Middlebury College senior Emily Núñez was already committed to a career in the U.S. Army when in January 2012 she made an impromptu visit to the Center for Social Entrepreneurship that had just opened on campus. There she heard Jacqueline Novogratz, whose Acumen Fund invests in ventures with a higher mission, talk about some Berkeley College students who built a gourmet mushroom business using compost from old coffee grounds. The ROTC cadet wondered if canvas used for military tents and other gear could be repurposed into handbags. “It was just an idea in my head,” says Núñez, 23.
She later mentioned it to her sister Betsy, 25, who was visiting from Boston. At her urging, Emily entered a social entrepreneurship contest sponsored by Middlebury. That led to a three-week stint at Dell’s inaugural Summer Social Innovation Lab in July, where Núñez emerged with a business plan, a brand name, and a prototype bag.
In February the concept took first prize at Harvard’s Pitch for Change competition, which came with a $6,500 check and free consulting. That same month the sisters were invited to the Kairos Global Summit, a New York gathering of college entrepreneurs and business mentors.
On April 15, Sword & Plough will start taking orders for three types of bags plus accessories on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. In preparation, the company’s co-founders, who are daughters of a retired colonel, have lined up a supply of military surplus. They’re working with three manufacturers that hire veterans to create the products. The venture will also donate 10 percent of profits to two agencies, Veteran Green Jobs and the Wounded Warrior Project.
The sisters are building their business while Emily is stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado awaiting her deployment to Afghanistan later this year. In March, Betsy quit her sales job in Boston to become the company’s sole full-time employee. Their mom, Judy Núñez, also helped: She put together the first prototype at their home in Carlisle, Pa. “I had to take it to an Amish harness maker because the leather wasn’t bendy enough,” she recalls.
The existence of Sword & Plough is a testament to the power of the growing infrastructure nationwide to support student entrepreneurship. Without the momentum provided by competitions, fellowships, and mentoring programs, Emily’s lightbulb moment may have been only that. “We had so much help in making this a reality,” she says. That’s reflected in the company’s board of advisers, which includes Cosmo Fujiyama, who set up the Dell lab, and David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.
“There were probably a few key weeks there where, if Emily hadn’t had us, she might have moved on,” says John Isham, faculty director at Middlebury’s entrepreneurship center, who is also on the advisory board. “Our networks mattered.” The center helped her write a business plan and prodded her to apply for one of the 20 spots on Dell’s first summer incubator program on Cape Cod. Fujiyama says she was impressed by “Emily’s narrative and the absolute clarity of why she wanted to do this.”
The women hope to get at least 500 orders and raise $20,000 on Kickstarter. Emily plans to remain CEO while she’s in Afghanistan. Betsy says that their growing network of supporters seem drawn as much to the venture’s purpose as the products. “This is a chance to get behind a project they believe in,” she says. “But it’s not a business until people buy what we make.”