For short men, finding clothes that fit is more difficult than it should be.
At 5’6 and 5’8 respectively, recent NC State graduate Steven Mazur and his friend Eric Huang know the struggle firsthand and it’s what inspired the two young entrepreneurs to launch a new fashion brand targeted to men like themselves.
Called Ash & Anvil,
the business stems from the simple belief that every guy, no matter his size, deserves the same shopping experience.
Mazur’s roots as an entrepreneur come from the Triangle’s startup ecosystem. As a freshman engineering major at NC State University, he founded a leadership development organization called Triangle Youth Leadership Services
in 2009, and spent his four undergraduate years building it up. He also participated in the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, where his senior year was devoted to building a product and launching a new company.
Upon graduation, Mazur’s desire to become an entrepreneur led him on a nontraditional career path. He won a fellowship from the nonprofit organization Venture for America
, which trains and places recent graduates with some of the best emerging startups in former Rust Belt cities around the U.S.
The organization’s mission is to give young graduates a crash course in startup, in hopes of inspiring and preparing them to start their own companies someday and create jobs in the cities they serve. 16 startups have been founded by VFA alums since the organization launched in 2012 (Ash & Anvil and Bikes ORO (details below) by NC college graduates). 54 of 428 fellows hail from North Carolina colleges; 25 of them are in the class of 2016.
It was at his Detroit VFA placement, SocialProof, that Mazur met Huang.
In December 2014, toward the end of their two-year fellowship, the pair began to think about working together on a startup. Specifically, one that brought new fashion options to short men like themselves.
Now, the idea to design clothes for short men wasn’t entirely new—established brands like Peter Manning, Jax Everett and Silas Jackson are focused on the customer segment. But Ash & Anvil would be focused on young professionals, modern designs and at more affordable prices.
Neither man had any textile or fashion experience, but lessons learned through VFA prompted them to go after the idea anyway. The cofounders spent months analyzing the competition and coming up with concepts for an everyday shirt. They talked to hundreds of guys and validated that most traditional branded shirts don’t fit guys under 5’8”. The sleeves and body are often too long, the collar too big or the entire shirt is just too boxy.
They used feedback from interviews to create and adapt their designs, and by February 2015, they’d launched and completed an Indiegogo campaign, eclipsing a goal of $10,000 by $16,000. With $26,000 in their pockets and plans in place, the pair quit their fellowships early to work on their startup full-time.
VFA was supportive. The pair quickly won a spot in the VFA accelerator program in Philadelphia. For the next three months, the cofounders worked on product design and honed in on their market. And at the end of the program, they beat out 10 other startups to win a $30,000 investment, more validation they should get their products to market. They decided to make Detroit, the city where they met, their home base.
“I was in a program that was trying to revitalize cities across the country, so I wanted to be a part of the comeback story here in the best way that I could,” says Mazur, who attended high school in Detroit prior to college in Raleigh. He’d seen first-hand the devastation of the financial crisis on Detroit as a resident, but also witnessed the resurgence as a part of its startup community in recent years.
As homage to their adopted city, they named their startup after its motto, “We will rise from the ashes”, and the well-known local Anvil Street. Ash & Anvil also serves as a nod to the overall grit of the city, Mazur says.
Ash & Anvil eventually launched last November with a modern, casual and affordable ($69 apiece) button-down shirt inspired by fashion icons like J. Crew and Banana Republic. The shirts have a tailored fit, measured by chest size rather than collar and sleeve length.
The men earned write-ups by Slate, The Huffington Post and Fortune, and many early buyers have written testimonials, with 98 percent giving a positive review.
Mazur and Huang realize they’ll have to add more clothing styles to compete with larger brands and to fulfill their vision of being a one-stop shop for men 5’8” and under. But funding will be needed to grow their team and the line of clothing.
The men declined to comment on their current fundraising efforts, but say they hope to find investors who align with their core mission.
Although startup life has taken Mazur away from the Triangle, VFA has helped him to stay involved. As an alumnus of the program, he’s been back to attend engineering career fairs, host info sessions and meet with students and faculty about VFA.
According to VFA’s senior community growth manager Laila Selim, grads like Mazur are responsible for the influx of fellows this year.
“It’s a virtuous cycle, as we send our fellows back to campus to recruit,” she says. Of 180 fellows this year, 14 percent are North Carolina grads.
Mazur credits NC State for directing him towards his entrepreneurial path, saying, “I likely wouldn't have become an entrepreneur if not for NC State. I come from a family with no entrepreneurs and I'm not sure I even knew what that word meant when I first arrived on campus. NC State introduced me to entrepreneurship through a variety of opportunities.”
Another VFA fellow is 2012 Duke University graduate Chelsea Koglmeier. She’s founder of Bikes ORO (Of Reckless Optimism), fulfilling a dream of changing the world one bike at a time.
While living in a refugee community in Uganda as a student at Duke, she witnessed firsthand the power of bicycles in helping people without other transportation options get to work or to see a doctor. There, was born a belief that everyone deserves the opportunity for mobility.
She went on to help start a nonprofit for hispanic micro-entrepreneurs in Durham, called Accion Emprendedora USA (AEUSA) and to study abroad in Bolivia, where bikes weren't available and poverty was rampant. Upon graduation, she became a VFA fellow, honed her startup skills working for an accelerator and startup in Cincinnati and then moved to a beach town in New Jersey (outside Philadelphia) to start her bike company.
Bikes ORO is focused on quality & simplicity, with bikes specifically designed for efficient, everyday use. For every bike sold, the company donates at least 15 percent of the profits to World Bicycle Relief, which provides bikes to students, entrepreneurs and health workers around the world.