For most, starting a business is a big leap of faith. Not only does it take determination, long nights, and early mornings to turn an idea into a success company but it can oftentimes feel extremely lonely. So if you’ve ever thought about entrepreneurship, or you’re currently doing it and need a bit of assurance, here is something we hope can help: honest and candid advice from three entrepreneurs in the HOKA community.
Banna Girmay, Alexandra Floro, and Carlo Mirarchi have each forged their own unique path —- some have made career swatches, like Banna, while others have known from a young age they wanted to follow their passion, like Carlo. Their different but similar paths highlight that there is no one way to become an entrepreneur, and that no matter how or when you do it, courage is the always the not-so-secret ingredient. Keep reading to find out how these leaders define courage, the things they wish they knew before starting their businesses, and the advice they have for aspiring entrepreneurs.
HOKA: How would you describe what you do? A few sentences about your career journey.
Banna: I started my career as a lawyer at a large investment bank, which was exciting at first due to the complex matters I was working on daily. Once I got honest with myself, the answer was a resounding no so I had no choice but to think about what it was that I did love and that answer was fashion. I slowly started my transition into fashion by taking sewing classes, sketching, and volunteering for any and all opportunities from assistant styling to collaborating with other creatives, and overall, taking the time to lean into my existing interests. Now, I am the Creative Director of a streetwear brand I founded in 2019 called Mama Banna, as well as a freelance fashion writer for Who What Wear and stylist.
Carlo: I work with a group of extremely talented individuals from all walks of life in an attempt to make good food and fun restaurants. My love of food comes from my father and paternal grandmother to be honest, working in the food industry was the only thing I was even remotely good at.
Alex: It’s hard to describe everything that I do but if I had to boil it down: I’m a creative problem solver whose medium happens to be floristry. I say this because running a small business with an incredibly small but agile team, you are constantly presented with different tasks and obstacles. I’d say that half of my time is spent not doing florals, LOL!
HOKA: What is your go-to HOKA shoe and why?
Banna: I love hiking and I also love looking good, so my favorite HOKA shoe is definitely the Speedgoat 4. I’m always delightfully surprised at the colorways too–they are so unique and give me that extra pep in my step.
Carlo: I don’t necessarily have a favorite pair, it kind of depends on what I have going on that day. Suffice it to say that I greatly enjoy celebrating the differences between each pair!
Alex: I LOVE my HOKA All Gender Bondi L. I have them in Auburn/Chili and they are quite honestly one of the comfiest pairs of shoes I own. On incredibly tough and long gigs, I choose to wear these because it saves my feet. Also, it doesn’t hurt I ALWAYS get compliments on them.
HOKA: Can you tell us about how turned your passion into a thriving business?
Banna: In college was when I took my first formal step into the fashion world–I interned for a couple of brands and a PR agency in NY. Unfortunately, I was a bit turned off from the industry after those experiences because of the culture that came along with it. Back then, the industry was a lot less inclusive and transparent than it is now. I think I always had a baby designer in me because I would always cut up my clothes because I felt the need to transform them into something no one else had (on a budget). Once I started taking garment construction courses and really leaned into the more technical aspects of design, I fell in love with all the possibilities.
Alex: I grew up around florals whether it be helping my mom run her own small floral business or watching my Nana care for all of her plants. Since graduating college, I always had a feeling that working for someone wasn’t my path, though I was happy to learn what to and what not to do from my former bosses. It wasn’t until I was laid off as a freelance event manager gig in 2019 that the light bulb switched on and I started to pursue florals.
HOKA: When did you decide you wanted to start your own business?
Banna: Mama Banna is a streetwear brand inspired by the coasts of East Africa, where my family is from, and Southern California, where I was born and raised. Around 2018, I started to notice a growing and flourishing community of creatives from the Eritrean and larger African diaspora, who I also identified with, but I noticed that their creativity was rarely directed toward building on our own culture. I wanted to start Mama Banna to reintroduce elements of Eritrean culture to the larger community and hopefully inspire creatives to incorporate these elements into their own work. Our culture is so beautiful but it’s currently hard for anyone who isn’t Eritrean to see that.
Carlo: I was actually in a cab with a friend who let me know that our mutual friend Brandon Hoy, who is now my business partner, had found a space in Bushwick. I went over to meet him the next day and knew it was meant to be. We’ve stuck together ever since!
Alex: I started UNM because the merging of artistic endeavors and community action has always been a part of my working style. I would find myself in all of my former jobs trying to add a community service component or always trying to add that extra art “oomph” in projects. I wholeheartedly believe that an aspect of community work or give back is essential in both your personal and professional lives. I run on the central idea that we are not islands and that we must care for one another in order to fully realize our potential.
HOKA: Starting your own company is never easy, what made you want to take that leap?
Banna: I took the leap because the vision for the brand really required that it be built from scratch. Most East African fashion, to my knowledge, is ceremonial in nature and meant to be worn in more formal settings like weddings, baby showers, etc. There really isn’t a casual streetwear aesthetic born from the region. I knew that I wanted to create a line that was able to reflect the culture in an everyday, casual manner, so I had to do it myself.
Carlo: It was more of a confluence of missteps than an actual leap, but I guess I could say that I understood it was the only way to properly execute my ideas in regards to food and hospitality.
Alex: Whether it was in school or a job, I’ve always moved to the beat my own drum. I would find myself completing tasks or assignments slightly different than what was asked of me, or I would always try to give an extra artistic flair to things. I knew at an early age that I would do something for myself. It was an urge deep down, but for quite some time I didn’t know what that would look like. Once I started to get recognized at my last “job” for the florals I would add to events, I knew I had to explore this seriously. Honestly, being forced to find a way to make money and sustain my lifestyle was what finally encouraged me to take the leap. After getting laid off from my last job, I went on a few interviews, and nothing panned out. I started my company because I knew I had to pay the bills, like now!
HOKA: How do you define courage, and do you think it’s something you’ve leaned on being an entrepreneur?
Banna: I’ve come to understand courage as a kind of durable faith — it ensures staying power through all the guaranteed ups and downs. Taking the leap from a lucrative legal career into the unknown was definitely scary and still is to a certain extent, but without the courage to still move forward, I would still be unhappy and feeling stuck. I was able to develop the courage to make this decision by taking classes, interning, and designing which boosted my confidence that the fashion world was where I was meant to be.
Alex: Courage, to me, is defined by jumping into the unknown or frightening, knowing full well one might fail. I think this definition of courage has been an essential part of my journey as an entrepreneur. I am constantly faced with the unknown and am constantly frightened. But this doesn’t stop me because I always have an itch to know what’s on the other side.
HOKA: Looking back on it now, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you first starting out as a designer and brand owner?
Banna: Not really actually. Part of starting a passion project is learning every aspect of the business through experience and I am getting that chance right now. I really didn’t know anything about shipping, logistics, pricing, production, etc. before I started Mama Banna and now, I feel like my experiences running all aspects of the business will ultimately work to my benefit as the company continues to grow. I strongly believe when there is a will, there is a way and having the will to see something through is probably the most important factor when starting a business.
Carlo: Learn as much as you can from the bad days, and savor every moment of the good ones.
Alex: I wish I had known how to say no and set better boundaries. I am still relatively new to this all, my business is only 2 years old, so I am definitely still learning this! By setting boundaries, especially with myself, I think it would aid in less burn out!
HOKA: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own fashion brand but doesn’t know where to start?
Banna: Research, research, research! We are lucky to have all the information in the world at our fingertips these days and most questions large and small can be answered on the Internet. Follow brands you love and figure out what they’re doing that makes you feel that way. Read up on entrepreneurs you admire and how they started their businesses. Back up your own plans and goals with research. Pretty soon, you’ll start to see a path forward for yourself that’s tailored to your goals and vision and soon after, starting your own brand won’t seem as daunting!
Carlo: I would tell this person to take several days and think very hard about why they want to be in this business. It is extremely unforgiving and ownership does not have a schedule…..it is 24/7.
Alex: Ask, ask, ask. The floral industry is unique because it’s one that has relatively low barrier to entry but also requires a wealth of knowledge. Without the positive relationships you form with vendors, farmers, clients, and yourself, you are lost! It’s a tough business with early mornings and long, long days. So, asking and being curious about your industry will truly help you. If you have a florist that you admire, don’t be afraid to ask them questions! Don’t be afraid to learn from veterans. They may not answer you for a bit because we are all running around most of the time, but I have found that building a community has been a pivotal aspect in my success.