Rising New College third-year Aleah Colón-Alfonso, a graduate of Montclair Cooperative School an an immunocompromised student with an entrepreneurial spirit, is designing health-centric products to help people like her thrive.
Two years into her collegiate studies, she has already built two companies: Aleah Wares (a line of patient-friendly sweaters) and Stay Safely Away (wearable merchandise — from T-shirts to masks — that allows customers with immune issues to “stay distantly social” during the pandemic). She has worked on the latter company while in quarantine, ever since she evacuated from the New College campus in March.
“I had been noticing the lack of mask wearing and social distancing in Sarasota, and I just wanted to wear a sign around my neck that said, ‘Please, I don’t want to be on a ventilator’ to try to encourage people to have better behaviors,” Colón-Alfonso said. “So clothing became my wearable sign.”
Colón-Alfonso has small fiber neuropathy, Lyme disease and accompanying secondary illnesses. She received these diagnoses before the age of 18, and was in a wheelchair for much of her senior year in high school in New Jersey.
“I’m no stranger to infusions and long-term treatments. After being diagnosed with neuropathy, I was prescribed weekly immunoglobulin infusions (IVIG) to help heal my nerves,” she said. “The infusions have many side effects similar to chemotherapy, including severe temperature changes, fever, nausea and fatigue.”
Colón-Alfonso’s illnesses may be inconvenient (oftentimes it takes hours for her to get on her feet in the morning) but she doesn’t view them as hindrances. If anything, they make her more of a goal-setter and visionary, as they push her to raise public health awareness and promote social change.
“I don’t let my illnesses stop me from doing anything,” Colón-Alfonso said. “I think that being so sick for so long gives you an extra sort of motivation. It’s a very good distraction to have goals I know I can hit, even when my sickness acts up.”
Stay Safely Away is the manifestation of that. After four months of work (including website creation and social media marketing), requests for Colón-Alfonso’s self-designed products are already rolling in from across the globe. Her website officially launched on July 20, and Colón-Alfonso received 18 orders, including one from Ireland. She would love to eventually partner with New College to create a clothing line with joint branding (an NCF collection), she said.
“It’s surreal to see my ideas out there. It’s amazing,” Colón-Alfonso said. “Everyone I know is on social media platforms, sharing my ideas.”
And Colón-Alfonso’s ideas are numerous. As a student, she is pursuing a biopsychology/neuroscience Area of Concentration (AOC) along with a focus on Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS). She also holds a black belt in taekwondo and is president of the Aikido Club at New College.
For her 2018 Independent Study Project (ISP), Colón-Alfonso worked with Economics Professor Richard Coe, Ph.D. to draft a business plan for her sweater line. She invented the first independently-donned, infusion-friendly sweater, and even filed an application for a patent in August 2019. The sweaters address the issue of cold chills and hot flashes patients experience during intravenous therapies.
“During my first year of college, I was in the middle of an infusion and I started experiencing severe chills, followed by extreme hot flashes. During the severe chills, I was unable to wear sweaters of any kind due to tangled tubes. After researching infusion-friendly sweaters, I realized that there had yet to be a product designed to meet my needs,” Colón-Alfonso said. “I read books on how to run your own company, designed a prototype and applied for a patent (I should hear about approval very soon). As soon as I get the results back, I’ll hopefully be able to do brick-and-mortar or online store.”
In the meantime, Colón-Alfonso is busy with Stay Safely Away. She worked with Karsten Henckell, Ph.D., a professor of mathematics and computer science at New College, on Aleah Wares (and Henckell then connected her with entrepreneur/alum Lawrence Levine to help with both of her businessess.
Colón-Alfonso believes her inventiveness and drive is due, in part, to her lineage.
“My grandparents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, and my grandfather owned supermarkets and hardware stores, and I just think my entire family are go-getters,” she said. “When I was 10, I was baking cakes for birthday parties and starting craft companies, and I think my curiosity translates well to invention. I’m pursuing medical school and would love to become a doctor. So, even if I pursue business too and start my own company, it will definitely be something in the medical field.”
Biology Professor Tiffany Doan, Ph.D. is cheering Colón-Alfonso on, both in the classroom and on the mat (Doan is the sensei for the Aikido Club).
“Despite having chronic illnesses, Aleah has persevered through all of her New College classes, often while in pain and unable to walk. She is passionate about Aikido, even though her body does not always cooperate with her desire to practice,” Doan said. “Just like she will not let any illness hold her back, she makes products to encourage people to live their best lives in safety and comfort. I’m very proud of the work she is doing.”
For more information on Stay Safely Away, visit staysafelyaway.com
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at New College of Florida