Student entrepreneur finds success in diversity-inspired wearable self care
As a woman of color with naturally curly hair, Gelila Reta found it difficult to find products that suited her hair needs. Big curly hair doesn’t fit well underneath a baseball cap, Reta said, and wearing a cotton scarf can dry out your skin, no matter your race.
Reta, a student in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, had long dealt with the inability to find a scarf on the market that was made of silk on one side and cotton on the other, helping her protect her hair and skin while achieving the look she was after. Reta would wear two scarves: a silk scarf, closest to her hair, to eliminate frizz and to retain moisture in her hair, and a cotton scarf layered on top to help with breathability and durability. But it was cumbersome to double up.
On a mission to find a solution during quarantine, the Annandale, Virginia, native decided to contact manufacturers who could make the scarves she envisioned, of silk or satin on one side and cotton on the other. “Once I held the product in my hand, I was like, oh my gosh, I know my friends would love this,” Reta said. “And I know I love this. So let me just see if I can make this a business.”
In creating her own line of scarves, Reta set out with the intention of boosting the self-confidence of those that wear them. For her, making intentional choices about the materials she wears, such as satin, has made a dramatic improvement in the health of her hair, which has led her to be more confident in herself. She hopes this will have the same effect on others.
Reta started her business, SOLEIL, with diversity and inclusion in mind, and its products are promoted as wearable self care. At this time, SOLEIL offers scarves and sweatshirts for both men and women, with satin-lined hoodies. She hopes to add satin-lined ball caps in the near future.
SOLEIL’s tagline, “Live Like the Sun,” taps into the message that the sun is its own source of energy, it doesn’t gain energy from anything, Reta explained. Like the sun, Reta hopes her self-care solution emulates positive life-giving energy to the world.
“I feel like not enough messages are about like self-love, self-confidence, trying to look within instead of outward for the things that you’re trying to change within yourself or improve within yourself or even love about yourself,” said Reta. “So, with ‘live like the sun,’ it’s like working on yourself to then be the best person for other people.”
Another important part of Reta’s business model is giving back. A percentage of SOLEIL’s proceeds are donated to nonprofit organizations that support people with wellness needs. Most recently, she was able to send a donation to Micah’s backpack, a Blacksburg-based program designed to address childhood hunger issues with help from the community.
Reta has brought some of the same energy that inspired SOLEIL to her Virginia Tech experience, such as being a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Consulting Group at Virginia Tech, the College of Engineering’s Deans Team, and her involvement in the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity.
When Reta first visited the Blacksburg campus for a campus tour while in high school, she was impressed by the sense of community. She was shocked to hear “Go Hokies” throughout her campus visit. “I didn’t actually think we would hear people say it during our visit, but we did,” said Reta.
When she applied to Virginia Tech, she chose to major in engineering, and later decided on industrial and systems engineering beacause of its versatility. As she entered into her freshman year, Reta immediately felt supported by the Student Transition Engineering Program (STEP), a five-week orientation program for first-year students entering the College of Engineering. The program, housed in the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED), also encouraged her to join Hypatia, the engineering learning community for women, that brings together first-year engineering students in a residential environment to provide encouragement and support in their pursuit of an engineering career.
“I knew that I would be supported because of CEED,” Reta said. “Being a minority and a first-generation college student, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. So, knowing that I would have access to that program, I felt that I would be supported throughout my college experience.”
Cynthia Hampton, former director of CEED’s Student Transition Engineering Program, praises Reta for her perseverance, dedication, and commitment to her dreams since beginning her journey at Virginia Tech. “Gelila is a bright, warm, and radiating energy who strives to push our community forward,” Hampton said. “Her ambition and acumen is relentless. She continues to pursue her goals by obtaining interdisciplinary skills and applying them to real-world applications in engineering and business. I am privileged to know her and I cannot wait to see her future growth as a Virginia Tech alumna.”
A study abroad experience left Reta realizing that there are so many people around the world doing amazing things. She had the opportunity to travel to India and the United Arab Emirates on a 14-day program through the Pamplin College of Business. There, she was able to learn how businesses function throughout the two countries.
It was her trip to Brazil, however, that ignited her passion for engineering education reform. Reta spent the fall semester of her junior year in Brazil, through a study abroad exchange program. “It really opened my eyes to a global network, as well as how different our education system is compared to other places,” said Reta. “The way Brazilians do engineering education was so amazing to me, because it was very applicable things like studying while participating in an internship at the same time, so that you’re able to have the applicable skills.”
Reta walked away with a greater sense of a global network and a greater appreciation for the people who are doing amazing things in different countries, outside of the United States.
Throughout her time at Virginia Tech, Reta has held various leadership positions and participated in a number of student organizations. She has served as vice president and treasurer for the Virginia Tech chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, as a member of the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Team, and as a member of the industrial and systems engineering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Reta has also been a project manager and a member of the Consulting Group at Virginia Tech, and was a resident advisor for Hypatia during her sophomore year.
While at Virginia Tech, Reta has received several undergraduate fellowships, including the Frank O Bell Memorial Scholarship in 2016, the Pratt Scholarship in 2018 and 2019, the Paul J. Woo Jr. Scholarship in 2019, and the Tom and Shauna Winters Scholarship and Charles Savile Brown Scholarship in 2020.
Reta will head to Arlington, Virginia, after graduation. She is joining Kearney, a global management consulting firm, as a business analyst. Going forward, she hopes to continue growing and expanding her business while staying connected to Virginia Tech.
Story by Linda Hazelwood