A global pandemic may not seem like an ordinary time to launch a business. Yet, that is exactly what UVM Junior and Community Entrepreneurship major Ali Starkweather did. “This semester I was like ‘why? Why am I not doing this right now?’” she asked herself. “Why not start a business?”
Jewelry making is an art form Ali has enjoyed since she was six. With the excess of free time the pandemic has afforded her, she launched Starkweather Designs (@starkweatherdesigns on Instagram) into a fledgling business. “Since starting college I’ve always known I would start my own business,” Ali said. “It’s jewelry right now, but it will become something bigger eventually.”
As she plans various expansions (she has recently made upcycled cloth totes available), one thing at the front of Ali’s mind has been sustainable practice. Part of that focus has occurred naturally: her collection of beads and chains largely consists of donations from friends and family. Further influence came from a CDAE development class that examined the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, a disaster highlighting unsustainable practices in the corporate fashion industry.
The analysis of fast fashion and its negative effects on the planet and abused workers pushed Ali to question how she can improve fashion’s impact. “I try to maintain a level of reducing, reusing, and recycling that creates a better environment, not just for the climate.” For the cloth totes, she unsews and irons flat the hems of jeans to use every possible inch of material. “[I’m just] trying to be as close to net zero as possible,” she explains.
Aside from its focus on sustainability, Starkweather Designs provides a more interactive touch to its product selection. “People message me on Instagram,” Ali explained. “I ask if they want silver, gold, what color beads. It’s very custom and feels a little more personal that way.”
That personal interaction is part of what drives Ali to create. “There’s a joy I get from making things, seeing people get their product, and tell me they can’t wait to wear them out when they can,” she says.
Feedback has been flowing in faster than she thought. Less than a week after launching her business on Instagram, she recognized a customer wearing her earrings while shopping at City Market in Burlington, Vermont.
One of the biggest challenges for Ali has been marketing. With fewer opportunities for her customers to publicly display her product, she’s had to learn how to market herself at a greater level. Luckily, her CDAE classes in Community Entrepreneurship help take out some of the guesswork.
“This semester, all my classes are in entrepreneurship. [One is] trying to market an item on Instagram with no overhead,” Ali explained. “As I’m starting my business, I’m learning how to start a business. I’m looking forward to even more classes that will lead me on my path to understanding entrepreneurship.”
That’s a path that wasn’t initially clear. Starting out as a French major, Ali switched to UVM’s Grossman School of Business to pursue her business ideas. Then a professor suggested she try her hand at CDAE. After discovering the Community Entrepreneurship major, she is here to stay.
Multiple major switches, quarantine, and business pressures have not held Ali back. “I like a certain amount of stress, a certain amount of ‘I have to go sit down because people are waiting, people want my product,’” she mused. “Creating things calms me and brings me joy.”