curious about how those in the older spectrum are responding to this kind of message rather than the traditional T-shirt.
Ericka: I think that maybe 8th grade, high school some of them aren’t very cool. It’s not cool to say “Mistakes are Proof I’m Trying” in high school. But the kids I think, even in middle school some of the shirts – we have one that says “Kind is the New Cool,” that’s a shirt that anyone can wear. I think we can all agree we need more kindness, especially today.
Russ: Well it kind of sounds like in this era that we live in today any kind of movement towards being nicer would be well-received or should be well-received. So I’m curious, what triggered the idea to do this?
Ericka: My business partner Judy Lee is a leadership consultant and owns her own leadership firm called Take Root Consulting. She was actually doing some personal coaching for me and we were having coffee and I was talking about this shirt that I saw a girl wear; it said “Be Awesome.” And I was like that seems like a lot of pressure to be awesome. As a Christian I often think God can be awesome through me or other people have different interpretations, but I was like that’s a tough shirt to fulfill. I don’t feel awesome every day. And so we were kind of just laughing and being overly critical of this shirt and then we thought you know what, we can probably do better and start a really deep conversation about what matters.
Russ: Wow and so how long have you been doing it now?
Ericka: It’s funny you ask that because when I first started this I’m like oh, I want to start a T-shirt company. And then I’m like oh, you have to register and then you have to design T-shirts and then you have to pick phrases. We sent out surveys of T-shirt slogans and actually had 150 moms vote on which T-shirts they’d be most likely to buy, so we did a really selective and serious analysis of what people are going to buy and what people like. And it was funny, some of our favorites didn’t get voted on and we were like really? So it was kind of a humbling process doing the surveys but it’s been a long time in the works. We started the surveys actually in December of last year and launched in May.
Russ: I understand that this is not your first business initiative, that you have this thing called Project 88 as well, right?
Ericka: Yeah, so that’s kind of how I met my business partner too. My husband and I started a nonprofit in 2014 to help get more college advisors in Houston public schools. I taught college readiness at a low income high school and I realized if you’re a first generation college student it is so – it’s complicated even if you have great parents and money and all the opportunities, applying for colleges is so complicated. So we started Project 88, we’ve raised almost $1 million to date, we’re about $6,000.00 short.
Ericka: Thank you.
Russ: So how do you teach these kids to get ready for college?
Ericka: So we actually sponsor college advisors through Advise Texas which is a program at Texas A&M University, and we sponsor them to go into public schools and serve as college advisors for 2 years. We also had a summer camp at Rice University last year for 100 students that was leadership and college readiness focused. So we do a couple of different programs, but our main – most of our money goes to Advise Texas and that is getting more college advisors in Houston public schools. In 2014 when we started there were 700 students for every 1 college advisor in HISD. You can’t help 500 students, let alone helping 700 students get into college, 60% low income and first generation, it’s insane.
Russ: And I understand your husband helps you maybe with both of these businesses?
Russ: And your husband, who is Garrett Graham who is a former tight end with the Houston Texans, is he a big help? I guess he’s a big draw.
Ericka: He is, yeah. We were picked up by the Texans in 2010.
Russ: And that’s what got you to Houston.
Ericka: That is, yes. My husband was drafted in the 2010 draft. We came here and then a couple years later by 2014 we had started Project 88.
Russ: Great. Well it sounds real cool and you kind of seem passionate about what you do, am I reading you right?
Ericka: Oh yeah, I’m obsessed. I think you have to be.
Russ: Absolutely. Well Ericka, I really appreciate you sharing your interesting story with us.
Ericka: Thank you for having me.
Russ: you bet, you bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Ericka Graham, the Founder of Unitee and Project 88. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.
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