These Sisters Transform Discarded Military Gear Into High Fashion – And Support Veterans in the Process
Kim Lachance Shandrow | December 9, 2016
U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Emily Núñez Cavness and her sister Betsy Núñez are committed to rallying support for the men and women who’ve bravely served our country. Having grown up in a military family themselves, they’re also deeply passionate about creating jobs—and improving quality of life overall—for veterans.
Realizing their shared social mission and entrepreneurial vision, together they founded Sword & Plough. Launched via a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2013, the duo’s sustainable fashion brand transforms thousands of pounds of military surplus materials that would otherwise be burned or buried in landfills into stylish yet sturdy clothes, totes, and accessories.
Repurposed stitch by repurposed stitch, with each unique handmade item’s sale, the Denver, Colo.-based startup gives back to help empower veteran employment, and in the process, the sisters are reducing waste and fostering civil awareness and appreciation for America’s veterans.
We reached out to the Núñez sisters to learn more about their entrepreneurial journey—and to ask them about their experiences hiring heroes, running an environmentally-friendly “Made In the U.S.A.” operation, and beyond. The answers below were provided by Emily, who serves as Sword & Plough’s CEO. (Her sister, Betsy, is the company’s COO.)
What inspired you to take the entrepreneurial leap with your sister?
“The ‘aha moment’ occurred when I was a senior at Middlebury College and attended a talk at the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Several experiences from my life collided, including growing up in a military family, being inspired to serve from seeing my Dad’s and Uncle’s impactful military careers, being the only Army ROTC cadet at Middlebury, and wanting to bridge the civil-military divide, as well as to empower veteran employment.
I asked myself, ‘What in my life is sometimes discarded that could be harnessed and turned into something beautiful with a powerful mission?’ Immediately, I thought of military surplus. Then, as I looked around the room and saw my fellow students, I realized every person had a bag of some kind next to them.
I thought, ‘We could take these extremely durable materials that have such unique stories and turn them into fashionable bags that anyone would want to use. ‘Next, I thought about who would be involved in the process, and it made complete sense to empower veteran employment at every stage, from design to manufacturing to fulfillment, and even as models. My mind was running so quickly and, together with my sister, Betsy, we knew this was an idea we had to pursue!”
What problems do you solve through your company’s mission and how?
“Sword & Plough’s mission is to empower veteran employment, reduce waste, and strengthen civil-military understanding. We accomplish this mission in several ways.
We support veteran employment through our own business model, as well as through our manufacturing partners. We also partner with six veteran-owned-and-operated partners to manufacture and ship our goods. Since our launch, we’ve supported approximately 55 veteran jobs in all.
By incorporating repurposed materials into our designs, we are able to significantly reduce our environmental impact as a fashion brand. We also manufacture exclusively in the U.S., which reduces our carbon emissions. To date, we have shipped over 18,000 bags and repurposed over 38,000 pounds of military surplus.
Sword & Plough products are also conversation starters. Our customers are constantly telling us how they are stopped and asked, ‘Where did you get that bag?’ Or, ‘What is that bag made out of?’ Those conversations are opportunities to talk about the veteran employment and durable materials that are incorporated into each bag. We’ve also heard that these conversations also lead to other conversations about veterans or service members in people’s’ lives. We also strengthen civil-military understanding through our social media platforms and public speaking opportunities.
Also, since launching, we have made it a priority to donate 10 percent of our profits to veteran non-profit organizations that align with our social mission. In addition, we have donated more than $20,000 of in-kind Sword & Plough products. This has allowed us to work with and support more than 65 veteran non-profit organizations, such as Got Your 6 and Team Red White and Blue.”
“Our name originates from the ancient saying, ‘To turn swords into ploughs.’ Or, to take military technologies and materials and apply them to peaceful civil applications.”
What challenges have you faced along this journey and how did you overcome them?
“One of our biggest challenges occurred just after we launched on Kickstarter in 2013. Our goal was to raise $20,000 over the course of 30 days in order to fund our first large production run. We reached that goal within the first two hours of our campaign and ended the month with over $312,000 in pledges and 15,000 supporters!
Just three weeks later, I deployed to Afghanistan for seven months. During this time, Betsy participated in MassChallenge, the world’s largest accelerator program. There, she focused on perfecting our supply chain, which wasn’t always easy. For example, one of the leather suppliers we planned on working with went bankrupt just before we were going to place our first large leather order. Luckily, Betsy met several wonderful mentors that helped our team through this challenge.”
What does being an American social impact entrepreneur mean to you?
“An entrepreneur is an innovative problem solver. We are proud to be American entrepreneurs. More specifically, we are proud to be a veteran-owned social enterprise with products that are exclusively made in the U.S.A.
We embody the American entrepreneurial spirit through our creative solution to help solve several challenges, while also producing a high-quality product that supports and gives back to veterans. We are driven, creative, and passionate about Sword & Plough, and the opportunity to innovate through social entrepreneurship.”
What’s next for Sword & Plough?
“You can expect expansion, exciting new products joining our collection, and more opportunities to purchase our products in person in many cities around the U.S.
Each year, we see incredible growth within our community of customers, fans, and supporters, which, in turn, enables us to scale our social impact. In these past few months alone, we’ve launched a new brand manager program, launched our jewelry line, were featured on National Public Radio, and my sister, Emily, spoke to O, Oprah Magazine’s sales unit. Our team is constantly dreaming up new products and new ideas to further Sword & Plough’s mission, impact, and community.”