For the third year in a row, Bustle's Upstart Awards are honoring young women who are doing incredible things in the realms of business, STEM, fashion and beauty, the arts, philanthropy, and beyond.
Picking out the perfect outfit to wear to a job interview can definitely be empowering; it’s also a privilege many women don’t have. Timi Komonibo, the 28-year-old founder and chief philanthropist at Style Lottery, knows first-hand that clothing can do wonders to boost a person’s confidence. That's why she's made it her mission to make sure that women of all different backgrounds — whether they are domestic violence survivors, refugees, or women recovering from addiction — have access to clothing that will help them get the fresh start they're looking for. "Clothes are the first thing a lot of people will see, and they make a lot of judgements about that whether that’s right or wrong," Komonibo tells Bustle. "We want to empower people to transition with the right clothes."
Komonibo started her social enterprise Style Lottery in 2013 with a mantra: Restyle, reuse, and reward. The premise is simple; Komonibo and her small team of three travel across the country setting up clothing swap pop-up shops where people are encouraged to bring lightly used clothing they don't wear anymore. Then, whatever is left over gets donated directly back to the community through different partnerships and clothing recycling initiatives. "We believe fashion has a philanthropic side, and can help you connect with people in your community to help you do more good," she says.
Style Lottery also works one-on-one with women from low-income backgrounds to make sure all of their clothing needs are met, no matter what the occasion. "It's just a great opportunity to connect with women and say, 'You are not your past, you are not your circumstances, you are whatever it is you’re trying to do in the future. I support you, and this is just my way of giving you a leg up,'" Komonibo says.
Komonibo has always had an interest in fashion, but it's only recently that she decided to turn it into a full-time endeavor. Her idea for Style Lottery started when she was still in college. "I liked having a lot of clothes, and so I had an open door closet policy with my sister, and I could always just go and get whatever I wanted," she tells Bustle. "But then I realized there are a lot of people who didn’t have the financial resources to just change up their clothes, or people didn’t make the connection that your clothes can actually get you in a lot of spaces."
"Fashion can bridge a lot of gaps in the world."
While in grad school at Syracuse University studying public diplomacy, she decided to see if she could turn the clothing swaps she had with her friends into something much bigger; she began seeking out partnerships with organizations like Girls Inc., and Exodus 3 Ministries to find opportunities that combined her love of fashion with her interest in community outreach. "Fashion can bridge a lot of gaps in the world," Komonibo says. "It seems like fashion is a really fluffy thing, but it actually has a lot of power when you think about all of the areas fashion touches."
While the work is important, it hasn't always been easy. For one thing, she had to figure out how to actually transport all of the clothing donations she received; Komonibo didn't have a car. She also balances a full-time job on top of her work for Style Lottery — something she says is "definitely not easy." "I’ve had times where I was like, 'Hmm, is this something I should consider doing?' But because the need still exists, I feel like our work isn’t quite done yet," she says. "So I’ve gotten that nudge that was like, 'Hey you need to still do this, you need to ramp it up a little bit.'"
And so that's exactly what she's doing.
To talk only about Style Lottery's philanthropy initiatives would be to ignore another aspect Komonibo gets extremely excited about — its sustainability missions. One of Style Lottery's biggest goals is to help women learn how to restyle their clothing, and to challenge them to reuse or recycle whatever it is they're not wearing. It also creates sustainability reports based on research it's conducted outlining consumers' buying habits when it comes to clothes. The idea is to use this information to connect with larger brands and inform them of what actually makes buyers excited when it comes to sustainable fashion. "We get the warm and fuzzies from the philanthropy side, and then we love the potential to connect with bigger brands because we have this research that they really actually need," Komonibo says.
For Komonibo, the opportunity to help both people and the environment is ultimately what keeps her going.
For Komonibo, part of the excitement of Style Lottery comes from figuring out what to do next. Ideally, she says she'd like to focus on larger partnerships to give her brand more visibility — and can ultimately help her to reach more people. "Hopefully, there will be a day when enough people know about the environmental impact of fashion, and they will know enough about fashion philanthropy, so perhaps then we become obsolete," she says. "But, until that time, we will continue trying to connect people and to connect them through fashion."
Part of that, she says, includes inspiring other women to start with their own outreach endeavors. It might seem like a lot of work — and Komonibo is the first to admit that starting an organization from the ground up requires a ton of time, patience, and creativity. But, it's also incredibly rewarding. Her advice? Just start where you are. "There’s a temptation to wait until you have all your ducks in a row," she says. "Just do it. Start where you are. Start with what you’re gifted in, and you’ll be surprised by how far you go."
Take it from Komonibo — it really is that simple.
Learn more about Bustle's 2017 Upstart Awards here.