Simone Smillie, a native New Yorker, moved to Washington, D.C., in 2016 to pursue her graduate degree in Development Economics at American University.
After graduating, Smillie started a new job as an analyst in Downtown D.C. She planned to launch her business, Mutani’s Pocket, in March 2020, but the pandemic took hold and delayed her launch until August.
Despite the setback, 2020 presented opportunities for small businesses like Smillie’s to be recognized for their mission and creativity.
According to a survey conducted by FastCompany of female entrepreneurs, 14% of the respondents started a business amidst the COVID-19 pandemic even though they had not been planning to. Sixty-four percent of women started their businesses because they found an opportunity and decided not to wait. This was true for Smillie.
In an interview with Smillie, we learn more about what inspired her to start her business and how she supports local artisans in East Africa.
What inspired you to start your business?
The concept of Mutani’s Pocket was something that came to me as a surprise, the idea was sparked in 2018 while I was talking to a friend about visiting him in Kenya. He would regularly send me pictures of the markets and scenery of the different East African countries he visited while working for the World Bank. I instantly fell in love with what I saw. I asked him to buy fabric and send me some products from local vendors.
I was impressed with the creativity and vibrancy of the products and thought that there should be a place to access these goods that I never see in the U.S. market.
Thereafter, Mutani’s Pocket was formed aiming to be a marketplace that gives small East African vendors an online platform to show their artistry. I make it a point to develop relationships with the artists I work with. We do live in different time zones which can be a struggle at times but technology makes direct contact easy by using Whatsapp, Facebook or IMO.
Can you tell us about one of your contributing artists?
Fridah is an upcoming fashion designer and dress etiquette coach from the Mount Kenya region who aspires to have a large design firm one day. Growing up, she wore clothes that rarely, if ever, reflected her own choice of color, design and fitting so she yearned to create clothes that reflected an individual’s personality.
Her use of African fabric and bold colors captured the hearts of the Mutani’s Pocket team and we are proud to feature Fridah’s designs through our facemasks and pillow covers from our home decor line.
Where does the name Mutani come from?
Mutani is wordplay on the Swahili word “Mtaani,” which means “street.” Mutani’s Pocket literally translates to “street pocket” because we aim to work with mostly street vendors from different pockets of East Africa and bring their products to the U.S. market. We sell handmade East African crafts such as masks, handbags, fanny packs, backpacks, wall art, pillow covers, storage baskets and more to come.
What challenges have you faced?
The pandemic caused logistic delays in shipping and has led me to be more creative in my pathway to entrepreneurship and reinvent Mutani’s Pocket to adjust. Here I am 5 months later, still finding our voice in the market, but we are working to have a solid and sustainable business that supports local artisans in East Africa. We are slowly moving our pebbles that will one day turn into a mountain.
Have you introduced any new products or services?
Recently, we have introduced our comfortable hoodie collection made from soft woolen fleece and a splash of African fabric (kitenge) for the winter and made additions to our bag and home collection such as our chic Kanda Straw bag made from straw and genuine leather and pillow covers made from a local East African wrap fabric called “Khanga”.
Advice for entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Yes, please find a mentor and draft a business plan. This is crucial to save your time, money and just keep you focused.
Mutani’s Pocket will be participating in upcoming markets at ArtRave DC on 14th & Rhode Island Ave and Urbn Market at Bethesda’s Pike & Rose Farmer’s Market from April 30 to May 2nd. Follow @mutanis.pocket on Instagram to stay up to date on her next pop up location or to shop online.
The DC Women’s Business Center is funded in part by the Small Business Administration and supported by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
The DC Women’s Business Center is a small business development organization focused on empowering women entrepreneurs in the DMV region to build and grow successful businesses. To find your local Women’s Business Center or a resource partner near you please visit www.sba.gov/local-assistance.
Monti Taylor is DCWBC’s resource coordinator.
Photo courtesy of Smillie.