Ever since my first voyage working for Semester at Sea five years ago, I’ve been intrigued by all the social entrepreneurs I’ve encountered who are changing the world for the better. I’ve interviewed CEOs of startups that provided developing nations with an answer to safe alternative to cooktop stoves, mingled with science geniuses responsible for created an open-source sailing robot, met with innovators making the Internet available to everyone around the globe thanks to a breakthrough in mobile technology.
And, recently, I learned about two such treps—Scot and Jacqueline Tatelman, who started STATE Bags—who have been setting that bar really high for other for-profit businesses with a nonprofit focus.
In 2009, the husband-wife team launched Country Roads Foundation, a nonprofit that sends children from impoverished neighborhoods in their borough to summer camp. What followed was a natural extension of their vision: They wanted them to have fashionable, yet sturdy and reliable backpacks, to take to school, as well.
Similar to the TOMS model, for each bag sold, the STATE team hand-delivers one to a child in need through an empowering and educational ceremony they call a “bag drop.”
And let me just state the obvious: The bags are super cute to boot. (As are the founders.)
Scot and Jacq were kind enough to indulge me with some questions about how they got started and what they’d tell young social entrepreneurs looking to emulate their career path.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg: Did you decide to make backpacks specifically and then donate one for every item sold to a child in need, or did you already know you wanted to run a kid-focused social enterprise and then come up with the concept?
Scot: Seven years ago, Jacqueline and I created a nonprofit summer camp for hundreds of kids growing up in the most violent, underfunded neighborhoods in the country called Camp POWER. After spending time in the community and watching countless kids arrive at camp carrying all of their belongings in trash bags, we wanted to do more. We established STATE with a mission to serve American kids in need through our GiveBackPackProgram, which amplifies the buy-one, give-one model with a more local, long-form approach.
For each bag sold, STATE hand-delivers one to an American child in need—whether growing up in at-risk neighborhoods, homeless, undergoing cancer treatment or living with special needs. Our goal is always to find communities to support in ways that don’t just involve material handouts, but eye-opening, inspirational experiences that motivate kids of all backgrounds to beat the odds often stacked up against them.
There are a lot of causes that an entrepreneur can choose to support. What is it about children with challenges that directly spoke to you two?
Scot: Before we started Camp POWER, I was actually working full time at a for-profit summer camp. We had the idea of opening up our doors at the end of the summer to kids from surrounding, low-income neighborhoods of Boston. Thanks to the support of the Mark Wahlberg Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester and Roxbury, we founded Camp Northbound—now going into its 11th summer! The first summer of Northbound changed my life. I was director of the program and absolutely fell in love with providing kids opportunities like camp that they otherwise never would have had. I moved to New York, started working for a nonprofit, got antsy, and decided to built out the Northbound model for Brooklyn kids. Supporting kids in often overlooked communities was in my blood after seeing how it changed lives with Northbound, and so Camp POWER began.
How do you go about finding the recipients of your bags? The bag drop ceremony is a very cool idea indeed.
Scot: We wanted to go beyond simply material donations as we know that just giving stuff away doesn’t truly change lives, so our bags are delivered through motivational bag drop rallies, led by role-model figures in the STATE PackMen/Women. The actual event is a combination of an educational workshop mixed with a motivational rally, blended with a full-on dance party. It’s awesome. We provide kids with a bag to carry their “stuff” in, but also a powerful message about giving back, and doing great things for themselves and the community around them.
In terms of the style of the bags, how did you approach developing your brand’s identity? You both had nonprofit and marketing backgrounds, but did either of you have previous experience in fashion or retail?
Scot: Jacq has a deep background in the fashion space—she was the tiny kid in her Mom’s boutique walking around in high heels and hiding in clothing racks. When she graduated college, she worked at various fashion brands like Scoop, Kenneth Cole, Henry Bendel and Saks 5th Avenue doing working as everything from a buyer to leading the product development. She’s the visionary behind all the product, color schemes and designs, is insanely talented and we all love watching her brain get crazy creative!
What’s one thing you’d tell any budding social entrepreneur that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Scot: My top three would be…
- Love what you do, and love who you do it with. (I got that one covered as my co-pilot is my wife.)
- Be bold. Partnering with the biggest celebrity on the planet and/or teaming up with mega-brands like Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom doesn’t take place by waiting for them to come to you—always be thinking of creative ways to approach and be ready to strike when the time is right!
- Say yes when someone says, “I should connect you to _______.” You never know where every conversation could take you – every single introduction has been valuable to us!
STATE BAGS has been around for several few years now. What are you hoping to accomplish in the coming year now that you’re an established brand and out of the startup phase?
Jacq: To really capture the attention of our core customer—the cool mom. We believe we’ve given her plenty to choose from for her husband and kids, and now we’re primed to broaden our assortment and finally give her that off duty bag she’s been looking for (with a bonus of the product having a tie to giving back).
Scot: Since day one, I’ve always wanted to be recognized as the brand that took the one for one model back to the US, supporting people in our backyard—and are doing so in a really innovative, truly effective way for so many who just need some support. More and more people are starting to learn about us, and recognize STATE as the brand that is truly upping the ante on the one-for-one model.
If you could own just one piece from your collection, which would you choose?
Jacq: The Pink Berkeley since I’m an over-packing Mama.
Scot: The Chocolate Nevins—no reason other than I just think it’s such a bad-ass bag!