This Is Entrepreneurship: Originalitees’ Khisha Asubuhi
My favorite people are those who tell it like it is, and Khisha Asubuhi is no exception. At 5’11’’, she’s fierce inside and out, but she’s as real as it gets, and you find yourself instantly at home chatting with her. We sat down with the owner of Originalitees just a few weeks after the company celebrated 10 years in business to chat about Khisha’s journey of entrepreneurship, dreams for the future, and being more than “just a T-shirt shop.”
Entrepreneurship journeys look different for everyone, but one thing is certain: When it comes to making something out of nothing, the journey IS the job. To kick off our year-long series sponsored by Main Street Ventures, we dove into the journeys behind five woman-owned Cincinnati businesses.
I read an old interview you did with Soapbox where you said, “Always have your pitch ready.” So, what’s your pitch?
All right. So, to tell you a little bit about Originalitees: We’re a clothing brand that’s been around 10 years. We make city, state, and neighborhood pride shirts. We pride ourselves in creating shirts that are very soft and comfortable. You know, I’m 5’11” – can’t have any shrunken shirts. We wouldn’t make any money if I had to get a new shirt every time. We like to create shirts that bring people together.
What are three adjectives you’d use to describe yourself?
Passionate, giving, and creative.
Tell us a little bit about the Originalitees journey.
I thought of the idea 11 years ago and I brushed it off. Like, “Oh, it’d be cool if we made some cool shirts.” And then, you know how when you’re called to do something, it keeps following you? So 10 years ago, I decided to launch the business. We came out with some shirts, but one of the things that I noticed is when I went to places like New York, they have shirts that say, like, “I love New York.” And I lived in Ohio and I felt like Ohio people had a lot of pride, but we didn’t have very many shirts that displayed that. So that’s when we came out with the Ohio: Born & Raised shirt, and at the time, there was only one or two other Ohio brands, and it really took off. So we were like, “Okay, wow. This is awesome.” It was an amazing thing to see, just because I feel like if you’re not from Ohio, you sleep on Ohio, you know?
So we got into a couple different retails, but all of a sudden, the Ohio market got saturated. I started to relook at things and started to think, “Hey, why don’t we take care of home?” Cincinnati was home. So that’s when we came out with more Cincinnati things. Being a part of Cincinnati, you know, the people love their neighborhoods, so that’s when we started creating some neighborhood shirts. We initially started with the O.T.R. Streets shirt – that took off. Then you had other people asking, “Hey, what about my neighborhood?”
Then Product of Public Schools came around. One of the first things people in Cincinnati ask is, “What school did you go to?” They don’t care if you’re a doctor; they don’t care about the letters behind your name. They just want to know what high school you went to. So we ended up coming out with Product of Public Schools just because there’s a lot of negativity around public schools – so it’s not to diss private schools; it’s just to pay homage to public schools.
So that’s kind of the evolution. Now we’re shipping all over the world.
What does it mean to you to have pride in a place?
Pride comes in many different shapes and forms, you know? There’s a pride where people are just like, “Hey, I love this part of Cincinnati” and things like that, but then there’s a pride where you actually wanna do more, where you wanna represent it, where you want to tell other people about it. That’s kinda what I see pride as, and that’s why we create the shirts, because it gives people that sense of pride. Going back to our first street shirt – the O.T.R. shirt – we have people who live in O.T.R. who just moved there now, and then we have people who wear the shirt who was a part of O.T.R. for years. The fact that both of these people can wear this shirt and we can reach both crowds – that’s an incredible thing.
You know, we’re women. We make it work. I don’t know how we do it, but we just do it.
What’s your day in the life look like right now?
Let me first start off by telling you I work a full-time job on top of Originalitees, so it’s pretty much like two full-time jobs. So sometimes it’s me talking to my team before I go into work, telling them what’s expected out of the day and things like that. The cool thing is I’m a business development specialist at the post office, so my job is to kinda help people with their shipping and mailing services, so I may help other entrepreneurs. So then after that, depending on what the day looks like, I come here and do whatever work is needed, whether that’s getting some more shirts out – it could be shipping; it could be on the press; it could be a lot of different things. It can be a lot, but I mean, I’m very happy with what it is that I do.
How do you keep from working 24/7? How do you stay sane?
It can be challenging. Some days you’re tired in the morning. This morning I had to take my car to the shop. You make it work. You know, we’re women. We make it work. I don’t know how we do it, but we just do it. It’s just, when you’re so passionate about something and you want to make it work, you make it work. Yeah, you might lose some sleep, but you’ll be okay. It’s all about the end result.
If you had to sum up the “end result,” what would you say?
I mean, what is the end? Because as an entrepreneur, you start off wanting to do one thing and then your vision just keeps going. So yeah, I just thought, like, “Okay, we’ll print some shirts. I’ll keep working my post office job; we’ll print some shirts.” Well, that turned into partnerships; that turned into us getting into more retailers. I don’t think there’s no end. [Laughs.] Right now, we’re working on opening up a retail shop, so that’s the short-term end result, but that’s not the end. That’s just the beginning of the end.
Tell us about the new space. You said you’re planning on opening next spring? What will that mean for you?
I’m super excited about this space. Sometimes we put unnecessary pressures on ourselves. Like, okay, we’ve been in business for 10 years and we haven’t opened a storefront. Every time you go to events, people are like, “When are you opening a storefront?” But it wasn’t our time yet.
I really didn’t know where I wanted the storefront to be, initially. Looked into a couple different spaces, but it just wasn’t calling my name yet. And then when we moved to The Eddy about a year ago, I realized I really like Walnut Hills. I knew the neighborhood was up and coming; I wanted to be a part of that growth. Yeah, we could go and be a part of some of these other neighborhoods that’s already got growth, but I think it’s more beauty in it when you’re helping to grow a neighborhood. Our shirts help bring people together, and that’s what the neighborhood is about, too. The first floor will be retail, and then the bottom floor will be where we will be printing our own shirts. It couldn’t come at a better time.
As an entrepreneur, sometimes you’re doing things for yourself; sometimes you’re doing things for the outside world. How do you balance that?
With clothing, it can be very challenging, just because you have to keep up, and if you don’t give the people what they want, then you could be out of business. One of the things that I learned early on is you gotta have the right team. I’m able to be around people who will tell me the truth. They will tell me my idea sucks. I mean, that’s what you want – it sounds crazy, but it’s helpful. You’re like, “What? How does my idea… This shirt will be gold!” And they’re like, “No, it wouldn’t.”
Aren’t you also a pilot?
Yes! As a kid, my first trip ever was to Disney World. Got on an airplane; it was incredible. At that point, I figured, “I wanna be a pilot.” So fast forward through life: First year in college, I took an introductory flight class and I’m like, “This is what I wanna do.” So I tell my coach, “Hey, I wanna be a pilot,” and she was like, “Well, you’re not gonna be able to do that” – just because you have to take certain courses during certain times. I was kinda bummed about it. I put it on the back burner.
So fast forward: I’m working; I’m like, “There has to be something else out there,” and I thought about aviation again. I have zero college debt ’cause I played college basketball; I didn’t owe anybody anything. So I decided that I wanted to go to flight school.
So I went through the Sporty’s Academy program. I was the only person that looked like me. There was one other black guy and there was one other woman. And as I was there, I started to realize why it wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me. It’s very demanding … and just the exposure. No one ever told me growing up, “Hey, you can be a pilot.”
So I went through flight school; got my pilot’s license. At the time, pilots were getting furloughed, and I’m just in school. You basically know you’re not getting a job coming out of school. And that’s where the birth of Originalitees started, ’cause I’m like, “Okay, what am I gonna do?” I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to, like, fly a shirt to somebody.
I found out later – I ran into the guy who founded the flight school I was at. Anyone who knows aviation knows Sporty’s; it’s huge. And I just so happened to ask him, like, “Hey, has there ever been any other black female pilots who graduated here?”
And he was like, “No,” and I’m like, “Really? It’s 2017.” It’s just crazy. Paving the way – I didn’t know I was doing that, you know?
On that note, what’s your experience been like as a black female entrepreneur?
It’s interesting. It can be challenging, at times. First of all, there’s not that many clothing lines that create both men and women’s clothing that are owned by a woman, so that’s rare within itself, and then add the black woman. A lot of times, I’ll send somebody an email or I’ll call, and they’ll be like, “Yes, sir,” and I’m like, “Um, I am not a sir.”
So just having to navigate that space can be challenging, but that’s why I like Originalitees so much just because we can go into different spaces. Being an African American female, we can go to the ’hood; we can go to the suburbs; we can have a partnership with the Reds; we can have a partnership with C.P.S.; we can do all these different things and navigate all these different spaces. And I’m hoping to pave the way for others, as well, so it’s not just about what we’re doing; it’s about creating opportunities for others.
That’s a lot of what this series is about: being able to see yourself represented in a role you might not have imagined.
A lot of times we just don’t know what’s out there. It’s an exposure thing. I think women would do more things if we had that exposure. How many black men wanted to be president before Obama? A hundred years ago, were there women running for president? Were there people of color running?
It’s also – when people are telling their stories, people can resonate with those things. It could be something that clicks – sure, they may not wanna have a T-shirt company, but it can spark that thing that they want to do. And it’s going to be hard. If you’re an entrepreneur; if you’re not an entrepreneur, it’s going to be hard. There’s gonna be something at some point that makes you wonder if this is what you really want to do.
Have you had a moment like that?
The lowest moment was probably five years ago. We received some messaging from a buyer overseas who wanted some shirts. I had never worked with anybody overseas, so I’m asking them for their business licenses; I’m asking them for everything I could think of. I even contacted PayPal – like, “Oh yeah, fine, everything’s good.”
So they bought the shirts; we shipped them out; and then we got a notification from PayPal that it was fraud. So we lost shirts and we had to pay back thousands of dollars. That hit hard: paying this back on top of still creating shirts, but the money that was coming in was going straight to PayPal. We couldn’t touch it. All this money’s going out and none of it’s coming in – not until you pay off the debt.
It was a very low point, ’cause it’s like, “Am I sure… Is this what I want to do?” I thought that I did everything correctly; I thought that I crossed my T’s, dotted my I’s, but obviously I didn’t. So it was at that point where I was questioning myself, questioning if this is something I wanted to do – regardless of all the other success that we had. That hit hard.
So you faced that question and, obviously, you’re still here. Tell us about that moment of deciding, “I do still want to be here.”
The minute you knew you didn’t have to pay any more money back… I’m like, “Now we can really do what it is that we wanna do.” That was a pivotal moment, ’cause we could’ve laid it out flat or we could’ve pushed ahead. What it taught me was that we weren’t done yet. I didn’t know what that meant; I just knew we weren’t done yet.
I know investing in kids is important to you – you’ve coached, mentored; you employ some high school kids. Tell us about that.
I feel like there’s a lot of kids who wanna be entrepreneurs and I feel like there’s a lot of kids who want to be creative, but they don’t know how. If you don’t play sports; if you’re not playing an instrument, there’s not really anything else out there for you. There’s ways to give kids more than what they’re already getting. And this is like, we’re putting you out in the middle of the heat to sell these shirts, and you have to talk to real people. I’m not sitting there babysitting you.
If you’re the smartest in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
It’s very important that we give back, that we show these kids the way. I know we talk about opening rec centers and doing this and that, but I think if we help give kids more skills that they can use later on, give them something that they’re prideful about… These kids already have pride, but it’s pride for the right reasons.
One of the other things we’re doing is we have the partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools; a portion of proceeds goes back to Cincinnati Public Schools and it goes to a housing award to a high school senior when they go off to college. It’s not just about us making a shirt. We want to give back and utilize the space that we’re in, as well.
You guys also work with the Reds. How do you manage the pressure and expectations of those big partnerships?
A lot of times we put more pressure on ourselves than we need to. Sometimes it’s just about thinking about what you bring to the table. We know we can create some pretty cool-looking shirts, so we focus on that and not the big picture of like, “Oh my god, how are we going to market these?” Step 1 is make a cool-looking shirt, and then Step 2 will come after you do Step 1.
How do you think you’ve grown as a leader?
As an entrepreneur, you become the janitor; you become the handyperson. The hardest thing for me was delegating, and initially, it was, “Okay, I’ll delegate,” but it’s this weird delegation where you’re telling somebody what to do, but you wanna make sure they’re doing it the way you want them to do it. You’re not really delegating. Two plus two is four, but one plus three is four, too.
At some point, you have to realize, “Okay, I can’t do it all.” I always think there’s room to grow. I try to put myself around people who are good leaders so I can learn from them. If you’re the smartest in the room, you’re in the wrong room. It’s been a process, but I think that the more responsibility you have, too, the more leadership that’s on your shoulders. We can’t do all of this with a crappy leader. But I want people on my team to let me know if they think I’m not doing a good job. You can’t just have a bunch of yes people on your team. You have to have people who can be honest.
How many people do you employ?
So, our team has about 10 people on it. There are a number of volunteer-like positions. A lot of people think that I may be paying myself. I’m not. I’m also volunteering. It is a lot of hard work that you’re doing and you’re not getting paid for it, but everything is going back into the business. And of course we have some employees that are getting paid.
In order to get to where you really wanna go, you have to sacrifice some. At some point, I would like to do it full-time, but I’d rather sacrifice now.
As we’ve planned out this series, a lot of our conversations have come back to guilt – guilt as in, “I’m not working on the business enough” or “I’m not spending enough time with my family.” Do you struggle with that?
Oh yeah. Oh my god. I work practically two full-time jobs – one I get paid for; one I don’t. You always feel like you can be doing more.
Guilt is huge. I think guilt and balance go hand in hand. Balance… I don’t think there’s a 50/50. There’s gonna be some days when you spend more time with your business. There’s gonna be some days where you spend some time with your friends and family and whatever else you have going on. But you have to have some type of balance, and balance is whatever you make it.
At first I was working around the clock, not really spending time with friends, and you’re like, “Okay. All I feel like I’m doing is working.” So I was feeling that sense of guilt, like, “I need to be doing something else. I’m not just a robot.” But then when you start spending more time with your friends you feel that guilt, like, “Oh, I could be doing this with Originalitees.” It’s a never-ending process. You’re always gonna feel guilty at some point. It’s just finding that good balance that makes you happy.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Man. So many. Where do I start?
One of the most influential women in my life is my mom. Growing up, I seen her alter her schedule and do different things for the family. I’m an only child, but to come to my basketball games, she would have to change her schedule with someone at work – things that you don’t realize matter when you’re younger, you know?
I credit a lot of all this to her. Initially, she was helping fund Originalitees. She was out in the heat with me. It was, like, the hottest day in Cincinnati, and we were at a family reunion and her and my grandma was out there just sweating to death [laughs].
There is no single definition of an entrepreneur. Check out our year-long series, "This Is Entrepreneurship." Sponsored by Main Street Ventures.