Gift bags crafted by employees of SourceAmerica member nonprofit Adelante are part of this year's major award shows.

By Kerry McGinley

Micaela Brown is the protagonist of a modern-day Cinderella story.

Like the Disney character, she's put in long hours behind the scenes on a labor of love: launching Blush & Whimsy, a one-woman cosmetic company. Her dream is sharing beauty through all-natural, cruelty-free lipsticks that change color based on who's wearing it.

"The message of my brand is that we bring magic into everyday life," Brown said.

Like Cinderella, Brown found herself with an invitation to the grand ball but no vehicle to get there.

In 2016, she posted images of her lipsticks — clear tubes containing gold flecks and real flowers inside — on social media channels. The photos went viral. She was invited to include them in the 2017 Academy Awards gift bags, but she did not yet have product.

She was thankful to get another shot at the 2018 Grammy gift bags. An invitation to supply lipsticks for the 2018 Oscar gift bags followed.

Once again like the innovative princess, she turned to an often-overlooked but highly capable support network to make it to this year's big party. Seven months ago, she partnered with Adelante Development Center, a member of the SourceAmerica network of nonprofits employing people with disabilities, to outsource order processing, fulfillment, quality control, packaging, warehousing and shipping.

An entrepreneur with a background in international trade and event production, Brown combines business savvy with a strong social conscience. Her father is a disabled veteran, so she understands both the challenges people with disabilties face finding meaningful work, as well as their potential. She sees that firsthand with Adelante employees.

"It has been just taking off ever since. They've been growing with me, which is absolutely tremendous," she said. "I've built my business with their partnership."

Each shipment includes a card that speaks to that partnership. For the Grammy gift bags, the music-themed message included contact information for Adelante.

"Adelante believes that everyone who wants to work should be included and appreciated in today's workforce," said Jill Beets, vice president of marketing and communications for Adelante.

"We are so happy that Blush & Whimsy understands that differences are not something to be tolerated, they are something to be celebrated."

When Brown learned her local partner was part of larger effort to empower people with disabilities through the SourceAmerica network, she wanted to expand that message. For the Oscars, both Adelante and SourceAmerica are featured on gift bag cards.

"Blush & Whimsy up till this point has been a localized effort," she said. "I wanted to find a way to take this message to a national and international level."

It's also how she encourages other startups and small businesses to find ways to give back and support their local communities while still turning a profit, she said. The SourceAmerica network includes more than 800 nonprofits nationwide employing people with disabilities.

"You can find partnerships like this across the country," she said. "I wanted to bring awareness on a much larger scale that all people have something to contribute … I wanted my company to have impact."

Brown considered other vendors. From a strictly financial standpoint, bids were fairly even, but she based her choice on more than hard costs.  Adelante embodied her commitment to supporting her local community and empowering people with disabilities. To meet her exacting standards for packaging and product presentation, its employees offer a level of customer service and customization with which other companies couldn't compete, she said.

"They've really become a foundation of my business," Brown said. "Their mission aligns so closely to mine, it made perfect sense to partner with a nonprofit that takes care of its employees and really works hard to empower the individual. That's exactly what I'm trying to do with Blush & Whimsy."

Sales began July 2017 and have since increased dramatically. Following her brand's exposure at the Grammys and Oscars, Brown was invited to fill gift bags for the 2018 Emmy Awards. Once again, she'll be growing her business with the support of Adelante and carrying forward a message of empowerment.

"Empowering people to be themselves — that needs to be what we celebrate," she said. "We are all important, we are all valued. That's my message. To have Adelante embody that, it just gives me goose bumps every single day. There is no better fit for my company and what we're trying to achieve. I was lucky that we have an organization like this that exists in my city."