Photo courtesy of Sword & Plough. © Haik Kavookjian.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” So goes the ancient saying (more specifically Isaiah 2: 3-4). Such is the expression that inspired the moniker of Sword & Plough, a company that Betsy Nunez cultivated with her sister, Emily, with the mission to “employ veterans, reduce waste, and strengthen civilian understanding and appreciation for veterans.”
The philosophy behind the idea germinated not so long ago at New York’s own West Point military post, where the girls’ father, now a retired U.S. Army colonel, taught at the U.S. Military Academy and where Emily, the younger of the two, was born. Both Nunez sisters spent the early part of their childhoods there before moving to Kansas; the family was later stationed in New York’s Fort Drum. “Even though we were young, I remember really admiring how beautiful the base is, attending various sporting events, watching the students march,” Betsy recalled of West Point.
Inspired by the family’s military history, and a childhood of growing up on military bases, Emily enlisted in the ROTC while at Middlebury College in Vermont (from where she graduated in 2012). She is currently serving on a nine-month tour in Afghanistan as a second lieutenant.
During her senior year at Middlebury, Emily attended a lecture by Jacqueline Novogratz at the College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Novogratz is the founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, a global venture that supports entrepreneurial approaches to problem-solving. In her lecture, Novogratz specifically addressed how some startups create products that find alternative uses for waste, or materials that normally go to waste.
In response to Novogratz’s challenge, Emily considered what could be repurposed into something beautiful, but also bore strong symbolism. She quickly realized how often she had noticed an excess of army surplus materials around her, and immediately shared the idea with her sister Betsy. The sisters have been building out the idea for Sword & Plough ever since, one that would incorporate a beautiful, durable product made by Veteran manufacturers in the United States. The first Sword & Plough collection includes a tote bag, messenger bag and rucksack, with plans to expand their offerings in future seasons.
The company is a quadruple bottom line social enterprise—one that benefits people, purpose, planet and profit. The repurposing of military surplus materials reduces waste, while Sword & Plough’s mission to employ as many veterans as possible creates American jobs. Over the next four years, more than one million veterans will leave the military and the crisis of veteran unemployment and related depression will only increase. Sword & Plough’s profitable product empowers Veterans, reduces waste and strengthens civil military understanding.
The company works with three Veteran-operated manufacturers across the country, in Ohio, Los Angeles and Denver, while their primary business operations take place in Boston, and their creative work and communications team resides in New York City.
The company, though small, and spread across different locations throughout the country, is still catching up to its overwhelming initial success. From the Kickstarter campaign that initiated the company’s official launch in only April of this year, Sword & Plough found their idea resulted in a strong public interest in both their product and their mission. With a goal of $20,000, the company raised about $312,000 in fewer than 30 days, with more than 1,500 backers.
“Many admired that it’s a made in U.S. supply chain and that we’re working specifically to employ as many veterans as possible. There are veterans on our team, on our board of advisors, and we’re providing a durable product,” says Betsy, who is COO and currently the company’s sole full-time employee while Emily, the CEO, is deployed in Afghanistan. “But we also received so many messages from people who were personally connected to the military, or were simply inspired to learn more about the military and the veteran unemployment issue.”
The team is addressing challenges as they arise with the sophistication of older, successful artisans. “We’ve learned that there is so much potential and possibility behind a simple idea,” marvels Betsy, reflecting on what they have accomplished since that first conversation with her sister. “We’ve realized that anything is possible, even if it at first seems beyond our reach.” Betsy also noted that the geographic distance the Sword & Plough team covers is “both a challenge and an opportunity.” The team is all over the country, but then again, “that’s representative of [America], and everyone involved in the company shares their own ideas and perspectives from where they are.”
And the specific perspective that New York City brings to Sword & Plough’s process is a creative one. The women of the Nunez family all share a keen interest in fashion and style; Emily and Betsy often took trips to Manhattan with their mother and spend their days walking all over the city, observing the unique street style of the locals. The Nunez sisters were fascinated by how “fashion can be so unique and individual, but an entire movement can be built around one beautiful item. A lot of our creative process is looking at photos of recent or past visits to NYC and what caught our eye there.”
Haik Kavookjian, a good friend and classmate of Emily’s from Middlebury, joined Sword & Plough in August 2012, as the company’s Communications Director. For Haik, New York City is the creative backdrop to the company’s values. All of the photo shoots and product inspiration is derived from quotidian New York street style. “Sword & Plough products are equal parts greater mission and excellent product,” says Haik, “and that is conveyed exactly through New York City.”
And their ploughshares — so to speak — are growing rapidly. Bloomberg Businessweek called Sword & Plough “a testament to the power of the growing infrastructure nationwide to support student entrepreneurship,” even before the aforementioned success of the company’s Kickstarter campaign.
Projected to upcycle about 20,000 pounds of military surplus within its first year of commercial operation, Sword & Plough’s initial product offering on their website sold out very quickly — but not to worry, items can be pre-ordered on their site in time for spring 2014.
If they had to choose a state they are most likely to call home, “it would certainly be New York,” says Betsy. “In addition to having lived at both West Point and Fort Drum, visiting Sackets Harbor, and our dad’s family being from Albany,” Emily and Betsy return to New York City again and again. They’ve always been interested in the startup and fashion industry that is bustling all over New York City. Of their New York State of Mind, the Nunez sister embrace “The people, the architecture, the history. Everywhere you turn there’s inspiration.”