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Wilkes senior Michelle Rae wins $10,000 for new sleeveless sleeve business

WILKES-BARRE —Starting a new business is as simple as do Rae mi.

Well, maybe not simple, but it got a little easier for Wilkes University senior Michelle Rae Lehman when she won $10,000 in cash and $100,000 of in-kind services to further the launching of Rae Sleeves, an idea that takes the chill off sleeveless gowns.

“So I won this awesome competition in the collegiate division,” the 22-year-old recounted with what is clearly an almost incessant smile fronting a deep well of optimism. “With the capital, I’ll be ordering my inventory.”

The “awesome competition” is the regional “tecBRIDGE annual business plan contest.” Area college students pitch their money-making ideas and vie for $10,000 in cash and another $100,000 of in-kind services available, as Lehman put it, “right in the backyard of this office.”

The Crestwood High School graduate has set up shop in the Wilkes Enterprise Center, a business incubator created by the university’s Allan P. Kirby Center for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. She works in a tiny office crammed with ideas and ambition, and she draws no lines between her school work earning a marketing degree, her business work creating Rae Sleeves, and her part-time gig doing office work and serving as a “Kirby Scholar” for the university.

The scholars program is the brainchild of Kirby Center Director Rodney Ridley. The idea is to tap the talents of the best and brightest in each field at Wilkes to serve as resources for those using the Enterprise Center.

“It all blends together,” Lehman said, still smiling. “I’m meeting a lot of great people, and I don’t really feel like I’m working.”

Rae Sleeves started about a year ago as a simple garment made of 100 percent hosiery material. The main idea was to connect the sleeves with a sort of half-shirt — “it stopped just below the bra line” — that women could use with sleeveless dresses and tops to expand their wardrobes without buying all new outfits.

But Lehman notes that she got a lot of feedback and kept modifying the notion. “This is probably the sixth prototype,” she said of the slim, light garment on display in her office. Now it is a full top with a low-cut back. The sleeves are still hosiery, but the rest is made of nylon, elastane and spandex. “It is shaping and slimming.”

The idea is still the same: fashionable sleeves that go with existing outerwear. But the changes make it more malleable to other markets. Lehman foresees expanding with a looser-fitting version for the medical field.

“A lot of nurses I spoke with said they normally wear long-sleeve tops underneath scrubs, and it’s very uncomfortable.”

Another market: Sports. “Long sleeves are very big in volley ball right now.”

Lehman is the first Wilkes student to take first place in the competition held by tecBRIDGE, which is the current incarnation of what began as the Great Valley Technology Alliance in 1999 to spur technology start-ups in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The contest cash will pay for about 500 Rae Sleeves. She is starting with black and nude, but expects to expand to “luxury colors like gold, and to add embroidery and other embellishments to the line.

Considering herself the company’s “Chief Creative Officer,” Lehman is looking for the next big investor, someone willing to put up about $32,000 and expertise in the business in exchange for about one-third share.

She has a website, raesleeves.com, and hopes to start selling her wares “by Christmas.”

She is also open to any clever slogan ideas. Right now, she said, she’s going with “Fashionable shape wear for women.”

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TIMES LEADER
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