By: Ann Brown, TNJ
Sheila Gray is a trailblazing celebrity fashion designer whose career spans more than 15 years, but whose impact in the industry extends well beyond her stylish outfits.
Mastermind behind the Sheila Gray Collection (SGC) – best known for its captivating accessories and signature “Gray-Girl” tees – Gray is passionate about driving diversity, inclusion, and representation within the fashion world.
“I embarked on the path of entrepreneurship, driven by a burning desire to inspire others to never give up on their dreams. As a woman of color in the fashion, toy and accessories industry, I faced numerous challenges,” she says. “However, I refused to let these obstacles define me or hinder my progress. Instead, I used them as fuel to propel me forward, determined to create a successful business that would not only break barriers but also pave the way for others like me.”
She launched the Sheila Gray Collection on the heels of a devastating and life-changing diagnosis.
“For four long years, I battled cancer and endometriosis, facing countless obstacles along the way. But it was my unwavering faith, unyielding focus, strong fellowship, and sheer determination that propelled me forward, enabling me to conquer these illnesses,” she recalls. “This journey not only reignited the fire of God and gave passion within me but also instilled an even stronger will to give back and make a lasting impact on the world.”
Gray launched her brand in 2012 and has collaborated with renowned designers such as Byron Lars and Tracy Reese, and with A-list celebrities, including Carrie Underwood, Angela Bassett, Jill Scott, Tichina Arnold, Geffri Hightower who have worn her designs.
“I wanted to address an unmet need in the market. The creation of unique fashion elements, inspired by the beauty of all women and featuring unique and custom textiles and designs garnered immense interest and demand from friends and acquaintances,” she explains.
Eight years later she debuted “Styled by YOU,” a fashion design kit in line with her mission to empower and celebrate individuality. The concept emphasizes inclusiveness and diversity, allowing users to experience the therapeutic power of art by creating and proudly showcasing their own wearable pieces – from T-shirts and jackets to backpacks and pillows and more – while celebrating the uniqueness of every child’s individuality.
While SGC is flourishing today, like many entrepreneurs, Gray faced startup challenges.
“When I launched my business, I needed financing to help expand marketing and awareness campaigns to reach a broader base of my target audiences. I also needed investment to allow for purchasing inventory and to reach manufacturing goals,” she told TNJ. “Like many Black women entrepreneurs and business owners, I struggled to secure funding for my business. Funding is critical in enabling growth and access to helpful business tools and services,” Gray shared with TNJ.com.
She found a way to get her business off the ground, but admits that funding remains a challenge.
“It was an uphill battle, and like so many other Black business owners, I bootstrapped and leveraged my close personal circle to secure the necessary funding to grow my business,” she says. “I am still working through some of these challenges, but thanks to guidance and mentorship from industry leaders, a community of champions, support from friends and family, and focus, persistence and faith, I have a clear path,” she says.
She continues, “These elements have informed the development of thoughtful business and growth strategies. Networking with like-minded individuals, industry influencers, and Black women business owners has provided me with access to insights and perspectives that allow me to personalize my approach and have truly informed my business journey.”
There are subtle messages in her products, she says.
“Born out of the need for self-care, expression and the reinforcement of self-worth during quarantine, I launched the ‘Gray-Girl’ eye-catching tees, adorned with fabulously diverse fashion figures during the global Covid-19 pandemic. The line struck a chord with my Instagram followers, who flooded me with requests to purchase them,” she says.
The overwhelming response led her to create “Styled by YOU.”
One of Gray’s biggest challenges has been reaching a broader audience base as demand for her products grows.
“Marketing takes capital, and for many underrepresented entrepreneurs, including women of color, securing funding can be incredibly difficult. The fashion industry features added hurdles, including its highly competitive nature, as well as high costs of production, manufacturing, and distribution,” she reveals.
Gray has utilized a variety of sources to help develop her company. Her strategies are important lessons, especially for women-of-color entrepreneurs, in growing a business.
“I have become somewhat of an expert in creatively sourcing resources that support entrepreneurs. From grants and loans to mentorship programs specifically designed for women-owned businesses, I research, connect, network, and secure the funds, guidance, and expertise needed to help me achieve my goals. It’s a constant hustle, but I have a formula that works for me,” she reveals. .
“In addition to leveraging services available, I also increasingly leverage social media. While traditional marketing tactics have their benefits, with social media, the direct and immediate access to consumers and ability to build lasting relationships with your customer base is invaluable,” she adds.
Gray also used social media to market, network, and pair up with “like-minded businesses.”
Participating in conferences and local business events is equally important, she advises. For example, earlier this month she participated in an event with the famous Red Rooster restaurant in New York City’s Harlem community. The August 5 event showcased Harlem-based, Black-owned businesses and featured the Sheila Gray Collection.
Gray was a finalist in the prestigious Women in Toys (WIT) Wonder Woman Awards, a welcome prize in her entrepreneurial journey. The award celebrates the brightest women in toys, consumer products, licensing, and entertainment.
“I am honored to be included in this year’s list,” she says.