Building a virtual closet
As an economics major with a passion for fashion, Jae Allen ’22 conceived a plan to help people declutter their closets and to keep unwanted outfits out of landfills.
Before graduating last June, Allen found his way to the UC Davis Student Startup Center, where campus and business mentors helped him flesh out his business plan.
As the center’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, he is preparing to launch his company, Ouros. The “closet in the cloud” will offer clothing pickup, storage and delivery for a monthly or yearly fee and allow subscribers to browse their wardrobe from their phone.
“So you can go on the app, look at your virtual closet and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want these items anymore. I would like to donate them to this local nonprofit.’ And we handle the logistical challenges. The same thing would go for resale and recycling,” Allen said.
“Based on our research, around 65% of people have struggles with their closet space,” he said. “We hope to build a more circular apparel ecosystem.”
An entrepreneur to watch
The Student Startup Center, started in 2013 within the UC Davis College of Engineering, is open to students from all majors. Allen attended workshops there and participated in a 12-week startup accelerator program. The accelerator program ended in the spring with a Demo Day, where he delivered his business pitch to real investors and won a Mentor’s Choice Award.
In April, he was selected for the center’s new entrepreneur-in-residence program, which, with support from the campus’s Work-Study Program, pays top student teams to grow their companies.
“That way, I don’t have to worry about having another part-time job on top of it, which ends up taking away the energy and time that I have to work on my ideas and flesh things out,” Allen said. “To be the inaugural entrepreneur-in-residence was an honor for me.”
Six other students including economics major Gabby Tirsell have since joined Allen as entrepreneurs-in residence at the center. He spends about 25 hours each week there working on his startup.
“In our effort to make entrepreneurship more relevant and accessible to all of our students, we learned that many of our students had to abandon their ideas and get jobs to pay for rent, tuition and family necessities,” said Dawn McGee, administrator of the Student Startup Center. “Our goal is to ensure these personal needs do not prevent students from pursuing a viable entrepreneurial career.”
McGee said Allen stood out for his commitment to his vision. She described Allen as “an entrepreneur worth watching.”
Fashioning a circular economy
Allen grew up in Fresno, California, where he graduated from Edison High School and attended Fresno State University for two years before transferring to UC Davis.
“I’ve been into fashion and apparel since high school. I’ve always wanted to be a designer. As I learned a little bit more about the sustainability aspect of the industry, I couldn’t turn a blind eye. From that, I said, ‘OK, I should be able to use my mind to figure out what these problems are and give my best effort into creating solutions,’” Allen said.
Studying economics, he said, gave him a deeper vision for those solutions. “Economics allows me to build a different view of the way we can implement a circular ecosystem, that’s based on the value that we create — and not specifically the money that we’re able to make from it.”
For Ouros’ company name and circular logo, he took inspiration from the ouroboros, an ancient Greek term and Egyptian symbol depicting a snake or dragon devouring its own tail.
“It’s a representation of regeneration and rebirth,” Allen said. “That ties to what we’re doing [because] we’re looking to have a rebirth of the apparel industry to be innately regenerative and less wasteful, more efficient.”
He is planning a local trial run of Ouros this fall, and has opened a waitlist for interested participants. “We’re currently looking for pilot program partners, so we can offer our services for free for about three months to get that feedback from the customers.”
Allen is working out subscription prices and plans to officially launch the company in the Sacramento area by January 2023, eventually expanding to other cities to help reduce the 15 million tons of used clothing and other textile waste sent to landfills in the United States each year.
“This is something I’m willing to spend the next 10 to 20 years of my life working on — to build an apparel industry that is a complement to the environment,” Allen said.