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Rita Bunatal '16

Rita Bunatal founded a business, cofounded a movement, and found herself. Hear how Rita created her community—and profound change—at IC.

Rita Bunatal speaks at a Black Lives Matter event

Rita Bunatal delivers a speech at a Black Lives Matter teach-in event during her senior year at Ithaca College.

Stereotypes can be as widespread as they are dangerous. Just ask IC alumna and CEO of Malaika Apparel, Rita Bunatal ’16, who discovered her talent for creating powerful messaging and designs, beginning with fashion statements that corrected falsehoods about the continent of Africa.  

"My life’s mission is to bridge that gap and educate people about all of the misinformation we’ve been fed for hundreds of years,” Rita said.  

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Rita was 14 when she moved with her family to Ghana, where she attended high school and experienced the power of immersing herself in her mother’s culture. Ithaca College was Rita’s first stop back in the United States.  

As an international student who considered Ghana her home—but had lived in the United States, too—she brought an enlightened cultural awareness. She described her first year as “reverse culture shock.” Thousands of miles from her family, Rita recognized the necessity of building her community and a “home away from home.” She bonded with new friends through student organizations like the African Students Association, and later, POC at IC. 

“It's beautiful how sometimes you can really create your own chosen family, because sometimes you need that,” said Rita.   

Though she made great friends at IC, Rita also encountered blatant falsehoods about Africa, such as the idea that Africa was a country and not a vast continent with 54 countries.

“For me, it was just very eye opening. That was one of the things that also pushed me to start Malaika, because I really wanted to educate people,” Rita said.   
 

“Just seeing...the community that we were able to build on campus—it was such a full-circle moment because it's like, there are people that gave me this knowledge and this vim and gusto to be the person I am, and they just ordered [T-shirts] from me.”  

By her sophomore year, Rita spearheaded The Real Africa: Fight the Stereotype campaign with IC’s African Students Association (ASA), an organization focused on increasing awareness about the diversity and multicultural aspects of Africa and African people. Launched on Martin Luther King Day, the campaign was a collection of photos that showed students wrapped in different African flags with statements such as “Africa is not a country” and “Africans don’t need to be saved.” Head of public relations for the student-led organization, Rita watched as the campaign reached CNN, BET, and USA Today, among many other leading news outlets.     

The elevation of her work to a national stage was a turning point: “That's what really just showed me that the work that I do..is...very valuable.”     

During the summer before her senior year at IC, Rita used scholarship money to launch her startup clothing company, Malaika Apparel, dedicated to the empowerment of people of color.  

When Rita ordered her first hundred T-shirts, she couldn’t have known then that they would become a symbol of IC’s growing student movement for campus diversity and equity only a few months later. Yet when students protested in response to a series of racist incidents at the college and IC was again put in the national spotlight, students, staff, and faculty alike —including Rita’s favorite professors—wore her shirts to show their solidarity. 

“Just seeing...the community that we were able to build on campus—it was such a full-circle moment because it's like, there are people that gave me this knowledge and this vim and gusto to be the person I am, and they just ordered [T-shirts] from me.”  

Rita won the top prize in IC’s Business Plan Competition and $20,000 for Malaika Apparel. She invested the money in her company, which is now moving into its next phase: the Malaika Collective, a safe, collaborative haven for Black creatives and entrepreneurs. 

 “I'm really passionate. I’m still learning. I'm still growing. I'm still going to learn from other experiences and...get better.”