Defending your business against an outbreak of the Ebola virus might seem like an unlikely scenario, but that's exactly what happened to the founders of clothing company Uniform.

Appearing on Sunday's episode of Shark Tank, Uniform co-founders Chid Liberty and Adam Butlein also founded Liberty & Justice, a New York City-based textile company that bills itself as the first Fair Trade-certified apparel-manufacturing company in Africa. The business was generating $40 million in annual sales when, in 2014, the Ebola virus outbreak struck West Africa, killing more than 11,000 people and forcing the company to cease operations for more than a year.

"We went from figuring out how quickly we would grow to how to save all of our workers' lives," Liberty told the Sharks.

After the health crisis ended in 2016, the co-founders were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in clothing fabric. They decided to make school uniforms with the leftover inventory--since many parents in Africa can't afford uniforms for their children--and launched Uniform. The company makes clothing with a minimalist aesthetic, ranging from T-shirts and oxford shirts to bomber jackets and jumpsuits, and donates one school uniform for every item sold. 

Liberty and Butlein went on Shark Tank seeking $300,000 for 10 percent of the company, which is headquartered in New York City but produces garments in Liberia and Ghana, where it employs local women. The founders generated $300,000 in annual sales in 2017, having funded their first production run by raising $400,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in 2015. Uniform sells its products online and at Bloomingdale's and will soon have a children's apparel line at Target, Liberty told the Sharks.

"It looks like in all areas you're covered," Daymond John said. "What do you think we can do for you besides money?"

Liberty and Butlein admitted that they needed a mentor to help them grow, explaining how each of the Sharks could help them achieve that goal. Robert Herjavec, Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, and guest Shark Bethenny Frankel weren't interested in investing in a clothing company, however.

John, who built the successful streetwear brand FUBU and has invested in clothing-related startups on the show, said he admired their mission and one-for-one business model but was concerned that the founders weren't focused enough on one product. He told them he wasn't interested in investing, but would make himself available should they need a mentor, similar to the way he mentored Shark Tank's Moziah Bridges, the 12-year-old founder of bow tie company Mo's Bows.

Uniform's founders left the tank without a deal, but optimistic about the future of their company. 

"When people think about Liberia, they think about the civil war and they think about Ebola," Liberty said. "Now they can talk about Uniform, a business that is literally changing the world."

Published on: Jan 15, 2019