Life in corporate America can be challenging, especially for Black professionals. When you’re not faced with career politicking, you’re often left with making sure your natural appearance is “appropriate” for the workplace. While we’ve thankfully gotten away from made up issues surrounding Black hair, T|W Tote is tackling your next professional problem — your work bag. If you’re commuting to work and dressed to impress in a sleek suit and tie, you won’t want a plastic “lunch bag” in your hand like Shallon Thomas.
Meet Shallon Thomas and Sherika Wynter, the masterminds behind the short-term luxury carry brand, T|W Tote. On a mission to blend fashion and sustainability, their brand is elevating work bags for professionals. They are currently on a mission to raise $100,000 in funding as they introduce a new lineup of bags for every facet of a professional’s life.
Official Black Wall Street had the opportunity to sit down with Shallon and Sherika to discuss T|W Tote — the brand, its products, and its mission to shape and change the lives of Black professionals.
Jouviane: To start, I usually like to get an idea of both the entrepreneurs behind the business as well as the business itself. Would both of you enlighten us to your personal and professional backgrounds and how you feel it led you to this point?
Shallon: I’ll begin with my professional career. I earned a bachelor’s in business with a minor in information systems. I followed that up with an MBA from Washington Adventist University and a certification in project management. I started as a quality engineer for a defense contractor many years ago. I quickly transitioned from that into procurement, working at the US Patent Office. That’s actually where the idea for T|W Tote came into play.
"One day, I caught my reflection and realized I had a silly plastic bag in my hand for carrying my lunch. It just didn’t fit the professional look I was going for."
I was wearing a suit and tie to work every day at the Patent Office, and they have these large mirrors on your way in. One day, I caught my reflection and realized I had a silly plastic bag in my hand for carrying my lunch. It just didn’t fit the professional look I was going for. I searched the Internet to try and find a bag that would work, and I couldn’t. That’s when I raised the question to Sherika about finding a bag that fit her professional life, and she couldn’t find one either.
We decided it was just easier to build one from the ground up. And that is what pushed the birth of T|W Tote. I don’t necessarily have the design background — Sherika does — but I was still able to leverage a lot of what I learned from my professional life to help build the brand.
Sherika: My experience begins with a background in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial design. As Shallon said, he’s the ideator, and then I come in and ground the information. After undergrad, I went into acoustics and noise control — really trying to understand sound and noise in different buildings like hospitals and musical halls. I transitioned into project management right around when the first recession hit back in the 2000s before going into web development and then over into product management.
And so, in owning the business, I’ve been able to use my product management skills, engineering skills, and design skills. I’ve also been able to teach other enterprise corporations how to do product management, whether it’s a physical product, online product, or service.
Jouviane: Now let’s dive into the brand, T|W Tote. How would you describe the brand and the products you sell — specifically, what you think makes them stand out?
"What stands out about T|W Tote is that we are trying to have fashion meet sustainability."
Sherika: What stands out about T|W Tote is that we are trying to have fashion meet sustainability. Additionally, we want it to bring in the lifestyle of a professional and balance that with functionality. There are many times when you’ll see a great design, but it doesn’t meet all your needs. For example, consider our lunch tote. It’s designed with two compartments because people carry more than one meal to work. It’s really a matter of allowing for people to be functional, but stylish in expressing themselves through our products.
Because of my background in engineering, I’m very big on the research and development side of things. We usually spend six to nine months testing. We’ll have different types of men try the products. I’ve told Shallon to “forget” his lunch in a bag and see how it smells two days later. We’re really big on that sustainability piece and then merging it with fashion.
Shallon: We’re constantly listening to our customers and what they like or don’t like. This allows us to continually try our best to improve our designs. To reiterate what Sherika said, the bags aren’t only fashionable, but they will stand the test of time.
"We get people to come back to T|W Tote, by serving them with high quality products and good customer service."
We are very intentional with how we manufacture. We do multiple quality checks before a bag reaches the hands of the customers. We get people to come back to T|W Tote, by serving them with high quality products and good customer service.
Jouviane: I can assume that with starting a business, there are high points and low points. As you’ve been building this brand, what has been the most satisfying and challenging parts of the process?
Sherika: For me, the most satisfying is being able to reach people outside of our network. You know, your family and friends will support you — even if they don’t use it — to see the brand grow. And to have childhood friends of mine tell me they saw our bag on a train is really satisfying because it means we have something people like. People find it functional, and they’re adapting it into their everyday life.
I would say that the most challenging thing for me is our dependency as a society on technology. None of our products are necessarily technology-based. And they are, in so many ways, valued less in the fundraising and investment world. It’s a little discouraging because one thing that has always stayed constant throughout societal development are bags. In multiple forms, technology comes and goes.
A Chanel is a Chanel. A Louis is a Louis. I’m not saying that’s where we are, but we are a society that is based on physical products. And they do stand the test of time. And I just wish that more investors would realize the history behind the physical product and the delicate nature of it.
Shallon: I’d say for me, I have two proud moments. The first was seeing my father head out to the airport with one of my bags on his shoulder. That was huge for me — to know that he had thousands of bags he could choose from to head out of the country, but he still chose mine blew my mind. My second proud moment was when we were featured by Google for Black History Month. That was a really cool experience.
"Black-owned businesses are 70% less likely to ever receive funding versus their white counterparts and we are living proof of that."
I would say the biggest drawback or setback is funding. We know we’re on to something. Everybody that has ever received one of our bags has great things to say about them. But naturally, it takes money to advertise. It takes money to manufacture high quality products. Black-owned businesses are 70% less likely to ever receive funding versus their white counterparts and we are living proof of that. It has been difficult to raise capital to continue growing the business.
We’re also still riding the COVID wave. We’ve had items and products stuck in customs for months. Thankfully, Sherika and I have been able to keep the company going, but we would still be doing much better if we had the financial backing of people who believed in us.
Jouviane: Shallon, if we could go back to your proud moment of watching your dad use one of your bags. In this particular scenario, he was using it for traveling; however, you mentioned previously that the idea of this product came out of working in corporate America. Would you say you have an ideal customer for this brand?
Shallon: I would say that our ideal customer is the professional. At this point, they’re probably heading to the office once or twice a week. While the age demographic is likely between 25 and 45, our bags are not age or gender specific. They look good no matter who you are, but we really do target professionals. We both come from that world, and we want people who have to pull out professional attire for work to feel as if they have a bag that will always work for them. Ultimately, I would say our ideal customer is the professional on the move.
Sherika: I would agree. Here’s the thing. I think you find different usage for our bag as you mature through your professional life. Let’s look at it this way. For your first job out of college, you want to make a good impression so you get a professional lunch bag. Now, instead of the freshman 15, you might hit a little COVID 15, COVID 20 and want to get back in the gym after work. And you’re going to want to bring your professional bag.
"We wanted a bag that you can grab at any time and for any occasion because it meets all pieces. So to say we have an audience of specific customers, yes, we do. However, we’re also following their journey and making sure that our products age with them."
If you identify as a woman and have a baby, you might need to pump at work, and you can use your professional bag to transport it back home. For fathers, you’d likely rather have an alternative over that ugly giraffe diaper bag to stock up on to-go snacks. So between the ages of 25 and 45, there’s so much that can happen in your life. We wanted a bag that you can grab at any time and for any occasion because it meets all pieces. So to say we have an audience of specific customers, yes, we do. However, we’re also following their journey and making sure that our products age with them.
Jouviane: So it’s clear that your customers have numerous options to choose from. I’m curious. Do either of you have a favorite T|W Tote bag?
Shallon: My favorite bag actually hasn’t been released yet. It’s still in testing because we usually test for six months or longer. I love backpacks, so I take the T|W prototype backpack with me every day and everywhere. If I had to choose a second, it would be the lunch tote. It comes in a light brown color named guinep, which is a fruit from the Caribbean.
Sherika: By far, my favorite bag is the weekender. I love to travel, and I notice bags. When you’re in the airport and you have on your travel fit — usually sweatpants and socks — what bag you’re bringing says a lot about your personality. It says a lot about how you travel. And it’s not just the look of our bag, but it’s also the functionality of it. When I’m doing a weekend away or going on a plane, I’m going to grab for it.
Jouviane: Shallon mentioned that his favorite bag has yet to be made. What else is next for T|W Tote?
Sherika: Right now, we have the weekender, the lunch tote, and the hydration flask. In the next three to four months, you’ll see a toiletry bag. We did some research around what people need from toiletry bags and why they carry multiples. So we’re taking that information and turning it into something.
We have an affinity for wine, me more than Shallon, so we’re also working on a wine tote for those who want to be on the go. We have Shallon’s bookbag. And lastly, we’re redesigning a previous design based on customer feedback. And so those three will come in and complete the set of six bags plus the flask for lucky number seven.
Jouviane: And let’s keep the momentum going as we propel into the future. As the brand moves forward, what is the ultimate goal for T|W Tote?
Sherika: If the world was perfect, and Black people were respected as we should be, we’d probably be acquired. We’re sitting in the sweet spot of one to three day travel, which is short-term carry that no one really pays attention to. And so, we’d like to be acquired by someone who believes T|W Tote fills a gap for them. We’d still want to maintain the brand essentials. No pun intended, but we don’t want the brand to be whitewashed or blended in. It would be an acquisition or merger of sorts so that we could grow from there.
And, you know, we have other aspirations and ideas, but we’re really focusing on this, what we call, short-term luxury carry brand.
Shallon: I’d say for me, it’s a legacy. Our parents migrated here from the Caribbean. They have worked hard to get us to the position that we’re in. To be able to take that to the next level and build something where we can hire and develop other Black people is awesome. We make it our business to try and work with other people that look like us. From interns to consultants, we really try our best to super serve our community, and that is a beautiful thing to have control of.
I feel like as we continue down this path of what I’m hoping is eventually a household name, everybody in the community will know T|W Tote. We’ll get to change Black lives on that journey, and that’s really big for me.
Jouviane: And lastly, how can our readers support you and T|W Tote?
"Nothing is guaranteed — similar to the stock market — but we want you to join and be a part of our legacy."
Sherika: Right now, T|W Tote is doing a safe raise. What does that mean? Nothing is guaranteed — similar to the stock market — but we want you to join and be a part of our legacy. So for $100 or more, just invest in us. And if you know somebody’s birthday or the holidays are coming up, just buy a product and move us along. And if you can’t do that, just share T|W tote on Instagram.
It’s really a matter of just showing love. We know that some people can do more or less than others. Right now, we really need to hit $50,000 on this raise. That’s the first level. The sooner we reach it, the more we can grow this company and the quicker we can give those who believe in us their return back.
For more information about T|W Tote, visit: https://twtote.com/
To support their crowdfunding campaign, click here.