Lauren Bush thought she knew where her career was headed. She started modeling in high school, then landed a two-year contract with Tommy Hilfiger when she was in college at Princeton University. "I wanted to learn about fashion, then pursue a career as a designer," says Bush, who is former President George W. Bush's niece. Her famous last name led to a two-year stint as a spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme and that, she says, "rocked my world."
"I joined on as spokesperson when I was a sophomore and my first trip was to Guatemala," she recalls. "I had been to poor areas of the world, but I'd never seen it through the lens that WFP showed it to me. We'd visit therapeutic feeding centers where kids were on the brink of death." Bush found herself wanting to do more than just talk, so she drew upon her love of fashion and design to come up with a product that would "allow people to understand the issue of world hunger." At WFP, she met Ellen Gustafson, 30, a communications officer who was itching to do something different. The two teamed up under the agency's auspices to create and sell a simple reusable bag, designed with a logo reminiscent of a feed bag; proceeds would go directly to WFP.
There was just one problem: Their efforts to get the UN to sell the bag ran into so many legal and logistical snafus that the project nearly collapsed. So they decided to leave WFP and start their own company, FEED Projects. FEED now works directly with WFP, and other organizations such as UNICEF and Millennial Villages, to fund anti-hunger programs worldwide. The bags are sold online, where buyers are told the exact impact of their purchase (for instance, purchase a $60 "Feed1" bag and you'll be feeding one school child for an entire year). "We started a not-for-profit foundation so we could manage all donations ourselves," says Gustafson.
Bush and Gustafson also landed distribution in Whole Foods in 2008, which resulted in a revenue spike to $10 million, $5 million of which was given away through the company's not-for-profit organization. So far, FEED has sold just over half a million bags and provided more than 56 million meals worldwide.
Some of the more expensive bags are hand made in Guatemala and Kenya by organizations that employ local women, while the bulk are made in China "at a fair trade factory that we have audited by a third party," says Bush. A new initiative that addresses hunger in the U.S. will start with a high end "Feed NYC" bag that will debut at Bergdorf Goodman in September. "Every bag will be made in New York," Bush says, "so we'll be supporting the local garment industry."
So what does her highly political family think of her business? Bush is understandably tight-lipped about that. "I'm not very political," she says. "I approach this more from a humanitarian perspective; I wanted to do go good through business, and that's not conservative or liberal."