LIVINGSTON, NJ — Local young professionals from a range of industries gained insight on how to stay focused on pursuing their dreams through a presentation from Livingston resident Mindy Scheier, founder of Runway of Dreams, at Sobel & Co. LLC’s quarterly Young Professional Women’s Breakfast.
The Livingston-based accounting firm invited Scheier to share her story of how her son, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, inspired her to start a line of adaptive clothing that is now empowering people with disabilities worldwide with opportunity, confidence, independence and style. The young women in attendance, whose professions spanned from banking to real estate to fitness and beyond, were encouraged to re-think their consumer base to include this underserved population and were motivated to continue reaching for their own goals.
“I have known Mindy for many years, but each time I have a conversation with her or listen to her speak at events I am inspired over and over again,” said Emily Sobel-Grise, Business Development/Human Resources at Sobel & Co. “Our hope for our young women who attended the program was to network with other young professional women and to be inspired to pursue their passion.”
Scheier said one of her goals in speaking to professionals in other fields is to “create a tidal wave” in getting the word out about including those who are part of “the largest minority on our planet,” with more than 60 million people in the United States living with disabilities, and more than one billion globally.
“Every single minority has people with disabilities in it, so when you put all of that together it blows everybody out of the water,” she said. “It is an important mission right now for companies to be inclusive, but it’s generally not people with disabilities and that is something that has to change. The way that we change it is by talking about it, by it being part of the conversation and by you guys going back to your jobs and rethinking who the consumer is.”
In 2013, Scheier designed a pair of jeans for her son that would later change the fashion industry. When her middle son, Oliver, came to her at eight years old wanting to wear jeans like all the other kids, Scheier—a fashion designer by trade—spent the night determined to transform a pair of jeans into a garment that her son could not only fit into, but could also get in and out of on his own.
“He dressed himself for the very first time without needing assistance…and I will never forget for the rest of my life the immediate response that I got from him emotionally,” said Scheier. “This was the first time that he [not only] got to wear something that he wanted to wear, but he was able to dress himself—and that’s an enormous gift that I didn’t even realize that I could give to him.”
Seeing the pure joy and confidence on her son’s face that day, Scheier made it her life’s mission to design mainstream adaptive clothing for people with all different abilities, including those with physical disabilities, those who cannot dress themselves and the aging population. She was determined find solutions to common challenges such as closures (like zippers and buttons), adjustability (like pant and arm lengths) and new ways to get in and out of clothing.
When fellow Livingston residents David and Wendy Bassuk discovered what Scheier had in mind, they became instrumental in getting her in front of the “decision makers.” In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger launched the first-ever adaptive designer clothing line for children with disabilities thanks to Scheier’s vision. Tommy Adaptive now also has an adult collection, and other brands like Target, Zappos and Nike have also adopted what Scheier believes to be “the future of fashion.”
“Tommy Hilfiger is a global leader in the fashion industry, so I felt that this was my chance and I was hopefully going to blow this out of the water,” she said. “Not only were they in, but [they were] thanking me for exposing them to this enormous population. It was a game changer in the industry. It was history in the making.”
Not only did this fill a void in the fashion industry, similar to petit or plus-size clothing, but the Runway of Dreams Foundation also provided job opportunities for people with disabilities. The consumers are not only the models, but they also participate in focus groups to help the foundation determine their needs, answer phones for the organization and more.
“This is actually so much more than just the product,” said Scheier. “Eighty percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, so here’s a very organic, natural way to employ people with disabilities while we are working on adaptive product because they are the only people that can wear it for authentic campaigns. Who better to answer the phones to talk about adaptive products than people with disabilities? If there’s anything I’ve learned first-hand, it's that we cannot do this without people with disabilities being involved; they have to be part of the conversation.”
Karen Baffoni of Sobel & Co. said this message was one of the major takeaways from Scheier’s presentation. Since Sobel & Co. has a large not-for-profit niche, including schools whose students have cerebral palsy and other disabilities, Baffoni said making the connection between the schools and Scheier’s organization would be beneficial to both institutions.
Scheier added that it was likely many in the room would be able to make similar connections, or provide other opportunities for this population, such as a special class at CycleBar Livingston geared toward those with disabilities or the aging population.
“We are focusing in the fashion industry for this inclusion, but every single woman in this room has a touch point in the business that you are in to include people with disabilities,” she said. “It’s rethinking who your customer is, and nine times out of 10 [those with disabilities] haven’t been thought of. Think through who your consumer is and how you can branch out of what you typically thought of as your endgame and who can be a part of your conversation in what you do in your own worlds.”
Today, the Runway of Dreams Foundation is headquartered in Livingston, but is a global organization focused on its mission of raising awareness about the need for the industry to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Beyond the clothing aspect of the organization, Runway is also focusing on providing scholarships and funding programs at universities to help the next generation carry on its mission.
Scheier said a personal goal of hers in the near future is to present her story on The Ellen Show, because Ellen DeGeneres “is the golden ticket,” she said.
In the meantime, she will continue the conversation by speaking at the Forbes Global Women’s Conference later this week and will also host the annual Runway of Dreams Fashion Show and Gala fundraiser on Sept. 5 at Cipriani during New York Fashion Week. The gala will feature 30 models of all different abilities who will be dressed in global brands that are supporting the Runway of Dreams mission, including Nike, Target and Tommy Hilfiger.
“Everybody should be a part of this movement and doing it during Fashion Week allows us to be playing in the same sandbox as everybody else,” said Scheier. “This is our first time doing it during Fashion Week, so we’re hoping that it gets a lot of exposure.
“We all have to do this together. I’m so honored to think that hopefully something that started on my kitchen table was the impetus to this movement.”
Visit the website to learn more or support the mission, and use the hashtag #rethinktherunway to help Runway of Dreams “broaden the reach of mainstream adaptive clothing and include people with disabilities in the fashion industry.”
Sobel & Co., LLC is a full-service accounting firm in Livingston specializing in family business and not-for-profits. For more information or to be invited to the firm's next event, visit the Sobel & Co., LLC website.