Alumna creates jobs for refugees via fashion business

Mallory Cox

Tessa Reeves always had her heart set on working for a big-time fashion magazine in New York City, but it was in Ohio where she realized her true dream.

Reeves is the co-founder and co-owner of Neighbors Apparel, a for-profit clothing company that employs refugee women living in Akron. Neighbors Apparel creates products for the American fashion market using fabrics that are hand-woven and culturally specific to the employees’ home countries.

While studying fashion merchandising at Kent State, Reeves studied abroad in Italy and New York City. Her semester in New York caused her to rethink the future she thought she aspired to, but little did she know that a life-changing opportunity would soon present itself to her.

During her senior year, Reeves began volunteering, eventually finding her way to refugee work. It was then she knew she wanted to continue working with refugees in whatever way she could.

During summer 2014, Tessa was offered the chance to start her own small business in Akron. Like any new business owner, Reeves was excited — yet apprehensive — to start her journey.

“I found that I’ve been wired for entrepreneurship all along,” Reeves said. “I haven’t been too fearful and I’m not afraid to fail. I like the idea of trying, no matter what may happen.”

Employing refugees comes with its own set of challenges, a language barrier being the most difficult.

“When we first launched it was just me and our head seamstress, who didn’t speak any English,” Reeves said. “But it was a fun process to learn how to communicate with her, and it actually helped us bond in a unique way.”

Neighbors Apparel currently employs five refugee women. Each of the women get to showcase their talents and bring a piece of their home to Ohio, all while making a living.

“Tessa is very kind because she lets us work when our children are at school and go home when they come back from school,” said Asma, Neighbor Apparel’s newest employee from Pakistan.

A driving force to make Neighbors Apparel what it is was the misconceptions people have about refugees in America. Reeves said she wants to break the stigma and negativity people attach to refugees.

“I’m not sure why we don’t talk more about the refugees living in Ohio,” said Wilana Glover, sophomore nursing major. “Neighbors Apparel is one of those feel-good companies that helps show that refugees are people just like us and that they should be treated as such.”

Neighbors Apparel got its name through Reeves’ call to “love our neighbors” and the desire to unify everyday Americans with their refugee neighbors.

Along with growing her brand, Reeves said she wants to help create more jobs for refugee women by creating a secondary arm under Neighbors Apparel that caters to the large manufacturers that send their services overseas for sewing needs.

“I would love for my story and my journey to help inspire others to think of alternative methods in our industry,” Reeves said. “I think the millennial generation could be the next positive force of good in this industry and undo a lot of the things that fashion has unfortunately done.”

Reeves said her advice for anyone wanting to take the leap and start their own business is to start tomorrow.

“Anyone can do it. If I could do it at 23 years old with just a college degree and no other business or entrepreneur experience, then someone else can certainly do it,” Reeves said. “It’s your drive and passion about what you’re doing.”

Mallory Cox is the alumni reporter, contact her [email protected].