By Ed Brennen
By now during the coronavirus pandemic, you’ve probably seen plenty of stories about face masks. Crafty people are sewing them at home for their neighbors. Retailers such as The Gap, Banana Republic and Nordstrom can’t keep them in stock. Even celebrities like Kim Kardashian have jumped on the bandwagon and launched their own designer lines.
But most of those stories are about the demand for masks since April, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that cloth face coverings be worn in public.
Michael Hulen, a Manning School of Business
student from Sudbury, Mass., started making his face masks last September — four months before the world had ever heard of COVID-19.
“I noticed more and more international students wearing masks, and I thought it was a trend that was eventually going to come to the United States,” says Hulen, who just finished his freshman year as a business administration major with a concentration in marketing
. “I wanted to hop on the trend before it was too late.”
So from his 10th-floor dorm room at Fox Hall, Hulen started his own mask company, STATEMENT, last fall. His idea was to make nonmedical face coverings for high school and college students, branded with their school’s logo, that they could wear to concerts and music festivals as a way to protect themselves from dust.
“When I first visited UMass Lowell, I fell in love with the business school and the DifferenceMaker program. They’ve made my business possible with all their support.”
-Business student Michael Hulen
Starting with his hometown Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Hulen began selling the masks on Instagram for $20 (including shipping). He sourced the materials from an overseas supplier and assembled the washable and reusable polyester masks with the school’s “L-S” logo at his family’s home.
Then, in January, Hulen started reading stories about a mysterious virus that was killing people in Wuhan, China. He remembered being frightened by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and he began tracking the growing number of COVID-19 cases around the world.
“I saw how the rest of the world was being affected by this, but not many people in America were that concerned,” says Hulen, who started wearing his masks in public — including to the final Boston Bruins home game on March 7 before the NHL season was suspended because of the pandemic. Besides the goalies, Hulen may have been the only person at TD Garden wearing a mask that night.
“I stood out in the crowd, and people were actually making fun of me,” Hulen recalls. “I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, ‘Just wait, you’ll see.’ Now everyone’s wearing a mask.”
Since launching his company, Hulen says he’s sold more than 500 masks. He’s rented a small warehouse production space in Acton and hired a full-time seamster. He’s added masks for Wayland High School and plans to expand to Duxbury High next. Eventually, he’d like to sell masks at every high school in Massachusetts and move into the college market.
“As I researched the market, I saw that people weren’t targeting schools and colleges. That’s our niche market,” says Hulen, who received guidance from adjunct faculty member Kevin Willett in his Introduction to Marketing course.
“I told him I really liked the idea,” Willett says. “It’s a perfect example of seeing an opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
Since his company was already off the ground, Hulen says he didn’t want to enter the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute
’s annual $50K Idea Challenge. But he did take advantage of DifferenceMaker resources to help develop his business plan.
“When I first visited UMass Lowell, I fell in love with the business school and the DifferenceMaker program,” Hulen says. “They’ve made my business possible with all their support.”
Hulen is also focused on his business’ ethics. He says the packaging he uses is biodegradable, and he plans to donate a portion of his profits to local businesses and hospitals impacted by the pandemic.
“We’re trying to look out for our community. We want to be there for people who need masks in their school systems,” says Hulen, who chose to call his business the all-caps STATEMENT for a reason.
“Even though COVID-19 is taking over right now and canceling our events, high school students can still make a statement and feel pride by wearing their school logo,” says Hulen, who sees the STATEMENT brand one day expanding into apparel like hats and T-shirts.
Hulen is taking online classes this summer while working to grow his business. He is developing a website (statementmasks.store) and is looking to add students and recent alumni to his company’s leadership team. He’s also started an ambassador program so high school students can promote their schools’ masks online.
And he hopes to license the UMass Lowell logo for a face mask that his fellow River Hawks can wear when they return to campus. The River Hawk Shop already has several different face masks and covers available online, but none with UML branding.
“If I could walk into the bookstore next year and see my mask available, it would be a dream come true,” Hulen says.