Sharon Burns Choksi, ’98, had always struggled to find clothes she liked for her young daughter. She cringed and her daughter sighed as they walked past an endless number of shirts with only things like “sparkly kittens and dainty butterflies” on the front, she said. Maya, then 4 years old, loved trucks and baseball, but they could never find anything like that in the girls’ section. Instead, they encountered shirts emblazoned with phrases like “cutie pie,” “born to shop,” and “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother does it for me!”
“One day, Maya turned to me and asked, ‘Mom, why do boys get all the cool stuff?’ Right then, I thought, ‘I’ll kick myself if I don’t try and do something about this,’” said Choksi. “If a 4-year-old girl was already absorbing that message, something was terribly wrong. Since the big retailers weren’t showing any signs of changing, I decided I had to try and create more positive options for girls.”
So she launched a clothing company, Girls Will Be, in July 2013, with 14 T-shirt designs—featuring sharks, math, science, and more—that aimed to counter gender stereotypes. It was a hit. Parents were thrilled to have more girls’ clothing options, and an article on the company in the Austin Statesman was shared 45,000 times. The company ran a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter in 2014 to add a line of shorts with an “in-the-middle” fit—a happy medium between the “short shorts” usually marketed to girls and the baggy styles in the boys’ section. It became the most successful childrenswear product in Kickstarter history to that point, raising over $30,000. Shorts have become the company’s most popular products, and revenue has since doubled every year, allowing the company to expand its product line.
Choksi, who spent years working at consulting firm McKinsey & Company and in marketing at Dell, never expected that she would one day launch a startup, but she found it wasn’t too hard to make the leap. Her Booth fundamentals prepared her for the experience of “wearing all the hats” as an entrepreneur, but mostly it was the idea that gave her the confidence. “Some of my classmates were my biggest encouragers in the beginning to go ahead and take that leap,” said Choksi. She also had support from her cofounders, her sister, Laura Burns, and her brother, David Burns.
Girls Will Be isn’t just changing stereotypes by doing away with pink and ruffles. “When you watch children, you find that younger girls are super confident in their abilities,” said Choksi. “Then they go shopping, and they are sent these messages that try to place limits on girls and what they should be interested in. Some girls begin to think that maybe those interests or passions, such as STEM or sports, aren’t for them.” The goal of Girls Will Be, she said, is not to create a new image of what girls should be, but to open up the possibilities and provide new options that help all girls find clothes that reflect their interests and styles—options including everything from a more comfortable sleeve length to shorts that include functional pockets.
Leading by example is important to Choksi and her company. This year, the company ran a Halloween costume contest to highlight the wide range of creative pursuits and passions that inspire its young customers’ costumes, and it featured the achievements of young girls on its social-media channels. Choksi also hopes that in creating the business, she is setting a positive example for her own children, Maya, now 12, and 9-year-old son, Jaiden. “It’s another way of changing the message that our girls and our boys see, when they can see women starting and running businesses,” said Choksi.
Ultimately, Girls Will Be aims to change the narrative surrounding girls’ potential, Choksi said. The company’s graphic T-shirts say, “Bold, Daring, Fearless” and “GAME ON!” They depict the periodic table, math equations, and girls playing sports. One of its most popular shirts reads, “Girls will be . . . ” with a blank chalkboard that wearers can personalize to make their own statement.
“A mom recently emailed me saying, ‘My daughter told me she feels stronger in your shirts,’” said Choksi. “That’s why we do it—that’s all I need to hear.”
—By Leah Rachel von Essen