When I sat down with Mitchella Gilbert to chat about her startup journey, the very first few words she used to describe herself were “innovative” and “quirky”. Coming from an eccentric background in public policy, teaching, robotics, and consulting, Mitchella had entrepreneurial dreams when she started her MBA and came in with a desire to create a product that solved a real need, and one that she could “touch and feel”. Over the next hour of our conversation, she took me on an intriguing founding story as she described OYA, a femtech apparel startup that she created in her first year at UCLA Anderson.
The Rise of OYA
The idea for OYA struck at a chance encounter at an OB-GYN’s office where she learned how commonplace vaginal health issues were among most women, ranging from athletes, to women with larger thighs, to recent moms suffering from urinary incontinence. Most leggings are not built for curvy or plus size bodies, and more importantly, most leggings are made out of spandex blends that trap bacteria and moisture. All the big brands in the industry – the likes of Lululemon and Nike – are either still stuck on the “shrink it and pink it” product design methodology or are focused on a very narrow segment of women with thinner bodies. Mitchella soon realized how prevalent the issue of vaginal health problems due to poor apparel was, and how little anyone was doing anything about it. She also recognized that women’s leggings and urinary incontinence protection products are collectively a $7B industry in the US alone, so the growth potential for a product that solves the problem well was high.
Thus, OYA was born, with a belief in empowering women of all body shapes by creating leggings that make them feel good about themselves, are highly functional to use, come in a wide range of sizes, and promote vaginal health.
Product Development and Scaling
OYA’s revolutionary leggings are made of a unique spandex blend for curve control to give the body shape, but what sets it apart are the mesh panels all along the inner thighs and crotch area to enhance breathability, the removable pad from the crotch gusset that absorbs sweat and urinary leaks, and the three built-in pockets. Women know it’s surprisingly rare to find any truly functional features in their clothes, to which Mitchella remarks,
“There’s a popular saying that men design clothes to be looked at, but women design things to be worn”.
She is very hands-on with the design and manufacturing of the product and has a team of four other co-founders. The team has also onboarded a group of highly accomplished advisors who help them through various aspects of the business.
Right from the early days of her MBA journey, Mitchella was certain that she wanted to use the Business Creation Option capstone project at UCLA Anderson to grow the idea for OYA. She was very intentional in picking her co-founders in her first year, and since 2019 they’ve entered, and won, multiple business competitions together. Over the last one year, OYA has raised ~$50K of non-dilutive funding and in-kind services and it operates as a DNVB – digitally native vertical brand – selling all its products online through its website. Its growth has been completely organic, with most of its new customers coming in through word-of-mouth. So far, OYA is completely bootstrapped and is now looking for angel investment to grow the brand with its eyes on a four-year acquisition plan. It is launching a Kickstarter campaign in January 2021 to transition out from the minimum viable product phase and to validate product market fit.
A pair of OYA leggings will currently set you back $85, a price considered to be on the higher end and one similar to the bigger brands. However, Mitchella is confident that the benefit of her product is worth every penny. OYA is not trying to differentiate on price, but instead intends to stay true to its purpose by not compromising on its quality or the science behind it - which includes a complicated manufacturing process.
Mitchella speaks with an air of confidence that is rare in a young entrepreneur and comes from a place of complete clarity in vision. She is deeply driven by a desire to build a sustainable business that touches people’s lives. She states,
“[I want to] get to a point where women say, ‘this is my body, and I want to wear clothes that empower it and support its health.’ I want the industry to get to a point where its focus is less on profits and even fashion but [on] being more functional – how do we help women get through their day comfortably”?
You can purchase OYA leggings directly from their website: https://wearoya.com/collections/new-arrivals