Engineering a third career: Diaper and travel bags

Inspired by what she observed at her former nonprofit interacting with student mothers, the ex-GE engineer crowdsourced her idea for bags.
Inspired by what she observed at her former nonprofit interacting with student mothers, the ex-GE engineer crowdsourced her idea for bags. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2014

As it turns out, it's a good thing Sherrill Mosee didn't become the first African American astronaut, an aspiration she had as a young girl.

"I don't think I would have made it in space," said the former engineer for General Electric Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. "I had to pull out the nausea bag my first airplane ride."

Not that her career path hasn't been full of adventure.

Her latest endeavor, for example, is making fashionable diaper and travel bags. After three years of researching the industry, experimenting with designs, and availing herself of free small-business consulting services, Mosee has formed MinkeeBlue L.L.C.

(She wanted to name it PinkyBlue - as in girl and boy colors - but that domain name was already taken, so she ran through the alphabet until something sounded right.)

It's a venture inspired by an earlier pursuit - running a nonprofit that provided scholarships to help students with children pay for child care.

"I'd notice them come in struggling with the book bag, the diaper bag, the purse," Mosee said. "I had this idea it would be pretty cool to come up with a fashion bag," one that functioned as all three.

Like so many entrepreneurs, Mosee, 51, a Baltimore native and the daughter of a single mother of three, can point to a childhood of tinkering. Take the splicing, twisting, and taping of wires she did to get the family television working back when she was 11 or 12.

Mosee was good at math, too. On the advice of a guidance counselor, she majored in engineering at the University of Maryland - aeronautical engineering initially, before switching to electrical. She wound up on academic probation her first semester.

"I persevered," she said of her six-year journey to graduation. "I decided there wasn't anything else I wanted to do."

A job as a test engineer at GE brought her to Philadelphia, where she worked on missile electrical components. Mosee later served as plant engineer for Lockheed Martin in East Windsor, N.J., until that facility closed in 1998 and she was laid off.

By then, a business idea was already percolating, prompted by the birth of her first child.

"I started thinking about how young people like my mom" - who was 16 when she had the first of her three children - "couldn't afford to go to school with no resources for child care," Mosee said.

So in 1998, she formed the nonprofit to provide child-care grants for student parents. Based in North Philadelphia, Family Care Solutions supported more than 500 student parents - mothers and fathers - with more than $3 million in "scholarships" in its 14-year existence.

"That scholarship took bricks off my back," said Moneek Pines-Elliott, who credits Mosee's program with enabling her to graduate in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Moore College of Art & Design while raising twin sons.

She now runs a child-care center in Germantown and said of Mosee: "As a businesswoman, she inspires me to do better."

(In 2009, Mosee wrote a book, Professor, May I Bring My Baby to Class?, aimed at encouraging young mothers to pursue higher education.)

When federal funding sources dried up, Mosee reluctantly closed Family Care Solutions, only to indulge her current entrepreneurial calling - inspired by what she observed interacting with the student mothers.

With some serendipitous exposure in November on Katie Couric's syndicated daytime talk show, Mosee was able to raise $19,155 in a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and to garner 98 orders for diaper and travel bags, which retail for $210 and $215. They can be ordered at www.minkeeblue.com while she seeks retail venues.

Made with faux leather and measuring 15.5 inches long, 13.5 inches high, and 6 inches wide, the diaper bag has 13 pockets, some insulated to accommodate baby bottles. It also comes with a diaper-changing pad and separate compartments for wallet, keys, cellphone, and laptop. A patent is pending on a zip-away panel that enables the bag to be converted into a full tote.

The travel bag is similar, but with a lingerie bag instead of a changing pad.

In a crowded industry with an estimated $9 billion in U.S. sales in 2012, Mosee "has something that's unique," said Pearl Wang-Herrera, incubator manager for Temple Small Business Development Center, which helped her develop a business plan and the Kickstarter campaign, among other things.

Wang-Herrera said she was particularly impressed that, despite Mosee's accomplished professional background, she recognized her limitations and was "willing to listen to advice."

Mosee's one disappointment is that her bags are being made in China: "As much as I wanted to try to get this bag made here, it was too expensive - $100 per bag just for labor. I couldn't afford it."

Speaking of affordable, Mosee acknowledged that her bags were likely out of reach for the very women who inspired them. She's working on less-expensive designs - and a plan for what to do with profits once her start-up debt is satisfied:

"I want to continue to support student moms because it all connects back to what I believe in - the power of education."


>Inquirer.com

Sherrill Mosee describes her MinkeeBlue baby bags at

www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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