Celebrating Black entrepreneurs: I-Corps startup brings innovation to caregiving and motherhood

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research, Princeton University
Feb. 27, 2024

Andrea Hess’ eyes began to tear up when her six-year-old son said “Mommy, we’re going to have a store!” In that moment, she realized that not only was she getting her business off the ground in a tangible way, but that she was helping to build a world where her children would feel empowered, and not held back by the color of their skin.

"Growing up, I was often taught that to be successful and Black meant that you would always have to be 'twice as good as your non-Black peers' and that 'the bar was higher for me,’” Andrea Hess said. “I hope that my children will never know statements like those.”

Andrea Hess and her husband Austin Hess invented a garment designed to shield caregivers of young children from unexpected messes, and founded their company Oceeto based on this innovation. To connect with industry mentors and explore potential customers, the pair participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Northeast Hub four-week Propelus training program in 2023.

Andrea Hess had the idea for the product, called The Care’digan™, when her now-ten-year-old was a baby. She noticed that although she carried a burping towel on her shoulder, her plans for the day were often sent into disarray because she couldn’t control where her baby decided to spit up. 

She decided that she would solve the issue herself by designing a garment that is both fashionable and practical to help her and other caregivers reduce stress and regain some of the control that can sometimes be forfeited when caring for a child.

Pen on paper sketch of the garment design

Andrea Hess designed the Care'digan to be both fashionable and practical in order to help caregivers protect themselves from messes and reduce stress. Image courtesy of Andrea Hess

Two images of Andrea Hess demonstrating how to wear the Care-digan garment

The Care'digan's dual-magnetic closures allow the wearer to quietly and easily adjust the style of the garment. Image courtesy of Andrea Hess

“The intent is to bring innovation into the caregiving space,” Andrea Hess said. “Our aim is to solve consistent pain points for parents and for anyone who is in the process of raising children. With The Care’digan™, we help them move through their day and have their clothes be protected, but still be able to look stylish.” Their patent is pending for the garment’s dual-magnetic closures, which allow the wearer to silently adjust the fit and coverage, and take the garment on and off easily.

A 2010 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that between 1976 and 2008, African American inventors obtained just six patents per million people, compared with 235 per million for all U.S. inventors. “The data is stunning to me,” Andrea Hess said. “And I know it’s not for lack of ingenuity, I know it’s for other reasons that include fewer access points to critical resources such as capital, early-stage feedback and mentoring, to name a few. I consider it an honor to pursue this endeavor, but I also acknowledge that it’s a challenge and that it’s sometimes harder.”

Pedro Moore, a venture capital advisor and I-Corps mentor who works with Oceeto, said there are systemic reasons behind the difficulties that Black and African American entrepreneurs encounter in finding support and launching a business. “There is a subtle expectation that people of color cannot build a high-growth business,” he said. “Because we didn’t come from that background and we don’t have a lot of history to show, as a result there’s a subtle question of whether or not we’re really capable. But over time, that narrative is changing.”

Pedro Moore
Venture capital advisor Pedro Moore encouraged Andrea and Austin Hess to apply for the NSF I-Corps program, and joined their team as an industry mentor. Image courtesy of Pedro Moore

Moore, who has participated in NSF I-Corps programs both as an entrepreneur and a mentor, said he takes every opportunity possible to help increase diverse representation in entrepreneurship. “Part of the reason I suggested I-Corps to Andrea was that she was already doing a lot of customer discovery work, talking to moms at stores and trying to find out their needs,” he said. “And that’s the essence of what I-Corps is.”

Andrea Hess said that after working as an attorney for 15 years, it was a bit intimidating to enter the space of academia and entrepreneurship. “While I’ve had successes in one space, I noticed that I was different from what I saw represented in the program at the time,” she said. “I was very pleased to see so many mentors and leaders in the Northeast I-Corps Hub that were Black women, but in terms of the participants, as far as I knew, I was the only Black woman in my cohort.”

Since its inception, the I-Corps Northeast Hub has partnered with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to broaden participation in innovation and entrepreneurship. The Hub also established the I-Corps Fellowship to create pathways for aspiring innovators, especially those from underrepresented groups, to participate in entrepreneurship activities with the Northeast Hub.

“There is a needle that needs to continue to move in order to show that Black and brown founders are worthy of being invested in, and I think the Northeast Hub is putting in some real, unbiased efforts to do that,” Moore said.

The Northeast Hub welcomes teams of innovators from universities and research institutions, as well as from the community. “I appreciate that I-Corps makes room and space for community members, and I think in turn we brought valuable experience to the table,” Andrea Hess said. “There were a lot of reasons why I felt like this program could be a stretch for me, but I'm so glad that I did it. And the benefits continue today.”

Austin Hess said that learning from the mentors and leaders during the training sessions was extremely valuable. “Hearing really honest and open feedback from them was something I really appreciated. It allowed us to get a better focus on what it is we’re doing, and where this product would fit,” he said.

Along with the access to mentorship and lessons, the husband and wife entrepreneurial team said a key component of the I-Corps program was expanding their network. “Being part of this program opened so many opportunities,” Andrea Hess said. “I’m amazed at how often I mention I-Corps, and people recognize the name because they had participated, or been mentors or leaders in the past. The benefit of this established program behind our name helps bring a certain amount of credibility.”

Moore said that diverse entrepreneurs face another issue, called the network gap. “It’s having access to people with the right knowledge and contacts to further the growth of a business,” he said. “The other reason I wanted Oceeto to be part of I-Corps was to get access to the network, so that in case they want to invent more products, they now have a network to access knowledge and connections to help grow their company.”

Andrea and Austin Hess brought The Care’digan™ to market with a soft launch last year, and recently sold out of their first round of inventory. “My sincere hope is that one day it's one of those great success stories,” she said. “Right now we’re working really hard, and just starting to make some real sales.”

Andrea Hess said that above all, she hopes to be an inspiration for the next generation, including her children. “It sounds silly, but my son recently came up with his ‘invention.’ He iterated it, gave it a name, and we put a little label on it,” she said. “It really does bring tears to my eyes because even if I don’t succeed in the way that I would like, I know that he has seen something that I never did, and to him it’s par for the course. I think that’s the best that one can hope for not only as a parent, but also as a Black mom.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) Northeast Hub is part of a nationwide NSF-funded network of universities formed to accelerate the economic impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, the environment, technology and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds. Programs are open to all innovators throughout the Northeast. No university affiliation is required.

Princeton University is the principal institution in the Hub, along with 10 partner institutions including: the University of Delaware, Rutgers University, Lehigh University, Temple University, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Rowan University, Delaware State University, Drexel University, Yale University and the University of Connecticut. The Hub expands by adding new partner institutions each year.