At 27 years old, Savannah Cleveland is a well-traveled old soul with an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit. From her stint in the Peace Corps in South America to her current position as CEO and co-founder of Nashville-based Unity PPE, the Brentwood High School alum proves that a little bit of luck, a lot of moxie, and a gracious attitude are the recipe for success. SEALS, her newest product to hit the market, is an adjustable foam insert that offers a solution for mask-related foggy glasses — the first of many innovative concepts you can expect from this go-getter. Please welcome our newest FACE of Nashville, Savannah Cleveland.
What inspired you to join the Peace Corps, and what led to your return home?
The Peace Corps was an experience, to say the least. I lived in Colombia, South America, for about two years and worked for a software tech consulting firm. I realized that while I loved my job and was on track to do very well, I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing. I have a big priority to mix and match my passion and my job. So, I asked myself, “What does that even look like?” I was only 24, and I figured that to find out, I might as well join the Peace Corps. It was something I’d always thought about doing, but I’d never pulled the trigger point for one reason or another. Typically, it takes a couple of months to get in, but I applied the week before Thanksgiving 2017, and I got into it the week after; it was a crazy whirlwind. Then my company offered me a position to move to Santiago, Chile, about three weeks later, so I didn’t know if I should join the Peace Corps and make no money or continue down the path that I’d really been working for. It was a tough decision. With the help of friends, family, and a glass of wine or two, I decided that I knew the path to Chile and where that led me. I didn’t know what to expect in Colombia, and I liked the unknown. So, I joined the Peace Corps and ended up teaching entrepreneurship in a South American high school on a river island in the middle of nowhere. I worked with small women’s groups and did a USAID grant to convert an empty lot into an outdoor pavilion that would allow for a central meeting place within this neighborhood that was pretty marginalized. I would’ve finished my service in September of 2020, but unfortunately, we were evacuated in March due to the pandemic. The Peace Corps evacuated all 7,000 of us globally. I came home, and I think 6.6 million people filed for unemployment the week I got home.
How did the Peace Corps evacuation result in your current role as CEO of Unity PPE?
I spent the majority of the past six years in South America, so at first, being evacuated back here felt like a failure in the weirdest way. I love my family, and I’m very close to them — it’s been a blessing to be here — but I came back to Nashville like, “Now what? What do I do from here in a pandemic?” I wasn’t sure what my next steps were, and my father knew somebody looking for someone to help him run his company; it was perfect. Lo’ and behold, he needed help with this group of investors who wanted to start a mask company. They had the supply chain, and everything was ready to go, but they had no one to execute it. We started talking about bringing masks to Nashville, to create the concept and make it a reality. In a lot of ways, it was very “cart before the horse,” but we were in a pandemic with the ability to create and manufacture thousands of masks in a time when that need was there. So, we decided to figure out the rest later. We produced and provided 5,000 masks to Metro Transit, Neighbor 2 Neighbor, and the Transit Alliance. Through that process, we figured out what we stand for. It’s not just about masks; the masks are important, but there’s more to the story than that. The story is that we’re majority women-owned, which is exciting. As somebody who wants to be an advocate where and when I can, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to represent women and young entrepreneurs.
What has it been like to start a company during the pandemic?
I’ve learned a lot. I’m also in grad school, so it’s a balancing act. I’ve found more success in connecting with people outside of my immediate area than I would have ever thought possible because I’ve actually forced myself to go on LinkedIn and to virtual networking events. In some ways, starting and running this company during a pandemic has had its silver linings. All outreach is the same during a pandemic, so it kind of levels the playing field. I’m giving myself the grace to know that everyone is struggling to navigate it — it’s not just me. Giving myself grace has been the biggest learning experience in starting a new company, being in a pandemic, and adjusting back to American culture after two years abroad.
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What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It wasn’t actually advice. My dad has been an entrepreneur in this space for a really long time, and he’s probably going to cry when he reads this, but we were talking on the phone and I was struggling with the stress of how to deal with some challenges. His response was completely open and honest. He said, “Well, in my 30 years of experience …” At that moment, I realized that I don’t have to know everything because I don’t have 30 years of life [under my belt]! To put myself in the same place as someone with 30 years of experience is doing myself a disservice in realistically gauging my capacity to grow and learn and be successful.
Outside of faith, family, and friends, what are three things that you cannot live without?
Smiles. That’s such a crux of my personality. It’s a conscious choice to move forward in a positive way. I also really enjoy academic learning. I started my master’s program in international relations and social enterprise because I missed the academic piece of life. And then, I would say mentorship. Having people in my corner and being able to be in other people’s corner energizes me.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Savannah!
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