Purpose work is thriving in Richmond.
The challenges of starting a business alone are enough for most entrepreneurs, but one small business owner here is going the extra mile. Reana Muhammad, CEO of RÉNA IMAN, runs a socially-conscious handbag label which has joined the fight to end domestic violence.
RÉNA IMAN handcrafted luxury bags donate a percentage of every sale to two domestic violence non-profits in Virginia.
The designer’s love for charity is only met by her passion for fashion: a lifelong handbag enthusiast, starting the luxury line allowed her to do both.
“I wanted to do something to help the community,” Muhammad said. “I spend a lot of money on bags and fashion in general, so I was really inspired by the companies who were helping these issues.”
Muhammad’s business came to life among a trend of other socially-conscious business models around the country. Just last month, RVAMag caught up with Hamilton Perkins, the Virginia designer recycling plastic bottles and billboard vinyl into designer travel bags. Corporate-social responsibility has been on the rise in recent years, and many local businesses are keeping up.
“If you think about how our community runs, we can’t get where we need to be by ourselves,” Muhammad said. “Our generation is going back to the community fronts that help each other. . .I think people are getting away from the mindset of ‘I’m going to start this company and make all the money for myself.’ That’s not how you grow.”
The entrepreneur put her ideas together and jumped into business this year. Her 100 percent katzkin leather bags come in a variety of colors and run from $125-$225. The bags are also designed with a stone on its tag to commemorate important moments in its owner’s life.
“I stepped back and thought, ‘behind each bag is a story,’” Muhammad said. “Regardless of what your story is, great precious moments have always been marked with a stone: birthdays, engagements…I wanted to make it so you’re personalizing it, but it’s still a moment for you to design something yourself and know you’re giving back, helping other people.”
On helping others in Richmond, Muhammad credits the local organizations already in place that keep doors open and help people feel secure. She’s thankful for the residents here that stand behind them, she said, and that even high school and college campuses are becoming safer.
“We’re evolving as a country, and I think that has a lot to do with our generation not being afraid to protest as long as something good is coming out of it,” she said. “When things happen and people feel unsafe, people are more prone now to go out of their way to fix it. We don’t mind ruffling feathers.”
Choosing a charity for RÉNA IMAN, Muhammad thought back to her own experiences. After college, she worked in counseling for an organization with many young-adult clients who struggled with domestic violence.
“I got a little push back from people at the beginning of the business, because domestic violence isn’t pretty,” Muhammad said. “It’s not a charity where you put up a picture and people want to help. Sexual assault and domestic violence are things people don’t want to talk about…but I didn’t want to do anything cookie-cutter. I’m a raw person, and I wanted to put it out there.”
Once she settled on the idea, Muhammad looked for local organizations to set up a partnership. She reached out to The Joyful Heart Foundation and The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (VSDVAA).
“I actually found Joyful Heart because I’m obsessed with Law and Order: SVU,” she said, chuckling to herself. “They promoted The Joyful Heart Foundation on a commercial about helping and healing. I started to research it and I fell in love with it, and I found it just from watching one of my favorite TV shows.”
Muhammad’s partnership with the VSDVAA took a longer search.
“When I was looking at charities in Richmond, a lot of shelters came up,” she said. “But I didn’t want to donate to one shelter alone, I wanted to help an organization that reached a massive amount of people…not just a group of people who lived in that neighborhood and went there that day.”
She landed on the VSDVAA, a coalition for the state of Virginia that runs a 24-hour hotline for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The hotline is run by volunteers, 365 days a year, who work with shelters across the state — and it’s just one of many.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), in the U.S. more than 10 million women and men are abused by an intimate partner every year: that’s nearly 20 people per second. Their hotlines receive more than 20,000 phone calls per day in the United States.
On a larger scale, Muhammad is glad to see domestic violence issues being put on the table across the nation.
“We’re growing, we’re seeing that it’s a problem,” she said. “Because people are speaking out instead of sheltering it, they’re saying ‘this is what happened to me’ and actually taking legal steps to rectify the situation. We’re not allowing people to put it under a rug anymore, and I’m really happy about that.”
Moving forward, Muhammad is excited to grow her business. Her next steps are to add more colors and designs while expanding to selling them in retail stores.
“I love Richmond to death, and I would love to start with retail stores here and grow from there,” she said. “I want people to see this in Nordstrom. I want to be able to say that we’ve raised $1 million for charity in the first five years. It’s people over profit…I want to stand for something and I want to help.”