Howard University Grad’s Startup Connects Alums to HBCU Apparel
Clover McFadden grew up in Detroit, where she graduated from Renaissance High School before heading to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University. She got her degree in chemistry and she planned to go into medicine. After graduating from Howard, she came back to Detroit to regroup. Then a funny thing happened on the way to med school: She became an entrepreneur instead.
“I came home and both of my parents, who were retired, were starting their own businesses,” McFadden says. “I started working with their startups and I loved being responsible for the ups and downs; the good and the bad. I knew I wanted to build something too.”
McFadden was contemplating enrolling in an MBA program when she heard a radio show about Bizdom U, the Detroit business incubator backed by Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert.
“I thought, ‘That’s it!’ ” McFadden says. “I could see (Detroit’s) turnaround starting to happen and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Last October, McFadden launched Circa 1837, a website that connects women with clothing from their Historically Black College and University (HBCU) alma maters, Historically Black Sororities, and other service and social organizations. As a graduate of an HBCU, McFadden knew firsthand how difficult it was to find “spirit apparel” once she left campus. Plus, it’s estimated that more than half of all African American professionals are graduates of HBCUs—a large, untapped market.
“Very few individual universities put their bookstores online, and you don’t get a full selection of apparel,” McFadden points out. “There are very few people in the HBCU space, and it’s always apparel for men.”
Her target clientele—mature, professional women—aren’t interested in sweatshirts with big logos, she says. They want to wear something more subtle that would be appropriate for after-work functions and networking events, and McFadden is happy to provide it. Right now, Circa 1837 customers can choose from tops, cardigans, jackets, and yoga pants representing 28 universities and two sororities. All of the gear is officially licensed and McFadden plans to offer men’s and children’s clothing in the coming months.
“So far, the response has been great,” McFadden says. “We had 17,000 visitors in November, and we’ve sold over 700 units so far. We’re also getting good feedback—we now offer extended sizes and an expanded range of colors.”
McFadden’s plans for the future include obtaining the licenses to apparel from all 105 HBCUs and no longer having to worry about where she’ll find the clothing to show off her school spirit.
“Circa 1837 was born out of the annual ritual of finding out who’s going to homecoming to take the bookstore order,” McFadden says. “Once I confirmed that this was a bigger problem across all HBCUs, I started thinking that there has to be a better way of doing this.”