Taking ‘Made in the USA’ to the Next Level

Emily Núñez

Emily Núñez is being honored as a Champion of Change for her accomplishments as a crowdfunding pioneer.

Sword & Plough is a social enterprise that helps employ veterans by repurposing military surplus material into stylish bags and accessories. Its mission is to empower veteran employment, reduce waste, and strengthen civil-military relations.

Sword & Plough was founded in 2012.  Returning to Middlebury College after spending the summer attending the U.S. Army Airborne School, I cultivated the initial idea for Sword & Plough through close work with Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Since then, Sword & Plough has participated in the Dell Social Innovation Lab, won first place and the Audience Choice Award at the Harvard Pitch for Change Competition, and pitched on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during the Kairos Global Summit. We launched our first pre-order sales through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Our team aimed to raise $20,000 in 30 days and greatly surpassed our goal with a final total of $312,000 raised through 1,553 backers. Our success through crowdfunding has enabled us to produce our first round of bags, recycle 10,000 pounds of military surplus, and truly kick-start our social enterprise.

As one of three Army ROTC cadets studying in the bucolic setting of Middlebury College and commuting to the University of Vermont for training, I sometimes found it difficult to relate my military commitment to my fellow classmates, many of whom had never met someone who served in the military. My sister and Co-Founder, Betsy, and I wanted to create something that would emotionally and physically touch civilians in their everyday lives and remind them, in a beautiful way, of the challenges our country and servicemembers face, and the power that every person has to help.

After listening to Jacqueline Novogratz from Acumen Fund speak at Middlebury College’s Social Entrepreneurship Symposium, I thought to myself, “What in my life is routinely discarded that could be harnessed and repurposed into something meaningful, with a powerful story?” Having grown up in a military family and being familiar with the requisite gear, unserviceable military surplus material immediately came to mind.

Bags, which almost every person uses throughout his or her day, seemed like the perfect product. After developing the initial idea, we realized there was positive impact to be achieved beyond recycling and connecting civilians with the military population. We could also directly empower veteran employment by working with veterans to sew our products. As our mission took shape, we began to see that we were creating a quadruple bottom line business that emphasized people, purpose, planet, and profit through our work with American veterans. In this way, our bags are rugged, refined, and relevant.

More than one million veterans are projected to leave the military in the next four years, and the crisis of veteran unemployment is projected to grow as a result. Sword & Plough aims to help solve this problem by working with manufacturers that employ veterans and by generating employment opportunities for retired service members. Our goal is to help veterans transition into civilian life by finding meaningful employment and a sense of purpose.

Sword & Plough also conserves resources. The materials used to make our bags would otherwise be burned or buried in a landfill, but we enable a beautiful and socially beneficial second life for the canvas and nylon fabrics we recycle. Sword & Plough is projected to upcycle 30,000 pounds of military surplus within its first year of commercial operation.

Sword & Plough’s progress is a testament to the power of the growing infrastructure to support student entrepreneurship. Without the momentum provided by competitions, fellowships, and mentoring programs, my “light bulb moment” may have been only that. It is largely due to the guidance and encouragement of our Board of Advisors that we have been able to succeed.

I am incredibly grateful to have been invited to the White House as a Champion of Change and to be recognized for the work that we are doing, which has been empowered by crowdfunding. It is our hope that our mission continues to spread across the nation. The most gratifying aspect of leading and launching Sword & Plough is the ability to create a community that is as passionate about supporting veterans as we are.

Emily Núñez is CEO and Co-Founder of Sword & Plough.

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