Fashion designer talks Black entrepreneurship during BHC keynote event

Media Credit: Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor

This year's theme, Homecoming – Been Black, is in response to the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities.

A D.C.-based fashion designer delivered the keynote address of GW’s 17th annual Black Heritage Celebration Tuesday, recapping her career as a “changemaker” in business.

Dionna Dorsey – the creator of District of Clothing, a progressive lifestyle brand that uses social-justice-oriented messages to inspire action – said she has spearheaded a pair of businesses in recent years to serve the Black community through the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread racial justice movements. Dorsey’s keynote address was the first of this year’s BHC events headlined by the theme, “Homecoming: Been Black,” which aims to represent how Blackness has endured despite circumstances that have exacerbated racial inequity, including the pandemic.

Dorsey said the theme encourages students to recognize how past generations of Black Americans struggled and made sacrifices for the benefit of modern-day Black entrepreneurs. She said young Black people should take advantage of modern economic opportunity, connect with one other and pursue their passions with purpose.

“It’s really about remembering what they did to get you here and just knowing that you literally are their wildest dreams,” she said during the keynote address. “To me, that’s what Been Black is.”

Dorsey said she first struggled to find work in the fashion industry in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009 before finding the courage to create Dionna Design, her branding company that launched in 2010, and District of Clothing, which launched in 2014. She said her family taught her to persevere through challenges like imposter syndrome in the fashion industry.

“I can very clearly point that to my family,” Dorsey said. “The way in which they’ve always spoken to me is like, ‘No is not an answer – no means next opportunity,’ and you just have to keep pivoting until you get where you need to be and also understanding that life is filled with challenges, and you can’t allow those challenges to stop.”

Dorsey called District of Clothing her “ministry,” the vehicle she uses to pursue her passions and goals. She said she can encourage pride and confidence through her business as a way to serve her community.

“You have to be of service to your community, and District of Clothing is just that,” she said. “The goal is to encourage progression, to inspire action and to support self love.”

Dorsey said a changemaker who acts as a “global citizen” should have empathy for people impacted by social issues and injustice, which can fuel their passions and advance their goals.

“Having the courage to follow your heart and to follow your dreams and the things you really want to do, that in itself is being a changemaker,” she said. “Because seeing someone else do it can be inspiring to whoever is watching.” 

Dorsey said working during the pandemic and posting information like mask-making tutorials created a “realm of peace” for her as she sought to maintain community. She also noticed demonstrators wearing her branded clothing during Black Lives Matter protests, which she said motivated her to continue working in 2020.

“The pandemic really has been very challenging, and yet it has also been a very eye-opening experience but also a very community-building time for me,” she said.

Dorsey said Black entrepreneurs need to embrace what they can learn through struggle and failure, like a lack of money or supplies. She said her experience struggling to start and maintain her companies through the Great Recession and the pandemic taught her to believe in herself and proved she had all the skills necessary to be successful.

“I would tell myself, ‘You’re going to be OK to fail forward, to fail fast,’” Dorsey said. “And that failure is actually really important because if you don’t fail, you’re not really giving yourself the opportunity to learn from failure.”

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