They're on a Mission to Repurpose for Good. Meet Emily and Betsy Núñez from Sword & Plough
on July 20, 201710:17 PM - last edited on September 07, 201703:41 PM by LeslieBarber
Three years ago, two sisters on a mission to make a difference teamed up to start Sword & Plough — a social enterprise that works with veterans to repurpose military surplus materials that would otherwise be thrown away.
Their unique tote bags, handbags and accessories, along with their passion for providing employment for veterans, recently catapulted them into the national spotlight as a top 10 finalist in Small Business Big Game, so we had to find out the story behind starting their business.
Why did you both decide to build your business around the idea of giving back to the military?
Emily: We were born into the military and it has always been a huge part of our lives. Our dad served for over 30 years, so we grew up on military posts. I'm currently an active duty U.S. Army Officer, stationed with the HUD special forces group.
Betsy: As Emily mentioned, we grew up in a military family. We are so passionate about not only serving, but also giving back. Although I'm not in the military, Sword & Plough is my way of staying connected to the community.
How did you come up with the idea for Sword & Plough?
Emily: The "ah ha" moment for me happened in January of 2012. At the time, I was attending Middlebury College's first social entrepreneurship symposium. Jacqueline Novogratz (the founder and CEO of Acumen) was the keynote speaker and she shared the story of a company that incorporated recycling into its business model. I immediately started to reflect on my own life.
I asked myself, "What in my life is wasted on a daily basis that could be harnessed and turned into something beautiful with a powerful app?"
Growing up in a military family, we would see huge piles of surplus all the time. Most often those items either burned or buried, and that memory really stuck with us.
In the following year, I attended the U.S. Army Airborne School and trained with active duty soldiers from all ranks who had just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Through our conversations and the time we spent together, I learned how many of them hoped to get out of the army and transition back into the civilian workforce, but they worried about their job prospects. I knew then that there was an opportunity to bridge the civil/military divide.
Shortly after, I met up with Betsy for lunch. She can probably tell this part of the story a lot better!
Betsy: We were grabbing lunch at a little cafe in Burlington, Vermont. Halfway through, Emily just looks over at me and pauses for a second. She was always the dreamer and inventor in our family when we were growing up, so I could see that the wheels were turning. I knew that whatever she was about to ask me was going to be big.
She looked at me and said, "What would you think if we turned an Army ROTC tent into a tote bag?"
I paused for a second. Then we immediately jumped into a brainstorm. We started sketching on napkins and asking questions like, "What would it look like? Who will sew it? Do we just make one? Is mom going to make it?!"
That turned into a six-hour lunch. And we decided to keep building on the idea.
Starting our own business has been an adventure. As we grew, we incorporated veterans into every stage of the business — as designers, managers, sewers, quality control experts and even models — and we're committed to our mission of empowering veteran employment.
What is your favorite part about running a business?
Emily: I love that we have this awesome opportunity to make a positive impact on the world with our idea.
We know that all of the time and effort and thought we put into our work (even though it can be non-stop at times!) is going to turn into something tangible and positive for a lot of people.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about owning your own business?
Betsy: Recently, we were looking back on our metrics over the last two years. It was surprising — and almost overwhelming — to see the impact we've already had.
We've been able to repurpose over 30,000 pounds of military surplus, support 38 veteran jobs and distribute over 7,000 products in the US and globally. That was one of the most surprising and amazing feelings I've ever experienced!
If you had a magic wand that could make one part of running your business easier, what would you use it for?
Emily: Without a big HR department, it's tough to find the right people for the veteran job openings we have. If I had a magic wand, I would use it to help with recruiting. There are so many experienced veterans in the civilian workforce, but first we need to develop the right kind of networks that will help us recruit more veterans for our job openings. I would love to have more help with that.
What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out with launching their own business?
Emily: My best advice is to just go for it!
There are a lot of reasons why you might be thinking you shouldn't start a business. It's so easy to talk yourself out of it, maybe because you don't think you have all the qualifications or because you don't have the funding. I've learned that you just have to take the first step. You can learn as you go.
For us, we learned that finding mentors and advisors who are more experienced in a variety of different fields has been key to helping us grow from a startup into a successful small business. We couldn't do this without the support of our community here in Denver and our amazing team.