PEABODY — After graduating from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School in 2010, Charlene Pena — the 2019 winner of the North of Boston Business Plan Competition — knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

However, like many budding entrepreneurs, she did not know quite what to do.

Inventing a hat she called the "Afrona" to protect her voluminous curls from sun damage or being flattened while wearing a regular hat was not part of the plan at first.

But in December, Pena's fledgling Peabody company, Woven Royal, took home the $10,000 first-place prize in the business plan competition hosted by the Enterprise Center at Salem State University.

"Our goal through the competition is to help provide a framework for a business to be successful," said Laura Swanson, the executive director of the Enterprise Center, which helps small businesses grow with educational workshops and 53,000 square feet of space on Salem State's campus where businesses can lease space and benefit from all the programming and resources.

The goal, Swanson said, is to help small businesses create strong business plans.

Pena, she said, was someone who took advantage of the competition's revised format, which featured programming for much of the year to help businesses make their pitch. She described Pena as a talented and passionate entrepreneur with a great idea.

"She knows her customers and she knows her vision," Swanson said. Companies can know their product, services and clients, but at the end of the day, Pena understands that "it's the lifestyle" that will help sell her Afrona hats.

Today, Woven Royal's sewing studio is located in a room in the home in which Pena grew up, a space she hopes to grow out of some day.

"It's exciting and it's helpful, very helpful," Pena, 28, said of winning the competition. The coaching she received during the competition was vital. Pitching her idea to a pitch panel helped her refine it.

After high school, Pena attended Bunker Hill Community College, where she earned a certificate in entrepreneurship. But then failing to get into a program afterward to pursue that, she lacked a concrete idea of what to do. 

Then, she said, her sister-in-law suggested that entrepreneurship didn't seem like a viable path, and suggested Pena study nutrition, instead.

At the end of 2016, Pena graduated from Framingham State College with a degree in nutrition. She got a job with a program called CitySprouts, which plants gardens at schools, teaching children how to cook and garden outside.

"And so when I was working with them, the kids, the sun would burn my hair," Pena said, "and I would wear a sun hat and that would flatten my hair, and so I wanted something that would protect my hair but keep my volume, and so that's how the idea for the Afrona came about."

Her large voluminous curly hair, she said, is a big part of her identity, and being unable to keep it nice frustrated her. After all, she said, how her hair looks is how she is presenting herself to the world. 

After having the epiphany of wanting to create something to keep her hair from being damaged, she would wrap her hair in a scarf, which would take a long time to do. The wrap was complicated, and then it would slip off at night. People wrapping their hair was nothing new, Pena just found it time consuming.

Then, in 2017, she traveled to the Dominican Republic to experience her heritage.

There, she taught children how to speak English. At the time, she was living with her aunt and Pena asked her if she knew a seamstress who could help her out.

Her aunt directed her to a seamstress named Fela who lived in a two-room house with her two children and her husband in Cristo Rey, a poor neighborhood of the capital, Santo Domingo. She went to her house and the pair brainstormed to create the Afrona.

The Afrona is essentially a tube of fabric the wearer pulls down over their head. It looks kind of like a windsock.

Then, the wearer pulls it back up over their hair, lifting it it up. A drawstring tied in the middle holds the hair in place and gives it style. Sleeping with it on keeps one's hair from flattening. It can also be worn to protect hair from sun damage. It's satin-lined to prevent frizz. It looks like a hair wrap, but so much simpler to put on.

"Instead of wrapping your hair up, or, like, dealing with a big, big hat or trying to stuff your hair somewhere, this just like takes care of it all," Pena said. "So instead of sleeping on my hair, I'm sleeping around my hair."

She has applied for a patent, working with a free legal clinic at Northeastern University, trying to take advantage of all the resources she can.

She returned to the U.S. earlier than expected from the Dominican Republic, so she got a job for a few months sewing at the workshop of Vedavoo, a Leominster maker of fly fishing gear, where she learned to sew and got an understanding of how a business works.

She sold her first Afrona in September 2018. She then went back to the Dominican to work with seamstresses, who live in poverty, to support their work. But she faced obstacles, and realized she had to start her company in the U.S. before working in the Dominican Republic. 

She attended a program from December to March at EforAll, EparaTodos, in Lynn, which offers business accelerator programs in both English and Spanish. She launched online in March 2019 (www.wovenroyal.com). She hand sews most of the Afronas she sells.

In October 2018, she applied to enter the Business Plan Competition while she was still in the Dominican, but did not get in. They thought it was a good idea, she said, "but I didn't do a good job on my application."

She was attending workshops and taking advantage of the Enterprise Center's resources, when program director Lesley Smythe encouraged her to reapply.

"I was denying her at first, but then, I finally got convinced and I applied and did what I had to do and I was able to win the competition," Pena said.

Pena hopes to expand and work with women who want to sew. She's hoping to work with a co-op in Chelsea made up of low-income women who want to better themselves.

"I want to work with people that don't have opportunities," Pena said. The prize money will help her realize her goal, she said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2534, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews. 

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