Behind the Scenes

Lauren Aitch

Lady Aitch Design clothing founder

Lauren Aitch, 30, established the foundation that bears her name and developed the Lady Aitch Design clothing label and others, all based in Lansing’s fashion incubator: The Runway. Aitch’s foundation supports cancer research at Michigan State University (MSU). Her clothing lines blend designer fashion with specialty garments – high-performance fitted undershirts for men and women. She started both ventures after a basketball career at MSU and overseas. 

How about a quick overview of the Aitch Foundation?

I was overseas playing basketball and had a lot of time on my hands. I had gotten my masters in public relations and essentially what happened was I started my foundation. I call my year overseas, my year alone with God. I really found my faith and through that I was able to find out what I wanted to do with the next phase of my life. I started my foundation and had a family friend, a cousin’s friend who had just finished law school, who was able to create the setup for my foundation and helped me structure it. I had Mandy Jones, she was a teammate, and she was with media at MSU. She helped me build out the fashions that I wanted to do.

So where did you take this foundation idea?

I’ve had six family members who have passed away from cancer. That gave me the impetus to having a foundation to raise money for cancer. At the time my uncle was a survivor of brain cancer and I kind of landed on that. I was learning about Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and planning a fashion show over here – building a strong foundation to build my foundation as well as my business.

But a bold venture. How did you deal with the risk, the possibility of failure? 

I will tell you that I started having meetings with Paula Cunningham and Kelly Rossman and others. I asked how you do this, how you get started. I guess you could say that I didn’t calculate failure. Coming from the basketball world you are continually winning and failing. As an athlete, you don’t train to lose. I knew that you could build a team that set me up to win. But also, I know that you can learn just as much from losing as you can from winning. You can recalibrate, change around and do better.

What about a support structure. Mentors are important to start-up business success. Who helped you?

I have a lot of mentors who I lean on for a lot of things. I would say that everyone on my foundation board is a mentor. Every time we come together as a board, I’m telling them how we are doing and I’m asking them questions. I’m not a person who is big on wasting people’s time because I don’t like my time wasted. When we come to these meetings I ask them questions and ask what are their thoughts. I don’t ask for their input and not use it. And not just the foundation. I will pick up the phone and call them if I have a business question. 

Is there an overriding theme to all of this? 

My business and foundation are all about relationships – the relationships that you create, the relationships that you cultivate, the relationships that you keep. Lansing is a small big town. You always have to be conscientious about relationships and how you treat people, how you carry yourself with integrity and honesty in all that you do.

I think that’s what allowed me to be successful. I’m not saying I do everything right, but there are areas where I feel I’ve been successful. We’ve been able to achieve things that I really couldn’t even imagine.

How do you measure your success?

First and foremost I measure success if I am following what God is telling me to do.

I was thinking a little more about money, things like balance sheets, income statements.

I’ll get to that. But that’s the first thing, following God’s plan. Our mission for the foundation is to fund fellowships, for people who have a passion for expanding cancer research and have the intellect to do it. The mission and our purpose in the foundation is to put money into a place where our researchers can potentially save lives.

We went from two years of funding one fellowship, meaning we were giving $15,000 to the university and they were matching it, so that was a $30,000 fellowship. Last year we funded four because we brought in local partners to fund fellowships as well. We gave $60,000 this past year and MSU matched it. I believe that was a success.

That’s pretty nice growth.

I started the foundation in 2011 and now it’s 2017. In the five years we have been able to give a substantial amount of money to the university to focus in on our purpose. 

Your foundation is approaching its five-year anniversary. How is it different sustaining a business from starting one? 

In a start-up you are wearing many hats. To sustain, you have to find the relationships that are necessary to succeed. As an entrepreneur in your first, second or third year you have to decide what you are going to do and what others are going to do for you. Sometimes people don’t want to let go of anything. I created a curriculum to allow students not to trip up on things that I tripped up on. I put everything in there that I didn’t know about, things about lawyers and accountants. How do you do a business plan? Are you wired correctly to be an entrepreneur? If you can’t handle failures or can’t handle a hard day of work, entrepreneurship is not for you. You have to able to let go of some things. 

Doesn’t your sports background give you an intuitive understanding that it’s not just about you?

Yes. And to not be afraid to change when it is time to make a change. There was a scenario where there was a change-out in accounting that I had to have. I changed my logo. You can’t be afraid to pivot.

There is so much that is required of entrepreneurs, but it seems that understanding and serving your customers and cost control are among the most important.

Absolutely. A lot of times where people come into a company or a brand they say I’m going to create what I like without doing market research or asking who is my demographic. Who am I making this for? You have to get out of the “I syndrome.”

I continually step back and look. “Am I fulfilling the purpose of my company.” The purpose of my company is to make other people’s jobs easier. Wearable technology that makes whatever they are doing smoother and easier for them. And if I’m continually focused on that purpose, I am going to make products that are going to benefit the end users because they act as a solution to their problems.

For example?

The undershirt we create absorbs sweat and the bacteria that comes from sweat. There are area situations and arenas where people have issues with sweat. Police officers. They wear ballistic vests that can be very uncomfortable when it’s directly on your skin or a baggy undergarment. That discomfort hinders what you are doing. It’s a big piece in the longevity of their day. You have restaurant workers or firefighters. The same. We work on things that benefit health. It’s what we’ve built our business on.

This conversation with Lauren Aitch has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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