As someone who tries to live by the mantra "don't talk about it...be about it," I'm going to make an exception and "talk" to several of my close friends who also happen to all "be about it" in the form of doing really phenomenal and ground-breaking entrepreneurial things while still keeping an eye on the greener side of things and adhering to the triple bottom line.
This is a philosophy we live by at my start-up brand, VeeV. While we are one of the fastest growing new spirits brands in the US, we never lose sight of the fact that we would not be here if it were not for the little purple açaí berry in the Amazon. If VeeV is to continue to flourish in bars and restaurants around the US, it is imperative we go the extra mile with conservation of the açaí fruit and the communities it supports in the Amazon.
TOMS Shoes, FEED, and Bonobos share the same entrepreneurial spirit as I do, while caring about tomorrow at the same time. So without further ado, please enjoy the following chat:
On the off-chance that someone isn't familiar, please describe your business in a few sentences.
Blake: TOMS Shoes is a One for One company: with every pair purchased, TOMS gives a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One. To date, TOMS has given over 150,000 pairs of shoes to children around the world.
Lauren & Ellen: FEED Projects is a charitable business that creates good, eco-friendly products to feed a better world. Our flagship FEED bags have sold across the US and around the world, raising over $5.5 million for international hunger relief efforts, primarily UN World Food Program school feeding.
Andy: Bonobos sells better-fitting men's clothes over the internet. Our goal is to make it easy and convenient for men to look and feel good. We started with a pair of pants with an innovative contoured waistband that fits better, and to our amazement we sold 40,000 pairs in our first two years on our website Bonobos.com.
What made you want to take the entrepreneurial plunge, especially at such a young age? What were some inspirations you had?
Blake: When I was younger, my parents would send me to my grandparents' house for the summer. They lived on a golf course, and summertime in Texas is hot. I would set up a good ol' fashioned lemonade stand for the golfers passing by. The pride in building something from the ground up was always incredibly rewarding for me. After high school, I went to college on a tennis scholarship, but when an injury took me out I funneled my hard work and determination into starting my first business. My entrepreneurial spirit flourished, and before my 30th birthday I had started five successful businesses. With each one, I would strive for it to be better, more efficient, smarter, and more successful than similar businesses. The knowledge, experience, and investments from those earlier companies made TOMS possible.
Lauren & Ellen: We created the concept of the FEED 1 bag, which would be modeled after bags of grain and would be sold to feed one child in school for one year. We thought the UN World Food Program would sell the bags as a marketing tool for their great school feeding programs and joined forces at the UN with then-spokesperson, Ellen Gustafson. When we realized it would be difficult to operate a wholesale business in a UN agency, we started a separate venture, FEED Projects, to raise funds and awareness for the important cause of nourishing the hungry. The idea and the cause came first, and we built the company around it to fulfill the mission.
Andy: In the spring of 2007 I was traveling in Kenya and Uganda, visiting with entrepreneurs who had been backed by Kiva. I was inspired by their courage and bravery, and felt that the notion of 'taking a risk' to start a company in the US was overblown. A friend put his arm around me and told me he wouldn't let me starve and that I'd always have a couch to sleep on, and I realized how lucky we are in America. I realized it was not a risk to pursue an entrepreneurial adventure, but a privilege.
Why is sustainability important to you and your company's mission?
Blake: When you start something, you need to think long term and not just about the next 3 - 5 years. Think beyond the next generation. I thought it was important to create a sustainable company that would be able to provide for others consistently. I could have easily created a non-profit and solicited the same donors year after year. But what would happen if they lost interest in my charity? I wouldn't have enough funds to help children or those who needed it. With a sustainable business model, TOMS is able to stick to its promise and continually provide shoes to children in need.
Lauren & Ellen: From day one, Lauren's idea for the FEED 1 bag was motivated by the dual desire to feed hungry kids and to reduce plastic bags with reusable bags. We make sure that all of the cotton we use is 100% organic and that our business practices are as sustainable as possible.
What do you say to people who think "green" is a fad?
Blake: I would say the same thing that I tell people who question the TOMS One for One model. People are starting to connect with things that are good for our culture and the environment. We are beginning to see a real shift in people's view of the world and what they can do for a better tomorrow.
Lauren & Ellen: We would say that we don't really have the option for green to be a fad. As food sustainability activists, we know that without the conscious improvement of our environmental practices in agriculture and manufacturing, led by consumers, we will be harming our soil and water past the point of no return. We think that the success of reusable FEED bags over the last two and a half years shows that our customers don't see green as just a fad either.
Andy: I don't say anything to them. I smile, just as I did when people told me no one would ever buy pants over the internet from a brand that they hadn't heard of, and hope that we are lucky enough and good enough to prove them wrong.
As 2010 nears, think about the brands you patronize day to day, and year to year. Come January, why not reach out and support a couple of new, small brands, which will not only blend seamlessly into your lifestyle like your old "tried and true" brands, but also help save tomorrow?