“Incredibly amazing,” “brilliant” and “very gifted” are just a few ways an Illinois Wesleyan University professor described her three students who recently won a $5,000 grant to start up their business.
IWU classmates and friends Liam Keffer, Benjamin Sestak, and Zachary Walsh are now business partners. They’ve created Unity Threads, an online clothing store specifically made for children with disabilities.
Tara Gerstner, IWU professor and head of the Entrepreneurial Fellowship grant, said their dedication is what really stood out to the judges who awarded the money.
“You could really see the passion behind their eyes,” Gerstner said. “The No. 1 thing that any investor will tell you that they look for is not necessarily the idea, it's the passion behind the idea.”
The idea came from Keffer, the CEO, who was visiting his home during Thanksgiving, said Sestak. Keffer was talking to a family member who has a child with Down syndrome. She mentioned how difficult it was to find clothes for her son that were sensory friendly and fit his specific dimensions. Keffer came back to school and introduced the idea of Unity Threads to his friends, and they ran with it.
“The University really got behind it, and we have some incredible mentors and staff that were able to help us out along the way. So we're really lucky for that,” Sestak said.
Sestak, Unity Threads’ chief operating officer, said Gerstner was an incredible mentor. The trio of business administration majors were in her Seminar and Entrepreneurship class last spring.
“My first thought was wow ... you know, just knock your socks off incredibly amazing,” Gerstner said. “It is definitely a niche in the market that has been unfilled. They definitely have the opportunity to go out there and really make something of themselves and not just that, but potentially impact lives while doing that.”
Since being introduced to the idea, Gerstner has been a solid driving force and “cheerleader” to help the three students get their business up and running. She invites guest speakers so the students can connect with them and potentially help them through their journey. Gerstner says she may not know everything to help them out, but she knows a lot of people who could potentially help find an answer.
“Through her class, there have been some guest speakers that came in that we were able to form some pretty good relationships with who have expressed their support and interest. So if it wasn't for all of that, we really wouldn't be in the position that we are today,” said Sestak, 19, of Springfield.
Although the students are on summer break, they are individually piecing together aspects of the business so when they return back to IWU in the fall, Unity Threads will be close to launching.
Through their business they hope to make it easier for families to obtain comfortable, convenient, and cost-friendly clothes that fit their children as well as those without disabilities.
“No matter what happens with the company, our main goal is to let these kids know that we're thinking about them and hopefully make their lives easier,” Sestak said.
Unity Threads plans to give families an option to donate a portion of their purchase to a charity of their choice which supports children with disabilities.
Unity Threads is the fifth business to earn IWU’s Entrepreneurial Fellowship award.
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