Opportunity knocks for UB student-entrepreneur battling major illness

How 18-year-old David Alvarez took a Dual Enrollment class, ended up at the University of Bridgeport, and launched hot new apparel company in between
Student-entrepreneur David Alvarez

When he was in his final year in high school, David Alvarez enrolled in a class called Entrepreneurship because he said he wanted “to know more about business.”

He ended up with far more than newfound knowledge.

The class, it turned out, was offered through University of Bridgeport’s Dual Enrollment Program, which gives high school students the opportunity to take college-level classes at their Connecticut high schools.

As a result, Alvarez wound up earning three college credits. Moreover, he had learned enough about business to launch MADE Clothings, an inspirational line of apparel for young people facing adversity.

Now, Alvarez is a freshman at the University of Bridgeport, where the Entrepreneurship class he took at Seymour High School put him one step closer to earning a bachelor’s degree in business management. But the University is equipping Alvarez with something other than a solid undergraduate education in business: it’s giving him direct access to experts from its Innovation Center, Ernest C. Trefz School of Business, and the Student Entrepreneur Center (SEC) who want to help him grow his apparel start-up into a unique brand.

“It’s amazing,” says Alvarez. “I took the dual enrollment class wanting to learn more about entrepreneurship, then I started my business, then I enrolled at UB. Everything is falling in place as one thing leads to another.”

But there were many years when things did not fall neatly into place for Alvarez. When he was in elementary school, Alvarez, now 18, ran on his tip-toes, his limbs unable to move in the same easy, loping gait of his third-grade peers.

“It turned out I have SMA—Spinal Muscular Atrophy,” says Alvarez. “My muscles were wasting away.”

Turning hardship into opportunity

Now every few months, doctors inject a needle into Alvarez’s back to withdraw the equivalent of a teaspoon of spinal fluid before reinjecting the same amount of clear liquid medicine into his spine. Throughout the ten-minute procedure, Alvarez must remain absolutely still while the needles are inserted between the discs of his lower back. Nonetheless, his bullish optimism is palpable. “I’m making muscles,” he says, flexing a right bicep as he rolls up the sleeve of a white T-shirt from his MADE Clothings line. “I’m getting stronger.”

In fact, Alvarez has drawn on his personal experience to develop an inspirational apparel company called MADE Clothings. More than simple apparel, he views the line as a way to encourage other young people to overcome adversity and improve their lives, as well.

“A lot of young people are facing hardships. I want to change that. I want to help inspire people to do better for themselves and the world,” he says. “That’s the main reason I created MADE. It’s for people who are overcoming challenges to make it or who have made it, despite hardship.”

In a word of tweeted platitudes, Alvarez is keenly aware that his pledge could easily be dismissed as a marketing gimmick. His proven ability to rise above his personal health issues—to remain optimistic when it would be easy to fall into despair—gives him enough street cred to silence skeptics. Nonetheless, he is determined to be a living example of what company stands for: grit, hope, and dreams fulfilled.

“Building a business is hard work,” he says. “You have to be willing to do it.”

When his mother and father offered to give him money to launch MADE Clothings, he politely declined and worked as a paid intern at Sikorsky Credit Union instead.  “My parents already help me with so many things, and it was important to me that MADE is solely my own,” he says. “I saved as much money as I possibly could and invested it into the business.”

His dogged work ethic has already turned heads among University of Bridgeport officials.

“David is exactly the kind of student-entrepreneur we’re dedicated to helping,” said College of Business, Engineering and Education Dean Tarek Sobh. “He’s directed and motivated like so many of our students, which is why we’re excited to open our Innovation Center in 2019. It’s the latest resource for student-entrepreneurs who currently work at the University’s Student Entrepreneur Center.”

Crews renovate the Innovation Center at University of Bridgeport
Crews renovate Bauer Hall, site of the new Innovation Center at University of Bridgeport. It will open in 2019.

Style and substance

Sobh heard about Alvarez a few weeks into the fall semester. It was a quiet afternoon, and Alvarez had stopped by the Trefz School of Business to introduce himself. He brought a knapsack. It was filled soft cotton T-shirts that came in black or white. Each was printed with the new MADE Clothings logo—the word MADE with a Japanese character that translates into the word "made" for the letter A.

“A lot of my peers are into Japanese lifestyle, anime, Japanese culture; I thought this would appeal to them,” he said, pulling the shirts, the first in his clothing line, from his bag and showing them off to Hamer and Cahill. “I wanted a design that is simple but eye-catching, and I want everything to be attractive.”

Soon after the first delivery of shirts arrived, Alvarez started an Instagram account. He likes that his customers can model his shirts on the social media site, but he’s equally determined to have them post stories—maybe just a few words or so—sharing how they overcame or are overcoming challenges along with their dreams and goals.

“I want their stories behind each photo because MADE is not just a business, he says. “I want it to be a movement, to be authentic.

He has little to worry about, says School of Business Director Elena Cahll, who also founded the Student Entrepreneur Center on campus.

“David wants to inspire people who face hardships, and he can do it because he’s been there. He’s earned the right to say, ‘Don’t give up’ because he’s spent years battling a painful disease and he’s never given up! He’s reached inside himself to find strength and inspiration. He’s completely genuine,” says Cahill.

“Now we’re here to help David as he develops MADE Clothings," Cahill adds. "Connecting David to the plentiful Student Entrepreneur Center resources of attorneys, CPAs, finance professionals, digital marketing professionals, and networks for manufacturing and distribution, among other contacts, are what comes next. The SEC will and does exist to assist David, and students like him, in all aspects of business growth.”

Recently, Alvarez looked out a window of Wahlstrom Library and peered down at Bauer Hall, the grand Victorian building that will soon house the Innovation Center and SEC.  From his bird’s-eye vantage point, a bright yellow excavator parked outside the building looked like a child’s toy.  Inside the building, crews were renovating the historic dwelling, where in coming months he will continue grow MADE Clothings with free guidance from Cahill and other experts. 

Did Alvarez feel lucky about the way things are working out?

“No, it’s not luck,” he said matter-of-factly. “You make luck. If you work really hard, you’ll get rewarded, and along with rewards, a bunch of other doors will open. That’s what’s happening for me.”

Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, lgeary@bridgeport.edu