When faced with her first in-person small business pitch competition, Haley Marie McClain Hill knew it was time to break out her secret weapon: her grandmother.
Hill is the founder and CEO at TORCH Warriorwear, a line of short- and long-sleeved bodysuits for “women warriors,” or female military members. She and her TORCH team were at the premiere event for Veteran Shark Tank in 2022, a national pitch competition for veteran entrepreneurs, and $50,000 was on the line.
“I was definitely the youngest entrepreneur there,” said Hill, a former first lieutenant in the Air Force. “It was my first time pitching in person, so I was definitely nervous.”
As more than 200 people watched, Hill brought in models wearing TORCH bodysuits. One of them was her grandma, herself an Air Force retiree.
“I think that’s what set us apart,” Hill said. “It was a whole production.”
Whatever it was, it worked. TORCH won the grand prize that day — but Hill is just getting started.
Lighting the way
TORCH began in 2021 after Hill had had enough of uncomfortable uniform shirts. She asked her TikTok followers if any fellow female service members might be interested in a DOD-approved bodysuit for their military uniforms. The response was enthusiastic, leading Hill to take pre-orders and use those funds to launch her first line.
Business has been brisk ever since, especially since Hill left the Air Force in June of 2022 to focus full-time on her clothing line. TORCH has tripled sales over the past two years, shipping to approximately 2,000 customers representing at least a half-dozen militaries in over 10 countries. More than 250 brand ambassadors help spread the word, including the fact that TORCH sells bodysuits in the required colors of every branch of the U.S. military.
“I love going to conferences and meeting new women, seeing their excitement when they actually see the product,” Hill said. “They fall in love with the product, our mission and what we’re doing, and that’s definitely been the best part.”
Hill, age 28, has a lot of “best parts” of her life thus far. After attending Penn State via ROTC, the Pennsylvania native recruited in Georgia before PCSing to Beale AFB in California. At both assignments, she also worked as an NFL cheerleader, first for the Atlanta Falcons, then the San Francisco 49ers.
“The Air Force taught me discipline and how to instill excellence in everything I do,” Hill said. “I always fall back to their core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do.”
Hill discovered the Veteran Shark Tank contest on Instagram and applied. The judges then chose the Long Beach, California-based TORCH to be in their top five, pitching in person to a sold-out, dressed-up crowd. She and her team repeatedly refined the pitch and modeling beforehand. No one else brought in real-life consumers to demonstrate their products.
Hill was curious to see how the crowd would react to TORCH’s bodysuits — a product she acknowledges as “a little controversial.”
“There are two types of military women: the ones who have been doing their uniforms the same way for years, so why would they change it now?” Hill said. “And others who are like, ‘This is amazing; I’m never wearing another regular shirt again!’”
Thankfully, the Veteran Shark Tank response was overwhelmingly positive, with the judges awarding the top prize to Hill.
“I tell people I felt like I had won the Super Bowl,” she said. “That was the first time I had ever done anything strictly for a cause I feel strongly about and not just representing a team. It was just a win all-around for military women.”
Future goals include developing a fire-resistant bodysuit in 2024, as well as building a TORCH community of women. Hill would like to see TORCH retreats with a focus on female leadership, in addition to creating more TORCH uniform items like military-approved boots, socks and hair accessories.
It’s nothing any other veteran entrepreneur can’t do, Hill said.
“People are buying you first, then your business,” she said. “So make sure you’re the person that people think will be the perfect one to get the job done.”
Once you demonstrate that people will buy from you, Hill said, investors will naturally want to jump in. It’s an adventurous life she owes partially to her years in the military, she said
“Thanks for the core values, Air Force,” Hill said. “I appreciate it!”