Around this time last year, University of Delaware students Sierra RyanWallick and Michelle Yatvitskiy had just made their final Horn Entrepreneurship Summer Founders Demo Day pitch for UP Cycle Design. The green startup that turns fabric destined for landfills into new products was initially created as a response to an overabundance of donated clothing to thrift stores during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The idea caught the attention of now-retired New Castle County Director of Economic Development Tamarra Morris Foulkes, who helped connect them with The Warehouse for a program for teens that would combine civic engagement with teaching design and entrepreneurship skills.
That program, called Level UP, had its first virtual cohort launch in November 2020, with a second, larger cohort in the spring. A third cohort launched on Aug. 16.
“UP Cycle Design is our company that supports Level UP, which produces cloth stickers,” RyanWallick told Technical.ly.
The stickers, the sale of which benefit local nonprofits selected by the students, reuse waste in two ways: The cloth is leftover scraps from fashion designers, sourced through FABSCRAP in Philadelphia, while the backing that attaches to the peel-off sticker is made from discarded plastic bags.
“Our goal is still to get clothing donations directly from people,” RyanWallick said. But the logistics are complicated: “You have to wash the clothing, store the clothing, there has to be a drop-off location, which, especially with COVID, got a little tricky.”
Level UP’s curriculum, designed by RyanWallick, an entrepreneurship major, and Yatvitskiy, a design and fashion major, teaches what they call social entrepreneurship. Originally it was a 10-session program, but for the current cohort, it’s been increased to 12 sessions, with an additional session in each of the first two weeks before Yatvitskiy and RyanWallick return to UD classes.
“We teach entrepreneurship, design and sustainability,” RyanWallick said. “Over those 12 weeks, the students choose a local nonprofit that they want to support. Then they look at their mission and create a design to represent it. Then we do a little pitch competition to choose the winning design, and then after they’ve chosen the winning design, they learn how to prototype it, how to market it and sell it.”
They talk about sustainability, design as a career, and the entrepreneurial mindset.
“I do a lesson on the ‘resilience muscle’ and how you can use the entrepreneurial mindset in anything,” RyanWallick said. “You don’t have to be an entrepreneur.”
For the spring session, students chose Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Delaware (BBBSDE) as their benefitting nonprofit. Inspired by its motto, “Promoting Unity to the Moon and Back,” the chosen design features two people sitting on a crescent moon. The limited-edition, handmade stickers are 3.25 inches around and sell for $15 each, with a portion of the proceeds going to BBBSDE. Stickers are sold on the UP Cycle Design website, with students using social media, flyers and even TikTok in a campaign to direct people there.
Some students used Canva for their design, while some wrote down their idea with a rough sketch. The final BBBSDE design started out as a pencil drawing.
Teaching such a hands-on class virtually has been a challenge.
“The last cohort was really difficult because none of the students were even allowed to go into The Warehouse, so what we had to do is a virtual workshop where Michelle showed them how she sews them, They’re seeing all of the behind the scenes but they couldn’t physically do anything directly.”
This time, while COVID-19 is still an issue and the program still virtual, the plan is to be a bit more hands-on. With the help of a $2,500 grant secured for Level UP by The Warehouse, they’ll be able to purchase more supplies, as well as a new sewing machine. There’s a goal to do some in-person work if the pandemic allows.
In the meantime, the team at UP Cycle — which was named one of Technical.ly’s 2021 RealLIST Startups — is growing, with five interns, including a member of the spring 2021 cohort. Ultimately, they hope to expand the program with additional partnerships, including, possibly, a version geared toward adults.
“We’re not watering anything down,” the cofounder said. “These are skills that anyone can use for anything in their life.”
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