Today, only about 25 percent of computer scientists and 15 percent of engineers are women, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet so many little girls hold big dreams of becoming an astronaut, paleontologist, engineer, or pursuing another STEM-related career—only to discover that society doesn’t always support their big ambitions.
Take, for example, the fashion industry. Back in 2015, Jaya Iyer’s 2-year-old daughter was a little girl on a mission to find some planet-themed clothing to fuel her dreams of flying to space as an astronaut. “I’d take my daughter and my 4-year-old son to the National Air and Space Museum every Friday. My son loved the fighter planes, and my daughter loved the space shuttles,” Iyer recounted. “I could easily find fighter plane-related clothes for my son, but there was nothing space-related for my daughter.” Iyer finally found some space-themed clothes in the boys’ section of a store. “I thought, ‘I have to do something about this,’” she explained.
With a background in fashion merchandising, Iyer went back to her home in Vienna, Virginia and began creating designs for STEM-themed clothing that defied gender stereotypes. For example, she sketched a female firefighter and an astronaut on a pink shirt, as well as a car on a pink shirt—all designs for both boys and girls.
“If I was feeling the need for these designs as a mother, I thought there must be others who feel the same way,” Iyer said. Soon after, Iyer launched a Kickstarter campaign, which was quickly funded $30,000. In May 2015, she officially unveiled her gender-neutral clothing and accessories line called Svaha USA to the world.
At that time, Iyer was taking a break from work to spend time with her children. As more responsibilities from her clothing brand emerged, she enlisted the help of one employee. Her company has since grown to six full-time employees.
Throughout her journey, there were certainly some growing pains. “My biggest challenge was trying to find space for a very fast-growing company and learning the ropes of marketing,” Iyer said. “We started from the basement of our house and took over a few other rooms, and finally got a warehouse space.”
Iyer said that when it came to marketing challenges, she figured out a lot through trial and error. Eventually, she hired a full-time marketing person to help.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, there were more obstacles that followed. “Growth definitely slowed during the pandemic. We’re not growing at the same pace we once were—but we’re still growing,” Iyer said.
Today, Svaha offers a dazzling collection of STEM-related clothing that’s shattering gender stereotypes for both children and adults. Customers can find everything from ceratopsian swimwear and carnivorous plants T-shirts to sweet slug dresses and endangered animal hoodies.
After launching a clothing line for kids, Iyer set out to also provide apparel for adults. “There are so many women who are engineers and who want to wear a dress with code on it,” Iyer said. The line prides itself on inclusivity in terms of not only gender (there are no “girls” or “boys” items) but also size, ranging from size XS to 5X, all for the same price.
Thanks to an “unbelievably local customer base,” said Iyer, Svaha has been rising in popularity ever since its launch. Iyer is very responsive to customer suggestions and now has about 95 percent of designs that have come from customers’ inputs.
This year, Iyer also worked with retired NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg on a collaboration called Dinos in Space. When Nyberg spent almost six months in space in 2013, her son was obsessed with dinosaurs, and Nyberg made him a stuffed dino. The collection—which features a futuristic “space fashion” design—represents Nyberg’s desire to stay connected to her family while living in space.
Nyberg worked with her son, who helped pick his favorite dinosaurs for the design, including pachyrhinosaurus, mapusaurus, spinosaurus and therizinosaurus. “I love the fit of the dress; it’s very comfortable and even has pockets,” Nyberg shared on Twitter.
There’s also a big focus on sustainability around Svaha, inspiring Iyer to create a Facebook page for customers to buy, sell, and trade Svaha items so they don’t end up in a landfill.
“The most rewarding thing for me is when customers tell me stories about the experiences they’ve had when wearing a Svaha dress or clothing item,” Iyer said. One customer, for example, shared that her daughter when wearing a Svaha dress is now asked what her favorite science experiment is, or what her favorite dinosaur is, rather than who her favorite princess is.
Iyer’s best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to simply go for it. “If you have an idea that you believe in, then don’t be afraid,” she said. In fact, Svaha was Iyer’s fourth business venture after three failures. “I didn’t give up,” she said. “I now have a very successful business.”