Naperville sisters' shirts for girls shatter stereotypes

Naperville sisters Jenny Tank and Cindy Tank-Murphy don't understand why anyone would buy some of the shirts sold for girls that stereotype them as pretty and frivolous and little else.

"'I'm too cute, my brother does my math for me,'" Tank-Murphy said she remembers seeing on one girls' tee.

"And people are buying that," she said. "Something's gotta change."

What changed is the business the Tank sisters and their two other siblings are in.

From backgrounds in marketing, law, education and design, the family came together to build a business selling shirts that aim to empower girls instead of typecasting them.

Called Clever Belle, the Tank family's company has been selling shirts online since August 2015 and at Peace boutique in downtown Naperville since June 2016.

"The shirts are our platform," said Tank-Murphy, 46, who has daughters ages 15 and 13.

Clever Belle sells about a dozen designs, each emphasizing one of five themes: STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and math), sports, nature and the environment, art and music, volunteerism and women of influence.

Clever Belle's designs feature an environmentalist, a disability rights advocate and an international activist for girls' education, all designed by Jason Tank of Chicago, the lone brother in the family of women, which also includes educator Krisy Tank-Godfryt of Tucson, Arizona.

The idea is to provide an alternative for girls' apparel during the important ages of 8 to 12, when girls can begin to lose confidence and see some fields as off-limits.

"We feel like you can't be it unless you see it," Tank said.

Clever Belle wants girls to see designs like the "I love Science" tee, with "love" conveyed by the shape of a heart formed from the orbit of moons around a planet, and the soccer shirt, which says, "I don't just set goals. I score them."

A hot seller is the Ada Lovelace tee showing a silhouette of a woman in a formal dress among a field of 0s and 1s representing computer code. It says, "The world's first computer programmer wore a dress."

"I'm glad to see they're taking science and STEM and making it cool and interesting and fashionable," said Kandice Henning, founder of the Alive Center in Naperville, where the Clever Belle founders have helped with girls' empowerment events.

"I like that their shirts are strong, yet feminine at the same time."

Strong and feminine don't always converge in a world where even well-meaning adults tend to see girls first for their looks, said Tank, 40, who has a 9-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter.

"'You're so pretty' is the first thing you say to a little girl," Tank said.

She's even caught herself saying such things when friends post pictures of their daughters on Facebook, although she said she tries to add a personal compliment based on the girl's interests.

"We have to be cognizant to change those decisions," Tank said.

The company is countering this focus on appearance with a shirt.

"BRAINS" it reads, with an equals sign below. Under that comes "BEAUTY." Brains equal beauty, the shirt's description says. Some customers read it as brains over beauty.

"From a fashion standpoint alone, it's nice to have something that represents what we're feeling in the inside on the outside that's not stereotypical apparel," said Jules Propok, a Naperville business coach who runs the girls' empowerment program at the Alive Center and has bought several Clever Belle shirts for her 10-year-old daughter.

"She loves the Ada Lovelace one," Propok said. "She loves the 'I love science' one and the brains over beauty one, which is awesome."

Clever Belle's T-shirts are produced by a California company called Bella + Canvas. Designs are added by ColorBurst Screen Printing in Downers Grove, which employs adults with autism and developmental disabilities through the Naperville nonprofit Little Friends.

At its second anniversary, the company had exceeded its revenue goal of $20,000. The siblings this summer courted the producers of ABC's "Shark Tank," but never came close to landing a segment on the show to pitch the famous entrepreneurs in search of investment.

Clever Belle's next steps include bringing the business into the charitable realm.

Tank says the company features stories of girls doing good on the news section of its website, donates to The Eden Projects to plant a tree for every one of its "tree tees" sold, and is donating $2 from certain purchases in November to Project Zawadi, which works to educate children in Tanzania.

In February, Clever Belle plans to launch a mother-daughter campaign to teach girls to fundraise, supporting a cause called The Waterbearers, which aims to improve global access to clean water.

Participants will fundraise toward the purchase of $50 devices that each can provide clean water for 100 people for 5 to 10 years.

Eventually, Clever Belle wants to connect each of its shirts to a charity.

"They're making it so much more than just shirts," Henning said. "They both have a lot of passion."

  Taking the shape of a chimpanzee is the Clever Belle T-shirt designed for noted chimp researcher Jane Goodall. The shirt is among Clever Belle designs that highlight women of influence as a way to inspire girls to pursue a variety of careers. Mark Black/
  Science is one of the themes Clever Belle clothing company, run by the Tanks sisters of Naperville and their two other siblings, tries to promote with its line of T-shirts for girls. Mark Black/
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