illustration of water bottle, mask, clothing, towels, office supplies, purses, paint and paintbrush

Gift Guide: Pandemic Edition

The 2020 GW Gift Guide





By Caite Hamilton

Whether it’s soothing skin lotion, mildew-proof towels, well-designed masks or spice blends that evoke the flavors of the African diaspora, our guide this year focuses on simpler gifts that can provide solace and enhance the everyday. That’s not to say we shouldn’t leave room for things that are simply delightful or weird (see: a watercolor depicting electrophoresis), but for now we’d prefer fantasy in smaller doses (at least until 2021).

Tray Chic!

Working Hard / Wooden catchall tray sets / $50 to $75

From the women of The Home Edit rummaging through Reese Witherspoon’s memorabilia on Netflix to Marie Kondo changing our lives with the magic of tidying up, these days, it’s on-trend to be organized. But what if you didn’t have to sacrifice form for function? That’s a question David Zacher, BS ’03, asks whenever he designs something—especially when it comes to his catchall trays.

Catchall tray“I aim for a balance,” Zacher says. “To create something that is useful but also beautiful, satisfying and deceptively simple. I have always found that the greatest challenge when designing objects is that the design should be invisible, practically intuitive, like, ‘Of course this thing does this!"

David Zacher, BS '03



This type of work comes to him naturally. Growing up in rural West Virginia, Zacher’s dad was a potter, woodworker, and environmental activist, and his mother was a school teacher. He was always surrounded by tools and equipment for making toys, games, and furniture. So after graduating from GW with a degree in biology and spending a few years in politics, Zacher realized he missed building and creating. Wanting to find a career that combined making with social impact, he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design.

While there, he met Amanda Sim, a graphic designer who shared his same aesthetic and vision. They worked on a number of projects together, including a tactile timepiece for the visually impaired, and eventually launched Working Hard, a design studio and consultancy. 

Their latest project, the wooden catchall trays, exemplifies what the company is all about.

“We love simple, everyday objects that are used on a daily basis, and we are sticklers for the credo, ‘Everything in its place’ (a must for the serious craftsman and maker),” Zacher says.

The designer says, when he’s working, he starts with a complex idea and reduces it down to be as simple as possible—while still retaining the character of the design. Thus, each tray, which comes in small, square or large sizes, is a straightforward block of black walnut or beech hardwoods with an inset dish carved from the middle. And they’re magnetized, so you can stack them or snap them together side by side.

“We love being able to engage with an object and have it engage back,” Zacher says. Use them for office supplies, jewelry, or other accessories, and find them at


Equal-opportunity lotion

Simisola Naturals / Natural body butters / $6 to $15

When it comes to skincare, it’s very rarely one size fits all. Not so with Simisola Naturals, a beauty brand from Tomi Simisola Sodimu, BA ’18, who, while studying at GW, found herself in need of a solution for her dry, sensitive skin—on a college student’s budget.Simisola Naturals

Tomi Simisola Sodimu, BA ’18


“I did some research and started making body butters for myself with ingredients I was familiar with from my time living in Lagos,” she says. Sodimu, who is Nigerian American, knew the benefit of additives like shea butter, avocado oil and cocoa butter. After a short while, she says, her homemade body butters (and their healing effects) were getting the attention of family, friends and classmates. 

“When I told them I was making my own moisturizer, they started asking me to make some for them,” she says. “Some even came over to my room every other Sunday when I would make it to get some.” It didn’t take long for Sodimu to start bottling and settling her creations. 

These days, the products are handmade in Nigeria, and many of the ingredients—like the shea and cocoa butters—come from women-owned businesses and co-ops in West Africa as well. Sodimu says that’s an important aspect of her company.

“Every time you buy one of our products you are not just supporting our business, you are also supporting and impacting real people in Nigeria and Ghana,” she says. “We want to ensure that our company always impacts people positively.”

Which brings us back to the idea of one-size-fits-all skincare. Sodimu says her unisex products, which can be found online at, don’t discriminate; they’re “extremely versatile” to help simplify the skincare routine. A lot of the products, like bestseller Simi Ultra-moisturizing Butter, can even be used in multiple ways—on your body, in your hair, after shaving and even on beards.

“As Simisola Naturals grows and expands into the wellness brand I’ve envisioned, I want to make sure there’s something for everyone,” Sodimu says. “My hope is that the brand will encourage women and men alike to prioritize their physical, emotional and mental health, and live happy and purposeful lives.

Mask Quantities

Bloomlala / Floral print face masks / $16.99

Tara Ward, BS '11

Tara Ward, BS ’11, took a somewhat circuitous path to fashion design. Her mother, herself a fashion designer, deterred her from the profession, so Ward studied to become a doctor instead. Then, when she decided that medicine wasn’t for her, she pivoted to finance, securing a job at Morgan Stanley.

“I remember calling my mother and saying, ‘Mom, I just got a job, and I don’t even know how or why,’” Ward says. “She told me to take it for educational purposes, so I did.” What she learned was that it was the front end of the business—networking, prospecting, marketing and client acquisition—rather than the financial planning that she liked best. She took her newfound skills to another financial services firm to act as its first business development specialist. But when she lost her job and COVID-19 halted her hiring at another company where she had interviewed, she was back to square one.

“Here I was left jobless at the start of COVID and confronted with the reality of, ‘Well, what do I do now?’”

On a whim, she and her mom had started a floral-inspired fashion and accessory line, Bloomlala, which they’d put on hold. But when everyone started wearing face masks, Ward got a new idea.

Bloomala Masks

“I saw it as an opportunity,” she says. “I approached my mom and said, ‘Why don’t we utilize our floral prints and fabrics to make face masks?’ So that’s what we did.” And while Ward didn’t even know how to sew at the time, Bloomlala shipped out more than 2,000 face masks in six months—and counting—from its website,

Each of the pieces in the collection—which includes masks, as well as embroidered bomber jackets, leggings, hoodie dresses, and bags—features a floral motif, a throwback to her college days, when Ward was in Delta Gamma. The sorority held a garden-themed night in which each sister was required to wear a floral dress. Not one to don Lily Pulitzer, Ward couldn’t find anything that felt like it fit her personal style.

“That’s when it dawned on me,” she says. “All women love flowers (both fresh and printed), so why isn’t there a one-stop-shop for all things floral?” It didn’t take long to convince her mom to start Bloomlala, and Ward says she’s proud of her ability to pivot careers after a few hitches in her plan. She’s also proud to give back. For every mask sold, one is donated to a frontline worker.

A Tenable Towel

ANACT / Hemp-based towels / $10 to $50

Brianna Kilcullen, BBA ’11, likes to say that if Nike and Patagonia had a baby, it would be her hemp-based towel company, ANACT. Short for “an act” (as in an act of kindness, an act of goodwill or the simple act of creating impact), the business was born after a trip to China gave Kilcullen a window into the sustainable properties of hemp.

ANACT Hemp-Based Towels

Brianna Kilcullen, BBA ’11

She’d spent most of her career until that point working for big-name companies like Under Armour, where she carved out the company’s first sustainability role and built a program to audit its factories globally. Then she transitioned to a position with prAna, a subsidiary of Columbia Sportswear, running its sustainability initiatives. But it wasn’t until the 2016 presidential election that she started to think seriously about how to make real change.

“I realized that if I wanted to see something get done in this world, I had to do it myself and not wait for someone else to do it,” Kilcullen says. “For me, that meant seeing the textile industry evolve and take responsibility for its social and environmental impact.”

Enter hemp. After witnessing the hemp harvest in China and conducting a few unfruitful searches to solve a problem she’d been having—mildewy towels—she put two and two together.

“Because of hemp’s molecular structure, it’s hollow, which means it resists the growth of bacteria because water can’t stick to it. It’s also a regenerative fiber, using little to no insecticides, pesticides or water,” she says. “It clicked for me that I should have a hemp towel.”

Since that moment in 2017, ANACT was successfully funded on Kickstarter, surpassing their initial goal and getting featured in places like Oprah Magazine, Washington Times, Miami Herald and Florida Today. 

Kilcullen says the company has started experimenting with natural dyes, but that the product line—of hand towels, bath towels and washcloths, all available at—won’t be expanding any time soon.

“We would prefer to stay simple and true to what got us started,” she says, “and use our products to solve problems and focus on market expansion instead of additional inventory.”

It's in the Bag

ZAAF / Handmade leather goods inspired by traditional Ethiopian patterns / $42 to $756Abai Schulze, BA ’11

Born in a remote countryside of Ethiopia, Abai Schulze, BA ’11, spent the majority of her childhood in a Catholic orphanage until she was almost 11 years old. It was then that she was adopted by an American family and moved to Texas.

“I had numerous opportunities to travel back to Ethiopia,” she says. “I was able to intern and volunteer back in my country in different settings during my teenage and college years.” Those visits allowed her to stay connected culturally and—side-benefit—to recognize the potential of her birth country. Zaaf Handmade Leather BagBecause of that exposure, Schulze says that for many years, her driving passion and vision has been centered around using her education and experiences “to create economic opportunities in my country of birth.” To do that, she started ZAAF, a handbag company that features materials straight from Africa. Schulze moved back to Ethiopia to bring her vision to life.

“I saw an opportunity where I could create jobs while I stay in the field of the ‘arts,’ so to speak,” she says. With limited working capital, leather handbags made the most sense—they’re one size fits all, and she could start small. And because Ethiopia has the largest population of livestock in Africa, it produces some of the finest leather in the world.

For each of ZAAF’s bags, which she sells online at, the raw materials are hand-picked, hand-woven, hand-cut and hand-stitched. They incorporate classic geometric patterns created on traditional looms that have been passed down through many generations.

“It is important to us that our consumers feel the sense of where the products are made,” Schulze says. Merging traditional techniques with modern designs is the main tenet of ZAAF.

Schulze says the Nomadic Bag, a compact crossbody, is a bestseller and her personal favorite. But the Gulo, a sculptural portfolio, was a finalist for the 2018 Independent Handbag Designer Awards.

That’s just the beginning. ZAAF, which means “tree” in the ancient Ampharic language, introduces new collections annually, and adds new designs about every two to three months for the brick and mortar shops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and National Harbor, Md. And, of course, ZAAF is always growing its product categories to create more partnerships with African artisans.

Already the company has added footwear, jewelry and clothing to the collection. Says Schulze, “I believe the best way to change the perception of Ethiopia as an aid dependent and starving country is to solve our own problems with our own resources and materials that we have plenty of.”

Science as Art

Sandra Culliton / Science art prints / $20


Sandra Culliton, CERT ’15

Is Sandra Culliton, CERT ’15, a scientist who dabbles in art? Or an artist who dabbles in science? She admits that’s a hard question.

“My instinct is to say a scientist who dabbles in art because that was my life plan and I feel like a scientist at heart,” she says. “It took me a long time to call myself an artist; the transition was so gradual. But today, I would lean more toward considering myself an artist.”

Whether she knows it or not, Culliton is proving it’s possible to be both and that, in her case, one can’t exist without the other.

Several years ago, the science artist was in a microbial genetics course lecture at the University of Maryland when she was shown an image of the Haemophilus influenzae genome, the first organism to have its genome completely sequenced. She noticed how beautiful it was—its concentric circles connected by brightly colored lines.

“Coming from a family in which creativity was celebrated, I have dabbled with painting,” Culliton says. “So with this new inspiration, I began a series of genomic map paintings. This was really the beginning of my becoming an artist, though at the time I didn’t realize it.” Later, in a program at GW to study clinical microbiology, she started painting the organisms she was studying, “partly to help learn and memorize how to identify them visually.”


Science art prints

Her first piece, depicting bacterial conjugation, started a collection that now comprises hundreds of science-themed watercolor and acrylic paintings, from amino acid sequences to human anatomy, which she sells on Etsy at Mitosis, Microbe Collection and Cell to Helix are three of her bestsellers, but she’s partial to the genomic pieces—CDKL5 gene map, or Genome 15—because of the intricacy of the work.

Now a full-time artist after leaving a job at a clinical lab in Washington, D.C., about five years ago, Culliton is currently working on Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus. 

“So much of science is simply naturally beautiful,” Culliton says. “I like that there is something to be understood intellectually about what you are seeing.”

A little extra flavor

Mesean Spices / Spice blends / $15 to $50

Dominique Tolbert, second-year MBA studentInsofar as there is such a thing, Dominique Tolbert, second-year MBA student, says her company, Mesean Spices, was “a calculated accident.” A hotel and tourism management professional, Tolbert has worked in many facets of the hospitality industry—from a restaurant manager with MGM Resorts International to a cook with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. Not to mention, she’s an entrepreneur; Tolbert is the owner of catering and pop-up events company TLBRT Hospitality, which introduces diners to African diaspora fusion cuisine.

“I make all my seasoning blends, marinades, dressings, sauces—everything from scratch,” Tolbert says. She began taking notice of the flavors clients liked most, including some that they’d ask her to leave extra of, so they could cook with them on their own time. That’s when she decided to start packaging and distributing.

But it takes a little bit of work to get a spice company up and running, so after an initial market test (she sold out of the first 200-jar run in two months), Tolbert decided to enter GW’s New Venture Competition and, later, its summer startup accelerator program.

“It’s been an exciting journey so far,” she says. “I never thought I would have started a second company, let alone a product company, which is a completely different lane than the service-based businesses I’m used to.” But the timing was just right. As COVID-19 began to slow her catering business, Mesean (which means “food” in Kpelle, her family’s Liberian dialect) began taking off.

Mesean spices

The caterer developed four main blends to start, and it’s no surprise that the box set, with samples of each one, is the most popular. But Tolbert says her personal favorite is “Coffee Cumin,” a combo of espresso powder, cumin, oregano, and other herbs and spices. She likes to use it on lamb chops, sweet potato hash, and even in coconut butternut squash soup.

“These spice blends are inspired by flavors you’d find in West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America,” Tolbert says. “Across those regions, we use a lot of the same ingredients and foods but build up the flavor profiles a bit differently depending on the spices, seasonings, and herbs that we use.”

Currently, Tolbert assembles the jars in her home kitchen, but she recently signed a lease on a commercial kitchen in D.C., which will allow her to expand—and develop new flavors like “Keeyan,” a mix of peppers, herbs, and spices. Find them all at

A better bottle

PathWater / Refillable aluminum water bottles with purified water / $19.99 (case of nine)


Shadi Bakour, BBA ’13

Not a lot of entrepreneurs can say they got the idea for their business brainstorming in the parking lot of a CVS, but Shadi Bakour, BBA ’13, can.

Bakour, a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, was looking for his next adventure, and wanted to build something that could affect people in a positive way.

“We were looking to create something that was simple, but that could have massive impact and scale,” says Bakour. “We walked into the CVS and just gravitated towards the water aisle.”

Water, Bakour says, is fundamental to life. Everyone drinks it, but most of it is contained in single-use plastic—only 9 percent of which is recycled worldwide.

“We spend 10 minutes drinking [water from a bottle], and it lasts in the ocean or landfills for 700 years,” Bakour says. That’s why he and his co-founders, including Harry Meng, BBA ’13, started PathWater, which they hope will forge the path to end single-use plastics.


PathWater Bottle

PathWater offers three kinds of purified water—still, sparkling and its newest addition, alkaline—in sturdy, refillable, 100 percent recyclable bottles. “PathWater is the first ever recyclable, infinitely reusable water bottle offering a more sustainable solution to the world’s plastic problem,” Bakour says. Choose from a case of nine 20- or 25-ounce bottles for $19.99, all filled and manufactured in the United States.

The company has already captured the attention of big-name investors, like Kevin Hart, Guy Fieri and Ryan Seacrest, as well as early adopters—Orange Theory Fitness, Dropbox, Yellowstone National Park and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” have all eliminated single-use plastics across their organizations. 

Find PathWater at, and in retailers in all 50 states. Over the next few years, Bakour says, PathWater will dominate the industry by “offering the next logical step in the evolution of how we drink water on a day-to-day basis.”

“As PathWater becomes a global disruptor to the bottled water industry, we are challenging the status quo to leave a better future for generations to come,” he says.

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