From the time she graduated from Brentwood High School in 2012, Savannah Cleveland has taken something of a circuitous route to where she is today.
As CEO of Unity PPE, a women-owned and -operated startup in Brentwood that supplies masks, face shields and similar products that have become necessary in the yearlong swell of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cleveland has realized a merging of her entrepreneurial spirit with her business acumen and passion for service.
Her path has been lined with a tech consulting job in Atlanta not long after college, a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, and an abrupt return home to Brentwood with a cloud of What Now hovering over her.
“When I came home (March 19 last year), I was stressed and didn’t know what I was doing,” Cleveland said of being back home at her parents’ house after she and thousands of Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated a year ago because of the virus. “I ended up talking to my dad (local entrepreneur Mark Cleveland) and just expressing how stressed I was and not really knowing what to do.”
Her dad put her in touch with one of his business partners, who was interested in expanding his company portfolio and had several investors on board. They needed someone to run the day-to-day operations of the company, and Cleveland knew she was in the right place at the right time.
“The money was there, the interest was there, the need was there, so I said absolutely, I’d love to run it,” Cleveland said.
“I felt that I could best serve them in my passions. We ended up forming a women-owned and -operated PPE company that was producing masks and face shields domestically.”
To start, Cleveland and her 11-person team — which includes an engineer, a doctor, an environmental champion and a couple of technology experts, among others — provided over 5,000 masks for Nashville’s Metro Transit Authority and provided many logoed masks to the Nashville nonprofit Neighbor 2 Neighbor for the communities they serve. Locally, Unity PPE sold masks to Andrews Cadillac, LBMC Staffing Solutions and others in Brentwood.
“One of the most exciting things for us is our masks are now across the country in a variety of different stores or in companies,” Cleveland said. “We look for innovative and new ways to stay in the market.”
Such as SEALS. Unity PPE partnered with a company in Georgia named Porex, a worldwide leader in porous polymers, to introduce a product with the primary benefit of helping eyeglass wearers keep from fogging up from masks. SEALS are hypoallergenic foam inserts that are engineered to fit faces of all shapes and sizes, eliminate eyeglass fogging, and improve a face mask’s overall comfort and protection.
“This has really been a fun project,” Cleveland said of the production of SEALS, something she worked on with one of her uncles. “It’s the first time that I’ve ever taken an idea and concept with my partners. We have a patent pending.”
Finding her drive and motivation
After graduating from Brentwood High, Cleveland — whose mother, Sheila Cleveland, serves District 7 as a school board member for Williamson County Schools — attended the University of South Carolina and graduated in 2016 with majors in international business, marketing and supply chain. She soon got a job with a tech consulting firm in Atlanta, but while she was excited about landing her first “big girl job,” she felt something was missing.
“I was good at my job, I enjoyed my job, but I wasn’t passionate about it in the sense that it was my reason to wake up every day,” Cleveland said. … “I need to have that passion for what I’m doing, to have that drive and motivation.”
That’s what led her to joining the Peace Corps and moving to Colombia in early 2018. She worked as a community economic development volunteer in the town of Mompox in a rural part of the country. Among a variety of duties, she also taught entrepreneurship in tourism at the local high school, and worked with a group of women and a foundation to teach basic business and home finances.
Cleveland had found her passion, her ideal career for someone in her mid-20s. But in mid-March of last year, word of COVID-19 had reached Colombia even if the virus itself hadn’t yet. Officials went into action immediately to begin evacuating 7,000 Peace Corp volunteers back to their home countries. Cleveland’s home of Brentwood was already infected.
“When we were evacuated,” she said, “there were more cases in Williamson County than in Colombia as a whole. It was kind of scary going home to a place that was unknown [because of the virus].”
Cleveland said she would likely have stayed in South America for another year or two were it not for the pandemic, but the experience she did gather there supplied the fuel for her motivation.
“Obviously there have been a lot of challenges in the pandemic, but it has been sort of a blessing for me,” she said. “There has been this serendipitous chain of events, taking what life gives you and finding the positives out of it. So I took being active in the Peace Corps before the pandemic and finding [how] life isn’t controlling me and being able to control life.”