Ask an Innovator: How to Find the Right Manufacturing Partner

Drop in on conversations with students and entrepreneurial mentors who have connected through Ask an Innovator, a tool that up-and-coming entrepreneurs at UNC-Chapel Hill use to get online advice from a network of Carolina-affiliated innovators.

November 30, 2020
By Shellie Edge

As a growing entrepreneur, wouldn’t it be great to have access to experienced entrepreneurs from diverse industries around the globe to ask questions, get advice and foster new relationships? Ask an Innovator, a free, powerful online platform, offers a simple way to get advice from Carolina-connected innovators. Powered by Innovate Carolina in partnership with the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School, Ask an Innovator finds the most-relevant experts in the community to assist with entrepreneurial questions and challenges facing UNC students, alumni, faculty and staff who have entrepreneurial aspirations.

Learn how this student entrepreneur and mentor pair used the Ask an Innovator tool to connect and collaborate.

Caitlyn Kumi

Caitlyn Kumi is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, social impact entrepreneur and founder of Miss EmpowHer, a women’s empowerment fashion-lifestyle brand that celebrates and speaks to sexy, confident and empowered women. Miss EmpowHer’s signature product is its handmade Ghanaian waist beads, which help women embrace their femininity and promote body positivity. 

Chris Lindland

Chris Lindland is an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill and founder and CEO of Betabrand, a social shopping community where consumers work with designers to launch new products. Brands like The North Face, Timberland, VIVO, Smartwool, 3M, ISKO and Li & Fung have used the Betabrand platform to create new designs or test new technologies. 

Caitlyn, tell us about Miss EmpowHer.

Miss EmpowHer is an inclusive, women’s empowerment brand that celebrates the sexy, confident and empowered woman. I’m really proud that we promote body positivity and allow women to celebrate their femininity. We’re now in the process of expanding our product offerings to really adapt to consumer needs and changing consumer behaviors. I really enjoyed using Ask an Innovator because I really struggled to find the right mentors and advisors who understood my unique business needs and business challenges as a minority-owned business.

Chris, tell us about Betabrand.

At Betabrand, our objective is to get excited about people’s ideas and then figure out how to bring them to life. Over the past decade, we’ve worked diligently to build a social network that happens to sell clothing. We are a technology company with an objective to get consumers to dictate which products they want to bring to market, and then we work diligently to bring that product to life and build the brand story that goes with it.

Tell us about your experience using the Ask an Innovator tool?

Chris: I’ve found that Ask an Innovator is really easy to use. The tool delivers emails to my inbox, and I can reply to them. And if I’m not the person who can give the best information, I just pass it on to someone else in my company and those people are thrilled to participate. I can give high-level feedback to someone about their business, but when it comes down to the specifics of making things, someone like Ron and his team are far better resources. (Ron is Betabrand’s director of production.)

Caitlyn: Yeah, I think that was one of the things I really appreciated about Ask an Innovator. I’ve unintentionally participated in most every entrepreneurship program here on campus, and I found Ask an Innovator to be really efficient because I’m very intentional about my relationships and my time, and I was really happy that Ron was forthcoming about what he could do based on my needs. Connecting students with mentors who have the right levels of expertise is really helpful. I think that’s what made this experience so much more beneficial. I’ve had experiences where I’ve connected with really great people, and they’ve been great mentors in other areas, but they don’t necessarily have the expertise that I need for a specific area or specific project. So, I really liked that part of the experience.

Caitlyn, how did the advice you received help you? 

Caitlyn: I asked for help in assessing different vendors. I wanted a specific hoodie that was good quality, but the vendors I had been referred to weren’t sending me the product I was looking for. So, Ron came in, and I was able to copy him on communications to vendors. If I was by myself, I probably would have given up because I don’t necessarily know where to look for quality vendors in the United States. And I probably would have paid more for the product just because of my lack of knowledge and awareness. I think that’s something I’m really grateful for, especially being a woman of color, a minority, when you’re usually starting a business, it’s very rare to be in my situation where I can have a service like Ask an Innovator. I’ve definitely found this program to be very helpful.

Chris: Caitlyn is doing exactly the right thing, which is asking questions. You have to go through that to collect information and learn, which is why it’s important that you would use Ask an Innovator. I’m really glad that Ron has been helpful, but more importantly, I’m glad you’re taking advantage of a platform like this because so much time spent as an entrepreneur is just wandering out into the unknown. And when you use a platform like Ask an Innovator, you can actually paint a clear picture for yourself.

What about Ask an Innovator surprised you?

Caitlyn: What surprised me was the responsiveness of Chris and the turnaround from being able to connect with him and Ron as well as the consistency of communication. We have a great entrepreneurship community and a great way to network with people who are more than willing to help, and I think it’s really important that mentors and even students who participate have the bandwidth to really connect. I’m not saying you have to have meetings every week or every day, but a natural level of responsiveness is great. I also think the quality of mentors has been great. The platform itself is super efficient. But for me as a student, I think the quality of people and the consistent communication was the biggest appeal and why I will continue to use the system again and recommend it to other student entrepreneurs.

Chris, in giving your time as a mentor, what does it mean to help young, aspiring student entrepreneurs? 

Chris: Mentorship is something that we should all look at as never ending. I’m 48 years old, and I still have mentors who are both younger and older than I am. I can’t stress enough that people who are your same age – younger or older – can be mentors, because it just comes with the fact that people have different experiences. There’s a world of people out there who are up for talking and providing guidance to you, and Ask an Innovator is designed to do exactly that. I think people would be surprised by how quickly and easy it is to get feedback on things.

Caitlyn: I agree 100 percent. When I launched Miss EmpowHer, the majority of the community was like, ‘This is not going to work, people aren’t going to believe in it and no one’s going to buy your product.’ I realized I needed to find mentors who are willing to understand my community and can look at things holistically. If someone can’t understand that my brand is for women, that mentor relationship will never be successful and could potentially affect the success of my brand. So even though Ron and Chris are both males, I knew I could with them because they have years of experience. In terms of explaining my brand, I am very critical, and I assessed their responsiveness and openness to learn. I’m not saying they have to believe I’m the next Rihanna, but I want them to at least say this is someone I’d like to work with.

Would you recommend Ask an Innovator to others?

Caitlyn: I would definitely recommend Ask an Innovator to students and would also recommend they submit a specific ask. For example, saying you want someone to help you figure out your business is too broad. It’s always easier for someone to understand how much time they would be able to commit to helping you if they understand your specific ask. I would recommend that students think through one, two or three targeted questions that someone can specifically address. Otherwise, it can make it really hard for the person to help you if you’re all over the place and you don’t have any clarity.

For the wonderful mentors out there, as a student entrepreneur and someone who works part time, I’m super busy and really grateful to everyone I speak with, but it can be frustrating when someone doesn’t have the expertise to help. I’ll be quite transparent: As a black woman and minority entrepreneur, sometimes it just feels like they want to help me because they want to give back to a student of color, a minority entrepreneur, which is great. I’m always willing to connect with people, but it’s better if you just say you don’t have the expertise to make the most of everyone’s time.

Chris: Yeah, that’s interesting. Obviously, that’s why we immediately pushed you to Ron, because I don’t want to waste your time. You’re right about asking specific questions. That’s what can be really useful.

For mentors, an email from Ask an Innovator is one of the nicest things you can see landing in your inbox because it takes you outside the job that you have each day. Not only to connect with someone who you share a common experience with – going to UNC – but to also learn about what interests people who are younger than you and have different ideas about how they see the world. Those insights can be extraordinarily informative. For students, I can’t stress enough that there are a lot of grads from UNC who will talk with you. So, I would just say the platform is incredibly easy and can be very helpful.

Caitlyn, do you think you’d reach out again to Chris for advice?

Caitlyn: Yes, I would definitely want to set up regular conversations with Chris, especially because he is in the e-commerce space, which is really cool. I also think I would recommend Ask an Innovator to a friend as well as my fellow students. I’m going to make sure they know about Ask an Innovator.

Why do you think it’s valuable to connect virtually to provide or receive entrepreneurial advice?

Caitlyn: I’m someone who’s really big on relationship building, and I think being able to connect virtually is much easier and might be better for the long term. Given that so many businesses are struggling and failing and may not survive, it’s even more important to have the right people, the right advisors and the right mentors on your team who can help you make the decisions for your business going forward. As someone who launched a business in the middle of a pandemic and during a really tough racial climate, it was really good to have mentors on board who will support me. Ask an Innovator really came in handy at the right time.

Chris: We’re much more digitally oriented right now and less likely to meet in person, evidenced by the fact that I’m talking to Caitlyn right now and I’m in San Francisco. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. Students can immediately view Ask an Innovator as international from the start, envisioning themselves being connected to a world of advice, feedback and interest and not just people they can meet on Franklin Street.