When you see “Be awesome,” what does that mean to you?
The phrase got Ericka Graham thinking after she saw a child wearing a T-shirt with those words. The tee later came up in a conversation with her now-business partner and friend, Judy Le.
“I said, doesn’t that seem like a lot of pressure? What does ‘awesome’ even mean? I don’t feel awesome every day.” Graham says. “Casually, we thought we should come up with our own T-shirt line and eventually, we started brainstorming.”
Their idea came to fruition over the last five months in the form of Unitee, a kid’s T-shirt company centered around five core values that would be relatable and easy for children to understand. Those values are grit & growth, courage, friendship, creativity and kindness. Graham and Le also tell CultureMap they wanted to use values they felt everyone could unite around.
Each shirt has a corresponding value. That value’s description is printed on the tag attached to the tee. For example, the “You See Messy, I See Magic” shirt falls under “Creativity.” Its description says: “Creative and curious kids have more questions than answers. The world is their classroom and they approach life with wonder and possibility. They are magic makers and magic seekers.”
Graham says everything about the shirts is intentional right down to the colors, such as Gusto Green and Bold Black, which are tied to a character theme. Unitee worked with local businesses Big Frog Custom T-shirts of Bellaire and the creative agency 5 + 8 to bring the detailed designs they envisioned to life. That can be seen on their “Wanna Grab A Juice Box?” shirt where all the letters are bendy straws.
“We wanted it to be a play on the adult version like ‘We should grab a drink’ but instead it’s kids saying, ‘We should grab a juice box’ because one of our sub values is inclusion,” Graham says.
“We want to start a conversation around these values,” Le adds. “We want to hear how kids and adults alike are living their values out loud.”
Those last five words – “Live your values out loud” not only show up as the brand’s tagline, but the duo says it also serves as a reminder to reflect what they’re selling in their daily lives – something that they credit their backgrounds for helping them do.
Graham is the CEO and founder of Project 88, a non-profit started in 2014 to help get more college advisers in Houston public schools and connect underserved students to leadership opportunities. Graham runs the foundation alongside husband and former Houston Texans tight end Garrett Graham.
Le has her own leadership and development business called Take Root. “My philosophy on leadership is that it is an activity, not a position. And people who are most effective at leading can inspire and mobilize others because they are able to connect through shared values,” she explains.
Graham says Le’s outlook helped her overcome doubts in her own life and gave her the confidence to know their partnership could work.
“As the leader of a non-profit, I had always wondered, ‘Am I doing it right?’ But her message took the pressure off,” Graham says of Le. “Her message was you actually don’t have to change anything about yourself. You need to live your strengths.”
And the pair says they hope that’s exactly what parents recognize – that these strengths and values exist within their kids – and themselves.
“I think it reminds me that my kids are watching how I live these values, too. How am I showing kindness and courage, how do I react to mistakes and overcome failures, how do I build inclusive friendships?” Le explains.
“We don’t want to be a T-shirt company that is trying to tell parents how to parent,” Graham says. “We feel like the point of Unitee is to become aware and realize when kids are being kind because they already are or when your kid takes off the training wheels, you realize that as being courageous.”
That’s why Le and Graham say they’ve incorporated moms in the process of creating Unitee. They surveyed 150 moms on which phrases they’d like to see accompany each value. Now they’ve taken that inclusion a step further by asking parents who’ve bought the shirts to share stories of how the values are exhibited in their own lives on the company’s Instagram and Facebook pages.
Stories have included a mom explaining how her daughter and her daughter’s friend lived the “Mistakes Are Proof I’m Trying” shirt when her daughter accidentally cut the other’s hair. Graham says the mom expected the girl’s mother to be upset, but they both ended up laughing about it.
“It was also an adult moment. What can we learn about laughing at our mistakes as opposed to using shame and guilt to change anything?” Graham explains. “It became a post of perspective and being forgiving and loving of yourself even when you make mistakes.”
That seems to be something Unitee’s audience can get behind. Their best-selling onesie is “Slip, Trip, Find My Grip,” which falls under the “Grit & Growth” value. For the regular T-shirts ($28) and baseball tees ($35), “Kind is the New Cool” is another go-to. The full T-shirt line, which runs up to a youth large, is on their website.
A portion of Unitee’s proceeds go toward Project 88 right now, though Graham says they’d like to eventually have an application process to help them give to organizations they think are inclusive and inspiring growth.
“Kids are leading this change without knowing it because they aren’t thinking politically. They aren’t thinking “us vs them” because they’re kids, and they don’t have to unlearn anything,” Graham says.
Le echoes that sentiment. “At the surface, this is a kids' T-shirt company, but it is so much more than that. Our core values are values that unite us all. The world could use more of it. I think kids have a way of helping us see things anew.”