By Brittany Bowyer
For Seton Catholic Prep senior Isabella DiGiovanni, leadership and selflessness are two things she embodies to the core.
A future member of the Dartmouth women’s basketball team, DiGiovanni is an avid activist for the women’s empowerment movement whose passion is to give back and help others.
That’s why she created her company, SAND Custom Designs, with the help of friend Connor Nannen, as a way to help empower women across the globe through educational opportunities.
DiGiovanni’s idea for the company stemmed from a family trip she took overseas a few years ago. With both of her parents in the import business, she went on a trip with them to India, where she was absolutely moved, specifically during their drive to the factory.
“I was just overwhelmed with the poverty, hardship, pollution and conditions,” DiGiovanni said. “I saw something at that age that never left my mind, which was that the women there work in terrible conditions and many of them do not get further opportunities besides manual factory labor.”
Describing the conditions she witnessed, DiGiovanni reflected on the extreme differences in life between herself and her peers and those of young women like her in India.
“It would be impossible for my community to experience a day in the life in India,” she said. “What I saw left a permanent mark in my mind that helping underprivileged women to see opportunity in the midst of oppression is essential.”
Being a young woman herself, DiGiovanni felt a calling to help these women realize there is more to life than what they’re currently confined to — and thus, the idea for the brand was born.
“My mom has a gift company called Santa Barbara Design Studio and she sells these canvas tote bags with various sayings on them, but she had always gotten questions about custom ones, which she doesn’t do,” DiGiovanni said. “We decided to essentially ‘collaborate’ with her and sell those same bags but with a custom option.”
The name, SAND Custom Designs, holds significance to DiGiovanni and Nannen for a number of reasons.
“As you can probably see within our website, we love to display the simple aesthetic, so the word SAND stands for Simple Aesthetics Nannen DiGiovanni,” she said.
It’s deeper than just that, though, and also represents something they hope people remember and associate with the name.
“This word makes a lot of sense,” DiGiovanni explained, “because we consider ourselves a single grain of sand — a very small part of the big world around us. But when all people unite to empower women, we can truly make a difference.”
The pair quickly started researching and brainstorming what they could do to help give these women a path to a better life. Upon looking further into things, it became apparent that there was a lack of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals for India’s booming population of 1.3 billion people. Because of that, the country is filling those gaps with workers who sometimes lack the necessary skills, education and training to properly treat patients, causing additional harm.
With that in mind, the focus became providing opportunities in the healthcare field. Nursing school in India costs 72,000 Indian rupees, which is the equivalent of about $1,000 in the United States. Through the creation of their customizable tote bags, DiGiovanni and Nannen set a goal of sending five women to a two-year nursing program in their first year.
Currently, they’re about a third of the way toward achieving their goal, but they say their company is starting to gain traction among friends and family.
“Bella is so selfless; most of us are just finding out about her business endeavor,” said Seton Catholic Prep head coach Karen Self.
Being a Catholic Prep school, the foundation was built upon the patroness Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. When imagining what the ideal student of Seton Catholic Prep would embody, Self said DiGiovanni has all of the traits.
“We strive every day to instill in our students her spiritual gifts of faith, love, determination and courage,” Self said. “I cannot think of another student who embodies those charisms more. Bella has certainly overcome some big hurdles in her career and her determination is unmatched. She lives her faith every day in all of her actions.
“She has the courage to venture across the country to attend and play basketball for Dartmouth in the Ivy League next year. Lastly, her business venture is a beautiful display of loving service to others. We are so proud of Bella.”
Self’s influence as a coach and the mindset she helped instill is something DiGiovanni says has overflowed beyond the court and into her everyday life.
“Being a woman in sports has really helped me gain a confident and risk-taking mindset,” DiGiovanni said. “Sports has ‘toughened me up’ in a sense and taught me how to learn from my mistakes and keep trying no matter what.”
But it extends beyond that. Self also taught DiGiovanni to always keep pushing toward her goals, even if the results aren’t always what she wanted.
“My coach, Karen Self, has always told me during my four years at Seton to keep failing until you fail forward, and that has really translated into our business,” DiGiovanni said. “We definitely have failed and failed and failed some more but now we have finally ‘failed forward’ and are making so much progress every day.”
DiGiovanni said her teammates have been incredibly supportive of her efforts to help provide women in India with opportunities. She knows her teammates also can relate to what it’s like being a young female in the still evolving world of sports and understand how far the gender gap has come in recent years. They also realize, however, that there’s still more work to be done.
“They constantly ask me when they can give us a shout-out on social media or help us take pictures for our Instagram,” DiGiovanni said. “Even the simple likes and follows make a difference as well, and I am so grateful I have such a supportive community around me that has helped encourage us to keep going.”
When DiGiovanni and Nannen first envisioned SAND Custom Designs in May 2020, it was just a simple idea with no guarantees as to how far it would go. From teaching themselves to screen print in the DiGiovanni garage during the brutal Arizona summer to setting up a website, they never gave up. By the end of summer, they were up and running.
The DiGiovanni family relocated to a different house in November, and their business moved into the space in the attic. Since November, the business has taken off so much that they’ve nearly outgrown the new space.
While their company is just getting over some of the first hurdles, they still face a number of other significant challenges they’re looking forward to attacking head-on that hopefully will help the business grow in the long run. While DiGiovanni is busy representing Dartmouth next season on the hardwood in New Hampshire, Nannen will be only a short distance from home in Tempe at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
Even with the distance, the two are looking forward to working together to continue attacking the challenges with new, innovative solutions.
While they hope they are able to make a difference by empowering women across the globe, they also hope to have a ripple effect in their own communities by inspiring others to get involved.
“Bella and I have been inspired by some amazing people on our journey to starting a business,” Nannen said. “We also hope to inspire others by making a difference in the world. … I believe that with this goal to help others, that we, too, can inspire people to do things they never dreamed imaginable.”
Added DiGiovanni: “This is not only something we should do, but it is clearly the Christian thing to do when we can. I would encourage women of all ages to fully understand that if we all help each other, we can start to end gender inequality, abuse and suffering.”
Those interested in helping support their cause can do so through visiting SAND Custom Designs.
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