The Prosp(a)rity Project's Senior Research Analyst, Adeola Akinyemi, interviews Chandler Hawkins, a PhD student at Indiana University and a Co-founder of Blkgrl.edu. During this interview, Chandler speaks to starting her own Black-women owned clothing brand, explains how student loans and her academic journey have affected her business trajectory, and gives advice to new entrepreneurs.
Adeola: Ok, thank you again Chandler for being interviewed by me.
Adeola: As you know, I am a Research Analyst at the Prosp(a)rity Project which is a nonprofit organization that helps to empower Black women and teach about financial stability and independence. And, we're working on that with our economic empowerment initiative and we want to hear from black female entrepreneurs like you just to see just to hear some advice you would give for people that want to be interested in the business field or even just sharing your student debt stories and what advice you can give with that. So, could you start off by giving a brief background of who you are and what you do for work.
Chandler: Yes, of course. My name is Chandler Hawkins. In terms of brief background, I graduated from the University of Louisville with a Bachelors of Arts in Public Health and Information Sciences in 2018. Following that I immediately pursued my Master's degree in Higher Education and during that time I worked with diverse students. I was the Program Coordinator for the Alana Student Center at my master's institution which was Canisius College. And you know during that time is when I really kind of got in tune with like doing diversity DEI work. And so that led me to pursue my now PhD which is what I'm doing currently at Indiana University. I'm getting another degree in higher education and my main research focus is black and brown students specifically black male student-athletes so kind of tying athletics into the higher education field even though they all encompass one another because it is college athletics. So, currently I am a fellowship student. In my first year, I'm not required to work however the following year I will have a graduate assistantship and so my work will be working with faculty. I'll be the Graduate Assistant for the Executive Associate Dean of Students for the School of Education. So, doing a lot of governance work, working with faculty, a lot of meetings, all of that kind of fun stuff.
Adeola: Cool. Thank you. My next question talks about your business. So why did you decide to start your company.
Chandler: Yeah so, it's actually really funny. So, I graduated in May with my Master's and my parents gifted me a Cricut. I saw all of these really cool things that you can start making, but this was also during the time that you know we had the Ahmad Arbery murder. We had a lot of like Black Lives Matter protests and I was like I should really start making some shirts that speak to social justice issues but along with also just kind of empower black and brown people. And so, because Tasia also does a lot of this work, Tasia Clemons, who is my business partner. And I mean to be completely honest my inner circle is all black people and so I want to celebrate us and I want to celebrate our successes but also our struggles and so I met up with Tasia and was like oh my gosh we should start making shirts because I was just making sure it's for everybody for free. I was like we should make them for people and like sell them. Now the one thing that we wanted to make sure was if we were going to be a social justice brand we were not going to be charging masses amounts so there was a lot of intentionality behind what we were planning to do when we first started. So, we weren't going to up-charge for larger sizes if people needed those and we were going to be inclusive of all sizes as much as possible. So, if somebody asks like “hey can I get a 1X and can I get an extra small and can I get a 3X” we were going to be able to accomplish all of those. So, yeah that's kind of how we started. We wanted to be really intentional. We wanted to celebrate. Honestly, we want to celebrate the unheard so that didn't even just include black and brown people that also included LGBTQ+ issues that also included religion issues it just encompasses everything women issues so yeah. That’s pretty much it. That was like a long-winded answer.
Adeola: No, no that’s a good answer. I’m like yes yes yes. I love that.
Chandler: I mean there was just so many things when we started the business so like it will all, once we get through the questions, it will all come.
Adeola: It will all make sense, yes, no worries. Cool. And this is like a just a question about your work. This could be like with your business or even just like being a doctoral student like o you enjoy your work and do you feel it's the best use of your time?
Chandler: Yes. So, in both instances yes because I am so within higher ed. I'm trying to actually disrupt higher ed. I’m trying to bring a lot of things, a lot of the inequities to the fore front within higher education. I'm the one person in my class who would always say like yeah, I'm in higher ed but I actually hate the system of higher education.
Chandler: Because there are so many issues with it and everyone says higher education is always changing but it's actually not changing. So, I’m the one that always kind of brings that up. So, every time I'm studying something new I always find it to be really fulfilling in terms of just being able to speak for those that cannot necessarily be heard and so in addition to that I also really enjoy just doing the work with our business because I'm giving voice to those that don't necessarily always have a voice. And so that includes just like the messaging on our shirts, how we make them, all of those different ways I just want to try to uplift populations that are not always uplifted in some ways because we face so many different struggles. So yeah, I think it's always a good use of my time just because I'm doing work for others and I'm doing work for communities that not a lot of people put a lot of stock into on a regular basis at least.
Adeola: Definitely, I love that. Okay, so this question or these couple questions have to do with like your personal stories of student debt or student loans. So, the first question is, did you feel prepared to take on student loans and/or were you knowledgeable about the topic before taking them on?
Chandler: Yeah, so to be honest with you so my dad is a college basketball coach. So, he has been in the field of education, field of higher education for my entire life. So, I was very lucky in that instance that I came into college having someone that was very knowledgeable with the finances of like paying for college. So, I would say in some instances yes, I was very knowledgeable and yes, I was very prepared and that's like a complete privilege of mine so I do understand that. I will say in some instances I'm still not. I still don't necessarily understand all of the aspects of loans. I know it has to be paid back, I know you can have a payment plan but, in some ways when I signed up for certain loans there is unsubsidized and subsidized like that kind of like language I wasn't too familiar about. And so those were questions that I had to ask my father. And yeah, so I would say yes and no.
Chandler: There’s other little details that I wasn't too familiar with going into it.
Adeola: And what role do you think your student loans play in the choice of work that you do or where you work?
Chandler: Yeah, so that's a really great question. So, to be honest with you I didn't really, I guess I wanted, to be honest, I wanted a job where I could make money. And so, in higher education to be honest is not the best field to do that. But, that's why I'm also getting my Ph.D as shallow as it sounds. I'm trying to set myself up and that's also probably why I went straight through cuz I knew you know you can keep on deferring.
Adeola: Yeah, that’s right.
Chandler: So, I, you know, got my Master's. Defer. I’m going to get my Ph.D, defer again. And, I'm trying to set myself up for when I actually do begin my career after I get my Ph.D. I'll be in a position where I'll be making money that the loans that I have acquired, I mean they're going to hit my pockets, but they're not going to hit them as badly as it would if I just kind of got a starting position like right out of undergrad. Now, I'm not saying that people who do that are like at a financial deficit at all. I just wanted to make it a little bit easier on myself because I do have friends who are like I’m paying back my loans and I'm like oh my gosh. Like just seeing or hearing that stress, I would not be able to deal with it or nor do I want them to deal with it so yeah. That's kind of I think one of the driving forces for me to get my Ph.D. I have like my own personal reasons which we can discuss later on if you want but, the main reason was I just want to be able to financially support myself but also financially support my family even after the fact and kind of give back to them in a way and not have them worry about having to support me.
Chandler: And that includes loans, you know, if they wanted to slide a little cash in the Christmas cards and stuff like that.
Adeola: Right, right. I feel you on that. Ok and then what are some misconceptions you’ve heard from others who are unfamiliar with the student debt crisis?
Chandler: Oh gosh, I mean everybody thinks that you know Joe, now that he's in office.
Chandler: And look I'm hoping for it.
Adeola: Fingers crossed.
Chandler: I’m like come on Joe. Let’s you know... relieve some of this debt.
Chandler: So, some common misconceptions are that obviously politicians are going to relieve debt. I feel like you know they're saying this and as hopeful as I am, I honestly don't have a lot of faith in our government to actually follow through so that's one. I think another one is just loan agencies, like somebody will say “Oh I will give you this loan” does not automatically mean that it's a good loan agency. I mean I know a lot of friends who have gotten Sallie Mae loans which I've heard horror stories about.
Chandler: Yeah so, I mean unfortunately all because, like I said a lot of my inner circle is black and brown individuals, and so a lot of them had those loans and that's because they were coming from a situation where they weren't too familiar with what loan to accept and what loan to deny. Also, they were just accepting loans to pay their rent or not necessarily to pay for school which I totally understand. Let me rephrase this in a way. So, they're accepting loans to pay for their life and lifestyle which is completely fine. However, in some instances I was saying you are just accepting this like $1,000 loan to get you by this month. What happens next month? Because then you're just inquiring more debt and so you're, in the future, you're putting yourself in a bigger hole. And so that was kind of a common misconception that you know I have all this debt I have to pay it back eventually. Well yeah that is true but like why inquire more? and I think that comes from not just knowing about loans, not having that background. So, I think those are the two biggest is just like the loan agency and the process of acquiring debt like all of those things add up.
Adeola: Yeah definitely, for sure. And, for you personally would you have done anything differently if you knew at the time of getting your degree, or currently right now getting your degree, like that you’d be in your current position as it relates to student loan debt?
Chandler: Well, I'll tell you this much I probably wouldn't have gone out of state for my undergraduate.
Chandler: So, I, well that's hard though because I loved my out-of-state experience it was so needed for my own like personal growth and development. I probably would have looked into more scholarships. I would have, I definitely would have done that to just minimize my loans a little. I wouldn't do anything else differently post like my undergrad experience because my graduate career I got it paid for through working as a graduate assistant. My PhD, another graduate assistant opportunity and a fellowship so I'm debt-free like graduate career which is a blessing. Undergrad I think yeah, I would have just probably applied for more scholarships. I would have really done a lot of like work to get scholarships cuz I was really really lazy my senior year, junior year in terms of like going out and searching for those so I think that would be my main thing cuz I still would probably want to go out of state.
Adeola: Yeah, definitely.
Adeola: Okay. And what do you think are some of the most effective ways we can go about mitigating the 1.6 trillion-dollar student debt crisis?
Chandler: Whew! I have no clue. I don’t know. I mean, gosh. I personally think it has to do with higher education. I know for a fact everybody wants college to be free. I know that’s just never going to happen with like the way that higher ed was set up, the way that like our government works like that's just not, I just don't think that would ever happen. It would be great if it did though.
Chandler: Whoever is listening to this, please make college free. But, besides the point I do think the option of like working to pay for school in terms of like a scholarship where you have to have like a work requirement. And that way it's kind of like a 50/50 like the institution gets a little free labor which I'm not a huge fan of but it allows for students to have kind of like an equitable chance after they graduate because we're just setting ourselves up for failure. We go to these institutions, we acquire all this debt and then we're like breaking our backs to try to pay it off. And so that just like takes a toll on like your physical, mental, emotional health and then you're in the doctors and then you acquire those bills. It's just like a vicious cycle and so I think if more graduate assistant positions but like undergraduate assistant positions are in place I think it would make a huge difference in terms of just like the support that students get but also just preparing them for or better preparing them for the workforce when they do graduate. I think that would be one great way to kind of like minimize that loan crisis that we are in. I think another way is just be more like upfront and honest about cost.
Chandler: Because I think that's one issue that higher ed really has is like they say this is the tuition. They say these are the fees. But all these other things really add up and it makes a huge difference. So yeah, I think those are the two things cuz I just, I mean I would love to say just make college free I just don't see that being a possibility though. Let's see any others? Maybe, so this is the one thing I actually am not too familiar with but I know when you have a job you can put money away for like your 401k and retirement stuff like that. So maybe that kind of process where it comes out of your check. I don't know but then you are not putting money into your retirement. I actually have no clue. I don't know. That’s definitely a hard question.
Adeola: Right. That’s a big one. For sure, yeah.
Chandler: I mean, we're kind of just doomed aren’t we?
Adeola: Well, when you put it that way I can't disagree, you know. Just the way the system has been built and like you said how higher ed has just been built, it’s just I don't know, I don't know.
Chandler: Yeah, because I'm not going to lie, if higher ed becomes free tomorrow, I'm going to be a little salty cuz I know they're not going to give my amount of debt that I have that I've been deferring. So yeah, honestly, I cannot answer that question.
Adeola: Yeah. I mean you brought some good points like maybe even having like some kind of process like as an undergrad. Like more resources. Like I can see that happening. I would hope.
Chandler: Yeah and I could too because then higher ed doesn't have to pay like all these full-time staffers because we have all these great undergrads who are going to school for free but working.
Adeola: Right! Exactly and getting the experience. Right so it’s like a win-win. For sure. I definitely feel you on that.
Adeola: Okay, so do you have any advice for those with student debt who are struggling or who are worried about paying their loans?
Chandler: My advice is get your bag any way you can. That little side hustle, little side gig. Whatever you need to do, legally, to support yourself. I mean and that honestly means too knowing your worth a little because don't keep going to this like place where you are not welcomed, where you are not. Cuz I think paying back debt is like a struggle in it of itself. Why work at a place where you're not supported? So, like you're just making money to give away. At least enjoy it while you're doing that you know. So, I think that would be my main advice but I also haven't taken that advice myself yet because I'm just a long-term student. But I think yeah that would be my main advice and just like I said get the bag any way you can which means having a side hustle, getting creative because I'll tell you this much. I did not realize that this Cricut would you know make me a businesswoman.
Chandler: So, my advice is just get a Cricut.
Adeola: Everybody get a Cricut!
Chandler: Everybody get a Cricut. Get you some heat transfer vinyl, a little heat press and boom!
Adeola: Yass. Business person. There you are.
Chandler: Exactly. But yeah, I always say get creative. I mean everybody is so talented in so many different ways. I mean you can make a side hustle on campus where you are doing gel polish nails for 20 bucks.
Adeola: Yeah. I’ve seen it. Some of my peers are like “hey, these are my prices. I got you. Like you’re from the city, you don’t have someone out here, I got you.”
Chandler: Yes, exactly. I have seen it too. Shoot, I mean if you are really good sandwich maker, post I mean you know once covid isn’t..
Adeola: Yeah, you know sanitary reasons.
Chandler: Right, you know. I have seen a late-night grilled cheese business in someone’s dorm room.
Chandler: Right, like I think that’s so smart cuz like one grilled cheese all you need is a griddle, some bread and some cheese.
Adeola: Right, pretty inexpensive.
Chandler: Pretty inexpensive. And bacon if you want to get fancy. Everybody's hungry after like a night out. Get you a little grilled cheese, $5 boom, you know. So, get creative. I think that's my main thing. To set yourself apart. To have a little extra money. This is another thing. Also, put money aside for you to you know make it seem like you are benefiting from working and it's just not all going to loans so that would be my advice overall.
Adeola: Yes, definitely. I love it. Gems! I’m gonna stick it in my head, write it down on a piece of paper and figure out what I gotta do because I need them side hustles going on. For sure.
Adeola: For sure! Okay, I have like maybe one or two more questions.
Adeola: Yeah so this is kind of on the business side.
Adeola: What are, for you personally, like with your business, blkgrlapparel.com or .edu?
Adeola: Right, yes! I remember because I am following for sure. What are some of your goals for your business? Either long term or right now?
Chandler: Yeah, so to be honest with you. We are still on a break right now because both Tasia and I are like really really busy.
Chandler: We didn't realize. We love and support and love love love all the support that we've been getting. We just didn't realize how busy we were going to be with obviously our new roles that we are taking on. Like her being a Resident Director or Hall Director. Actually, are they Resident Director?
Adeola: Yes, Resident Director.
Chandler: Ok yeah, her being a Resident Director. Me being a PhD student that like transition we are like oh yeah, we could do it. Then we started doing it and realized like “ooh no. We need to take a break.”
Chandler: So, I think one of our main goals is to one just keep the business going because we love to see our stuff out there for people. We love seeing people feel represented. We love that feeling so keeping the business alive I think is are obviously our main goal. Our second goal I think it's just kind of creating more of a schedule in terms of like we're going to be open from these months to these months so that way we're not like overwhelmed personally and with the business. So, I know we kind of have to get all the kinks out with that and creating that schedule. Also, another goal is just to I guess to not rebrand but like keep improving. And, just keep like innovating and thinking of new ways to create products, thinking of new products to create. So, I think that those are our main three goals right now so yeah.
Adeola: Definitely. I love that. And, then my last question. What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs? Like people who want to start their business but just don't know how or have the resources. They have these big ideas but they’re just not sure where they should start from. What advice would you give them?
Chandler: Yeah, I mean one I would just say just do it. Tasia and I literally just did it. To be honest with you we didn't see it to be this thing. We just woke up like okay we're going to launch. Now, I will say this. This is the one thing that Tasia and I always say to ourselves is we probably should have done a little bit more research. We probably should have planned a little bit more because when we launched, we launched and like everybody was buying. We had orders after orders. I was like whoa honey whoa. And so, that is the main thing. I think just kind of over prepare. Another thing I would say is invest in yourself. So, Tasia and I were also because we just graduated you know our funds were a little different so we were trying to do things as economically like savvy as possible. And so, we still try to do that obviously cuz it is a business and we want to be profitable but invest in yourself. So, we got a website so we you know wanted a domain. We wanted to kind of do bulk order for our apparel. So, things like that kind of like. Have the mindset that you have to put money in, to get money out. And so, I think that's like one of the main things that I’ve had to talk myself into because you have to spend money to make money.
Chandler: Yeah, I think that would be my advice. And also, just like be patient. It's not going to happen overnight. I mean we're still growing. There are some drops that are more successful than others and that's okay. Just be patient and know that somebody loves your product out there so and even if that means you have one customer that is one paying customer.
Chandler: You should be so proud of that. I'm going to just sum it up because I said a lot. One and I didn't say this but I think this is actually the biggest thing. Celebrate the small wins cuz that will keep you pushing, that will keep you going and that will keep you excited about the business cuz there are hard days and there are hard nights. I mean I remember there's been days where I've been up till 3 a.m. making sure because there's a deadline and things like that and that's okay. The beauty is that I was making something for another person and they loved it. So, celebrate the small wins. You have to have the mindset that you have put in money to make money. Over prepare. Stay organized. And then two, I think this is something actually Tasia taught me is really connect with your customers like your social media, make them feel important cuz I'm not a huge social media person. Tasia will tell you like I absolutely hate social media.
Chandler: Every time she says we have to do our content calendar. I’m always just like ugh. Oh my gosh like no. I don’t want to do that. But it's so important because people want to see that we not only care about our product and our business but we care about our customers and so that's what we try to portray our social media. So social media, your customers care about them. I think that would be my main advice for new entrepreneurs.