12 Jul IU Angel Network investment fueling growth of first truly contemporary adaptive-apparel brand
With backing of IU connections and other resources, Joe & Bella aims to help older adults ‘dress without stress’
July 12, 2022
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In 2012, after Jimmy Zollo’s grandmother had fallen one too many times despite having in-home care, his family made a decision it had long been dreading — to move her into an assisted-living community.
“It was really stressful, really anxiety-inducing,” the Indiana University alumnus said. “You’re questioning whether you’re making the right decision, even though you know it’s the right decision.”
That night, which happened to be Christmas Eve, as a nurse took the family on a tour of their grandmother’s new community, they were approached by two other residents who decided to tag along. These residents ultimately took over the tour, making jokes along the way to ease the tense moment. Joe and Bella were widowed Holocaust survivors who met later in life and whose families had also recognized that the couple needed more care than what could safely be provided at home.
Two weeks later, the Zollo family had to also move Jimmy’s grandfather, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, into the same community. Once again, Joe and Bella were there again, offering smiles, support and a calming presence. In the weeks and months that followed, they ate every meal with Zollo’s grandparents until Jimmy’s grandfather passed and his grandmother needed to be moved to a different community. They also became part of the family, joining the Zollos for holidays and special occasions.”
Caring for a loved one through many age-related changes is really tough,” Zollo said, “but they let us know that a lot of other people go through this, and it’s going to be ok.”
Joe & Bella is born
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Zollos found themselves locked out of their grandmother’s new community due to health and safety restrictions that kept so many families apart for much of the pandemic’s first year. It was during that time of separation that Zollo, while FaceTiming with his grandmother, heard her swear for the very first time. A nurse had been trying to put a sweater on his grandmother, who was struggling to lift her arms into the sleeves.
“After I hung up, I was very emotional,” Zollo said. “What she was going through was very painful. So I started looking at brands with adaptive apparel — brands that made dressing, undressing and going to the bathroom easier. I ultimately ordered a lot of clothes for my grandmother, but she refused to wear what I bought it because she said everything was too ugly.”
Zollo, who came from a family of entrepreneurs and who always knew he wanted to start his own business, then decided he would launch a new venture — a company that would offer stylish, easy-to-wear, quick-change clothes for older adults, including those living with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other physical and cognitive changes. The company’s motto? “Dress without stress.” And when it came time to name the company, the choice was easy.
Just like that, Joe & Bella was born.
Touched by an Angel Network
If their friends Joe and Bella provided the inspiration, Indiana University offered the critical foundational connection and financial support necessary to get Zollo’s new business off the ground. Through a couple of chance occurrences, Zollo, a graduate of the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington who majored in sports marketing and management, was introduced to the IU Angel Network, one of the major investment programs managed by IU Ventures, which leads IU’s investment in high-potential new venture opportunities with strong university connections.
The network connects qualified investors with an IU affiliation to early-stage startups led by members of the IU community.
Prior to launching Joe & Bella, Zollo and his wife, Haley, had achieved considerable success in the new venture industry. Jimmy had worked on the corporate team at GrubHub, helping to develop the Chicago-based company’s industry-leading network. He’d also co-founded Collaborata, a tech startup, also headquartered in Chicago, that serves the marketing research industry. Collaborata was a finalist for “Startup of the Year” at the 2017 Midwest Digital Marketing Conference.
Even with his individual successes, Zollo is quick to recognize how much the IU Angel Network, which has provided Joe & Bella with financial investment and other resources, has helped to fuel the company’s rapid growth and development. This month, Joe & Bella is unveiling two new versions of CareZips®, a patented easy-dressing pant for adults experiencing changes with mobility, incontinence and cognition. The pants were created by designers who had also worked on major apparel brands, including Lululemon.
“I’m kind of shocked at how much [the IU Angel Network] has helped,” Zollo said. “A typical investor writes a check and then says ‘see you in a few years’ when hopefully there’s a return.
“The amount of resources that IU Ventures provides is exceptional and unlike anything that a traditional venture capital firm can do. For starters, they provide access to all of these amazing university connections, including people who may end up as meaningful partners with us. On top of that, the IU Angel Network spans generations — from folks like me who’ve been out of school for a decade to younger entrepreneurs — many of whom are going through the same challenges we are. These people have given us incredible feedback and advice.”
Over the past several months, Joe & Bella has received guidance from an IU professor who researches generational marketing, initiated a likely partnership with a successful health care startup and met with a potential investor who owns several senior living communities. The IU Angel Network has facilitated each of these connections, while helping refine Joe & Bella’s overall business idea and objectives.
“Joe & Bella is poised to lead a growing market, which is being driven by more and more people looking for ways to care for aging parents and other family members,” said Jason Whitney, vice president for venture development at IU Ventures and executive director of the IU Angel Network. “The IU Angel Network is pleased to lend financial support, connections and experience to helping launch what is truly a passion project and to further the company’s successful efforts to establish key relationships within the industry.”
Transforming the market
Zollo isn’t hiding his big plans for Joe & Bella, which he hopes will be the “premier” clothing brand for older adults. With the backing of the IU Angel Network and other investors, he believes the company should be able to compete not only with brands that consider themselves to be adaptive but also major brands marketing toward an older demographic.”We want to truly transform how we think about apparel and fashion for older adults. We want to make clothing that is beautifully designed, that is comfortable and that makes entire process safer, easier and more dignified,” he said.
He knows what he’s hoping to achieve will require a massive undertaking. But he remembers that first experience transitioning his grandmother to the assisted living space and, of course, the kindness and generosity that Joe and Bella exhibited during that trying time.
“This has been a really interesting, inspiring and life-affirming process because almost everyone has someone in their lives who’s experienced what our family has gone through,” he said. “What we’re doing really doesn’t feel like a business. That said, we have a clear mission to get this right. It’s bigger than us.”
About IU Ventures:
IU Ventures invests in and supports IU-affiliated early-stage companies. Its investment programs include the IU Philanthropic Venture Fund, IU Angel Network, Shoebox Fund and Innovate Indiana Fund. It further supports IU founders through the Executive in Residence Program and IU Founders and Funders Network. Student support is provided through a variety of engagements, including the new IU Venture Fellows Program. Each program takes unique approaches to accelerate and support the positive impacts that entrepreneurs affiliated with IU already achieve across the world. IU Ventures is a recognized leader in increasing opportunities for diverse and historically underserved entrepreneurs and investing in Indiana startups with a shared commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.