Sword & Plough: Repurposed for a Purpose

During Super Bowl 50 this coming February, a 30-second advertisement will cost $4.5 million, or $150,000 per second.  As it has done in years past, Intuit is conducting its “QuickBooks Small Business Big Game” promotion.  Each year, the winner gets a free, professionally produced commercial for their business that airs during the Super Bowl — marketing that any major corporation would die for, much less a small business.

Out of 15,000 entries, there are ten semi-finalists and they are as varied as it gets; from small batch cookies, to an 85-year old five and dime, to lingerie for women who have had breast surgery – the merits of each are worthy of their own article here on Opportunity Lives. On November 3, 2015 the ten semi-finalists are narrowed to three finalists.

For me, one company stood out in particular, Sword & Plough. Based out of Denver, Sword & Plough’s vision is to take military technologies and materials, and repurpose them for civilian life. This veteran owned & operated initiative is the vision of two sisters: Army 1st Lt. Emily Núñez Cavness and Betsy Núñez. They create backpacks, tote bags, purses, and other great accessories like cuff links & belts. Their website even features a fantastic Sword & Plough longboard by Kota – literally turning “swords into plough shares.”

The Sword & Plough name is more than the simple application of a philosophy, it is a social mission and has been a life game-changer for Emily and Betsy. Their “a-ha moment” happened during Emily’s senior year at Middlebury College when she was listening to Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen, speak during a social entrepreneurship symposium. Suddenly, all these ideas, the entrepreneurial drive, the importance of family, military discipline, and social purpose were colliding.

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Emily and Betsy decided to repurpose surplus military materials to sell and use the proceeds to help veteran causes. | Photo: Sword & Plough

The team is not limited to Emily and Betsy. Their father, Col. (ret.) Joseph Núñez, is on the board of advisors, and has been there since day one with advice and encouragement. Their youngest brother, Thomas, is also part of the Sword & Plough team and is the Assistant Operations Manager.

Part of the Sword & Plough philosophy is to empower veterans through meaningful employment. As a cadet at the U.S. Army Airborne School, Emily spoke to soldiers who had many veteran friends who had difficulty acquiring meaningful civilian work.  Emily and Betsy decided to commit to strengthening civilian-military understanding.

The early days of Sword & Plough were busy and hectic, but Emily and Betsy were undaunted by the pace. In February 2013, Emily called the Sword & Plough team, to plan a Kickstarter launch for July 4th. A few hours later, that same day, Emily received a call from her division headquarters notifying her that her military orders had changed, and that she would be deploying to Afghanistan in three months, only a month before the planned Kickstarter launch.

Over the course of the next two months, the pace was frantic as Emily trained for her first Army deployment while trying to launch Sword & Plough. The Kickstarter launch was moved up to April 15th, 2013. During this time, there was a two week period that Emily lived out of an Army rucksack while Sword & Plough’s concept “to work with Veterans and repurpose military surplus into stylish bags” had won the Harvard Pitch For Change competition.

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Only a few months before their kickstarter campaign launched, Emily, above, learned she would be deployed to Afghanistan, so Betsy quit her job and took over operations while Emily was away. | Photo: Sword & Plough

Betsy resigned from her job in Boston two weeks before the April Kickstarter launch. The goal was to raise $20,000 over the course of a month to fund the first large manufacturing run of their product line. Not only did they achieve their goal, they did it in just two hours. Their magnificent launch and campaign is an example of crowdfunding at its finest. They raised more than $312,000 and had 1,500 pre-orders.

Three weeks after their Kickstarter campaign ended, Emily deployed to Afghanistan, and Betsy started MassChallenge, the world’s largest startup accelerator program, ideally located in Boston’s “Innovation District.” They had signed up to compete for $100,000 of non-equity funding, but the opportunity to become a member of a thriving ecosystem of innovation was a prize itself. From the 1200 companies that applied, Sword & Plough landed on of the coveted 128 Global Finalist spots in the Summer 2013 MassChallenge Accelerator.

Betsy, being the only full-time Sword & Plough employee at the time, meant that she was not going to just represent Sword & Plough and compete at MassChallenge, but she had to execute post-Kickstarter fulfillment and daily operations – building a large scale production supply chain from scratch, remotely managing four months of production, and of Kickstarter pre-orders by September.

Since launching and raising 15 times their original goal on Kickstarter in 2013, Sword & Plough has repurposed over 30,000 pounds of military surplus fabric, shipped over 7,000 bags and accessories globally, and donated 10% of their profits to veteran organizations, such as Got Your 6 and Team Red, White & Blue. It was through that strong community of world-class mentorship, supporters, training, and resources that they were able to build a robust long term supply chain, and win $50,000 at the MassChallenge pitch competition.

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Sword & Plough’s best selling item has been their tote bag, designed by women for women, which is able to survive the wear and tear for years. | Photo: Sword & Plough

More recently, the Sword & Plough team was on a routine team call discussing Autumn partnerships. Thinking locally, they had been discussing football season when Emily remembered the Intuit “Small Business Big Game Competition.” Emily had the team pause the call while she searched online for information about the competition, and if/when it might happen again.  Coincidentally, the contest was already in the midst of running, so with only 24 hours left to enter the competition, they had all hands on deck, and the team successfully made their application before the deadline.

Sword & Plough are one of the Top 10 finalists. They are the only veteran-owned company, and one of a few women-owned finalists. The competition is an incredible opportunity to share their vision of what empowered veterans can do for each other through employment, local strength, a greater civilian-military understanding, all with a real reduction of waste, with over 100 million Americans. The winner of the Intuit “Small Business Big Game Competition” will get one of the most coveted and most expensive TV spots of the year.

To vote for Sword & Plough to get their own Super Bowl ad, go to: https://www.smallbusinessbiggame.com/contests/sbbg/entries/14941

According to Emily and Betsy, the Sword & Plough Signature Tote and the Dopp Kit have both been wildly successful. The Signature Tote is the most popular product, and the first bag they designed.  It’s been so popular, that they’ve released a smaller size as well.  It’s popular because it is a bag designed for women by women. After years of being disappointed by bags that simply do not last, they designed based on all of the features they ever wanted with a fantastically durable material. They have some customers who use this bag every day of the year.

To find out more about Sword & Plough, and to check out their online shop, go to: http://www.swordandplough.com/

Cameron Gray is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Cameron_Gray.