DENVER–Serving in the military while also being the CEO of a fashion company can be an intimidating but also a rewarding experience. It’s also a perfect match for U.S. Army 1st Lt. Emily Núñez, 24, who saw a need and filled it, helping her fellow veterans along the way.
“It has been challenging at times but the two roles complement each other. As an officer in the US Army your job is to lead soldiers and to motivate them to accomplish a task. As the CEO, my job is to ensure that we’re accomplishing our social mission while keeping the team excited about what we’re doing,” she says.
Núñez is the CEO and co-founder of Sword and Plough. Sword and Plough creates bags and other accessories out of repurposed military surplus, like shelter halves tents, laundry bags and sleeping bag covers.
Although Núñez was committed to a career in the military, she and her sister Betsy Núñez, 26, co- founded Sword & Plough in 2012. Growing up in a military family Emily followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the Army. She currently serves as an Intelligence Officer with the Group Support Battalion in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson, Colorado. Prior to joining the military, Núñez enrolled in the Army ROTC at the University of Vermont and and Middlebury College in Vermont in 2008. It was there during her senior year that the idea to launch her entrepreneurial venture was born.
The idea to create her fashion company came to Núñez after a talk at the Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. During the Social Entrepreneurship Symposium at Middlebury Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund talked about businesses that had incorporated recycling into their business model. Núñez took note and put her social entrepreneur spirit to work. She began to think about what around her was routinely wasted and could be recycled and turned into something powerful. ”I was aware that there was a lot of military surplus that was wasted, thrown away or burned,” Núñez says.
Emily told her sister Betsy about her idea to turn a military shelter halves tent into tote bags. ”When she first told me about her idea I was so surprised and happy that she shared that with me. I knew this was something that could be very special and could become something really unique,” Betsy says. From that conversation the sisters continue to build on the idea and business model.
Sword & Plough’s name comes from the biblical phrase to “turn swords into ploughshares” from the Book of Isaiah. For Emily and Betsy it means re-adapting military technology for a peaceful civilian purpose. The sisters are giving these fabrics and materials another purpose as stylish designs. “Some of the materials we use have been used by the Army and military since the Civil War,” Betsy says.
Emily and Betsy never went to school for business and they didn’t have any experience in fashion either but that didn’t stop them. “It was a challenge to start the business but at the same time it was a huge opportunity,” she says. The sisters thank the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship for helping them every step of the way.
To build the company, they sought out support and mentorship from other groups. They attended the Dell Summer Social Innovation Lab in July 2012. During the three-week program, they were able to build their business plan, supply chain, brand name and a prototype bag.
The idea caught on and last year Sword and Plough participated in Mass Challenge, the largest startup accelerator and competition in the world. Some 1,200 young companies from all over the world applied for 120 spots. Sword and Plough was selected and they were awarded $50,000 to grow their business. Preparing for that pitch was nerve-racking, Betsy says. At the time, Emily was serving in Afghanistan and they practiced over Skype how they were going to prepare their pitch.
The company’s social mission is to empower and promote veteran employment, strengthen military civil relations and reduce waste. All items are made in the US and the company works with veteran owned, operated and staffed manufactures. “I really wanted to create a product that would physically touch civilians in a beautiful way and to remind them of veterans and the sacrifice that they made but also the challenges that they encounter as they transition into civilian life,” Emily says.
For Emily, veteran employment was their main company goal. During her time at the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, she heard about veterans having difficulties finding meaningful employment. “I spent a lot of time with soldiers of all different ranks and services and many of them told me about friends of their who were getting out of the military and faced challenges as they tried to find employment and that experience always stuck with me,” she says.
The company’s launched started on Kickstarter in 2013 with a goal to raise $20,000. Their campaign exceeded their goal and raised over $312,000 and so far have provided jobs to 35 veterans and recycled over 15,000 pounds of military surplus.
Emily and Betsy are happy to be accomplishing a social mission with their company. “I want Sword & Plough to be a leader in the field of social entrepreneurship that is able to communicate effectively the awesome skill that veterans bring to communities. As a fashion brand over the course of the next five to 10 years we want Sword & Plough to be known as a strong American heritage brand,” Emily says.
Second Tour is an ABC News digital series profiling the lives of military veterans who are doing unique things in the civilian world. For more stories, click here.
ABC News’ video editor Arthur Niemynski contributed to this report.