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ASU student uses clothing startup to support veterans, women

Michelle Bravo
January 14, 2015

Last summer, while working with the cadets of Arizona State University’s Army ROTC program, Michelle Bravo made a decision to give back to veterans and women throughout the country. She put her idea into action through i Rock the Boots, a startup clothing company supported by ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

The company’s T-shirts promote the “strength and femininity” of women in the military, as well as other careers that involve service to the community, such as law enforcement, firefighting and even farming. Portions of the company’s profits are donated to causes that support homeless women veterans around the country.

“I’m a T-shirt kind of gal,” says Bravo, a major in the Army who serves as the executive officer for ASU’s Army ROTC program. “Occasionally I would find a cute shirt that I felt really embraced who I was, but there’s a lot of shirts out there that are geared toward men in the military or spouses of men in the military. What we want to do is embrace women in the military.”

i Rock the Boots is one of 20 ventures selected for the ASU Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative’s 2014-2015 cohort. Managed by the ASU Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Edson program works with ASU student entrepreneurs to launch viable startups with up to $20,000 in seed funding, office space at ASU SkySong, mentorship and exclusive training opportunities.

Bravo learned about the Edson program through flyers and email advertisements. She got in touch with Tracy Lea, a venture manager in ASU’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation group and a fellow veteran who would become Bravo’s adviser in the Edson program.

Bravo also recruited two other women with military connections to help get the company off the ground: Mary “Chach” Gulley, who is retired from the Army and runs the operations side of the business, and Ashley Morales, a former military spouse who serves as the company’s graphic designer. Together they founded i Rock the Boots with the objective of supporting women in public service, something that every aspect of the company is focused on, including its name: the small “i” signifies an individual who is part of a team serving a cause bigger than herself.

Bravo says the Edson program has been particularly helpful in her team’s efforts to start and grow their business. The program connects student entrepreneurs with investors, mentors and the media, and also helps provide focus and structure for students. It also helps them with self-assessment as they strive to make their visions a reality.

“I really feel that’s what they’re about,” Bravo says of the program. “It’s really genuinely trying to help you be successful, and help you help yourself.”

"The leadership team at ASU’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation has been continually impressed by the progress made by Michelle and the i Rock the Boots team,” said Garret Westlake, associate dean for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “The team is active in many of events hosted by our office on campus, and have increased their brand awareness on campus through their participation in Edson.”

Participating in the Edson program and being a part of the wider academic and entrepreneurial environment at ASU has also inspired Bravo and her team outside of their business efforts. Bravo, who is currently an undeclared graduate student, hopes to start an MBA program next year once she retires from the Army. She says that being a part of the Edson program has made her more interested in pursuing a graduate degree at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

She also cited her interaction with Christine Wilkinson, ASU senior vice president and secretary of the university, as an inspiration. Shortly after arriving at ASU, Bravo and her husband (a Marine veteran) were invited into Wilkinson’s box at the Veterans Appreciation football game. At the time, they were expecting their first child, a son who was born about a month after the event. Despite the time that had passed and their brief interaction with Wilkinson, Bravo and her husband received an edible fruit arrangement from her congratulating them on their son’s birth.

“It completely floored me that someone of her stature took the time out of her schedule to send me a fruit basket,” Bravo says. “From that moment, it left such an impression on me about ASU, and it’s lasted and really carried through.”

Bravo and her team at i Rock the Boots hope that their business will continue to grow into a resource for homeless women vets and that their brand becomes known as something veterans nationwide can turn to for support. Currently their website has a resources page with links to various veterans resources, and also hosts a heroes page, where people can submit stories highlighting women in their lives who make a difference through public service.

Bravo says that she may also begin blogging about veterans’ issues on a regular basis, and that i Rock the Boots might expand beyond T-shirts into fitness apparel and accessories – and perhaps even some shirts for men, something they’ve been asked about at public events. For now, however, they are focused on growing their business from the foundation they’ve established through ASU, ideally to the point where it becomes something they can do full-time.

“It’s been a neat experience,” Bravo says of the Edson program. “We feel blessed and privileged to be a part of it.”

Written by Nate McIntyre, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

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