Good Company: Núñez Sisters: Repurposing with a Purpose

Sword & Plough founders turn military surplus into practical fashions

They make baubles from bullets and totes from tents — repurposing with a purpose, say Emily Núñez Cavness and her sister, Betsy Núñez. They’re a pair of Army brats — Emily herself is an Afghanistan vet and former Army captain in military intelligence — who have parlayed their upbringing into a fashion-forward accessory business that is at once sustainable, philanthropic and profitable.

Their modern take on the biblical imperative to turn swords into ploughshares — “take military products and turn them to peaceful civilian purposes,” Emily says — grew out of a lecture on social entrepreneurship in her senior year at Middlebury College just five years ago. Since then, the sisters have used more than 35,000 pounds of surplus military fabric, leather and metal, donated 10 percent of their profits and thousands in in-kind products to veteran support groups and helped support 65 jobs for military vets.

And people have noticed. Emily, who was named a White House Champion of Change in 2013, graced the cover of Women’s Health last year as the magazine’s first “Ultimate Game Changer.” The sisters were named 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs and have made the rounds everywhere from the “Today” show to Esquire magazine.

In their sleek modern offices across from Union Station, the sisters showcase, among other things, their latest products — jewelry hand-hammered from .50-caliber shell casings by a machine-gunner-turned-artisan named Shanna — as well as that very first prototype bag created by an especially talented seamstress. “Mom came to the rescue,” Emily says, “as she has many times.”

CB: You had that “Aha!” moment during your senior year in college. What happened?

Emily: (Acumen CEO) Jacqueline Novogratz gave this incredible talk on social entrepreneurship. It really made me reflect on my own life and made me think, ‘What’s sometimes discarded that could be turned into something both beautiful and really purposeful?’ I immediately thought of military surplus, because it’s so durable and has a really unique history to it, and I thought how incredible it would be to turn it into something that anyone could use on a daily basis. And I looked around myself, and every student had a bag of some sort. A week later, I entered Middlebury’s business plan competition.
When Emily started talking to you about this idea, what was your reaction?

Betsy: Emily has such interesting and inventive ideas as a child. I just started asking her questions to open up the idea and what she was thinking. We sketched out little designs on napkins for a couple of hours. There are too many things that are just talked about that never become realities and too often our response to a great idea is, that’s a great idea, you should do that or that’s really cool, but what I’m so proud of is that even though Emily was a college senior at the time getting ready to commission, there were all these things that could have become excuses or reasons to postpone or stop or prevent her from diving right in; she just totally dove right in.

CB: You launched your Kickstarter campaign in April 2013. How did that go?  

B: Keep in mind, we had not sold a single bag. Our goal was to raise $20,000 in 30 days to fund our first large production run and to take pre-orders of maybe 100 to 150 products. And we’d produce those products and ship those out, and maybe down the line, launch and unveil our website and build the collection from them. April 15 comes along, we press the green launch button at 11 a.m. from our home in Pennsylvania, and we sat there and waited a few seconds to see if any orders would come in. We saw a first person pre-order a rucksack, and another person pre-order a tote and another order a messenger bag. In the first two hours, we had hit the goal of $20,000. And we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we still have 29 days left!’ The reason we launched when we did was because Emily was going to Afghanistan three weeks after the campaign. So we ended the campaign with over 1,500 supporters and had raised over $312,000 in a month.   

E: And now we had a lot of pre-orders to fulfill, and I deployed to Afghanistan about two weeks after the campaign ended. It was pretty crazy. We also went to the White House for a Champions of Change and we spoke about our experience with crowdfunding. And then I deployed, and we had a lot of work to do because we had 1,500 pre-orders to fulfill. So Betsy worked incredibly hard, and thank goodness for tech and Skype and email given the limited time I had to devote to this. I was in Afghanistan for seven months, and I came back in December 2013. And was very excited to be home and it was such an incredible feeling to see that all our Kickstarter pre-orders had been fulfilled.

CB: Talk about the strengths you each bring to the business. 

E: Betsy is very detail-oriented and is so helpful with that type of thinking. She really is an amazing problem-solver. Early on, there were some real challenges we had to figure out. She’s really committed to getting the job done.

B: I see the leadership (Emily) brings from her military experience. Her laser focus on a goal and a mission and the ability drive and organize and center a team around that. I see her ability to inspire through how she’s leading. I think she’s incredibly determined. I’ve seen that in her military service — she was one of the first 100 females in history to try out for the Army Ranger course.

CB: How does your military background inform your business?

E: It’s really tied into all aspects of our business, from the way I approach leadership — I know I’ve learned so many lessons in the military that I’ve applied to the business, from learning how to motivate a diverse group of people to time management. And my experience in the military has also really informed and influenced our mission, which is to strengthen civil-military understanding through really stylish bags that reduce waste. When I think about a veteran, I think about someone who is a proven leader with incredible technical skills who’s committed to something larger than themselves, and who’s incredibly dedicated. Who wouldn’t want to have someone like that on their team?

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