Two sisters came up with a creative way to benefit the veteran community with stylish bags made from repurposed military waste.
Born into a military family--at West Point, no less--20-something sisters Emily and Betsy Núñez wanted to build a business that might help the veteran community.
While attending Middlebury College in Vermont in 2012, Emily--herself an active-duty officer--realized the armed forces generate a huge amount of waste, in the form of used gear and clothing. She saw an opportunity to create a product that would utilize this waste material--and help to bridge the gap between military families and civilians. So she hatched the idea for Sword & Plough, a start-up that manufactures high-end bags from repurposed military surplus material.
The name Sword & Plough, which comes from the biblical phrase “to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks,” illustrates the sisters’ ideology and mission: adapting military technology for peaceful civilian applications. It also represents their respective business roles.
“Emily [the CEO] is the sword: determined, organized, can quickly cut through any challenge. And I am the plough: great with people, creative, can talk to anyone,” says Betsy, the company's creative director.
Sword & Plough collects military fabrics and material destined for the landfill and refashions them into retail items for the civilian population. They rely on a veteran workforce to manufacture their products, through a partnership with the non-profit organization Green Vets LA--and donate 10 percent of their profits to initiatives that benefit veterans and their families, like the Wounded Warrior Project and Vet Green Jobs.
“We grew up in a military family, so we’re familiar with the military community and the problems that veterans face,” says Emily. The sisters wanted to create a business model with a "quadruple bottom line"--one with a positive outcome for the environment, the veteran community, American jobs, and the company itself.
“They’re putting a new spin on the Tom’s Shoes business model,” says Alex Fiance, Global President of the Kairos Society, which hosted Sword & Plough at a start-up symposium on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in February. He views the concept of relying on the veteran community to supply and manufacture a product, then reinvesting profits back into that community, as an innovative one--even for a social enterprise.
“Theirs seems like a creative way of looking at an existing problem. They’re repurposing existing material and putting some of their revenue back into the ecosystem. It’s very cyclical,” he says.
In the past year, Sword & Plough has been drumming up seed funding--on the order of $15,000--and generating interest along the start-up competition circuit. After winning first prize at Harvard’s Pitch for Change competition in February, the sisters say they are preparing to launch sales with a 30-day Kickstarter campaign beginning April 15.
“Our goal is $20,000 but we’re really hoping to surpass that,” says Emily, adding that Sword & Plough’s website will be open for orders following the campaign and that deals with retailers like Nordstrom’s and Whole Foods are in the works. Bags and accessories range in price from $30 to $290.
In the next year, Emily and Betsy plan to partner with Vet Green Jobs to establish another veteran manufacturing facility in either Denver or New York. They hope to establish a national presence and perhaps eventually take their business model overseas. As Emily notes, the question of what to do with unwanted waste material is not an exclusively American problem. “Several foreign militaries have expressed interest in what we’re doing,” she says.
Whatever happens, however, the sisters are clear on their priorities.
“We've made a sister contract," says Betsy, "that prioritizes how both our sister and co-founder relationships should best work."
FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle. @FrancescaFenzi