Posted: 3:19 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013
By Donna Fenn
The founder of FEED explains how she turned a simple burlap bag into a powerful tool for fighting world hunger.
Last week, 30 Under 30 alum Lauren Bush Lauren and I took the stage at SXSW V2V in Las Vegas, where we talked about how she grew FEED Projects into a powerhouse brand. Over the past five years, FEED has donated $6 million and 60 million meals to school children worldwide. While today FEED has more than 55 products, it all began with one: a burlap bag that Bush Lauren designed when she was a student spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme.
Here are just a few of Bush Lauren’s musings on building a sustainable social enterprise.
The mission comes first. Bush Lauren first came up with the idea for FEED when her travels with the World Food Programme showed her "the realities of hunger and poverty," she says. "870 million people around the world are food insecure and that’s a massive, overwhelming statistic, but hunger is a solvable problem. The world has enough food to feed everyone; it’s a distribution problem."
Feeding needy children in schools by dedicating approximately 10% of each product’s retail price to hunger organizations is her top priority. "Consumers are weary of good-washing and sniff out companies that aren’t authentically doing good work," she says. "If you’re starting a social business, it has to be the core of your business, not just an extra marketing thing on the side."
Don’t give up. It was Bush Lauren’s dream to see FEED bags in Whole Foods. While she was still at Princeton, she met the company’s founder, John Mackey, who opened the door for her. Still, it took her more than three years of "physically gong to every single region of Whole Foods to convince them that FEED was a great program." Ultimately, Whole Foods bought so many bags that FEED was able to feed school children in Rwanda for a year. And the partnership gave FEED the legitimacy it needed to scale.
Learn from your missteps. Initially, Bush Lauren asked retailers to split the cost of FEED’s donation with her, with each party forfeiting some margin. "That was all good for the first year, but after a while when it’s becoming a negative on buyers' spreadsheets. They don’t want to reorder," she says. Bush Lauren had to make the tough decision to "get out of my own way" by raising prices on her products and taking a slightly bigger hit on margins so that her retail partners could make their full margin. Now, she says, "we have more sustainable relationships" with retail partners.
Stay true to your brand. "We evaluate partnerships first and foremost on shared values," she says. While she’s not naming names, she says that she’s turned down potentially lucrative partnerships because the values were not aligned. "Keeping the brand pristine is so important," she says,"especially for a do-good brand like FEED. If we lose that credibility, we lose everything."
Know what you don’t know. Early on in FEED’s history, Bush Lauren recalls that the company spent tens of thousands of dollars air shipping backpacks to Africa via UPS and "almost went bankrupt." It was a wakeup call. A meeting with a UPS accountant made it painfully obvious that supply chain management wasn't in Bush Lauren’s wheelhouse. She quickly learned what she didn’t know, then poached the accountant away from UPS to manage FEED’s supply chain.
To solve a big problem, find a big partner. Most of FEED’s giving has been directed overseas, but Bush Lauren made a decision, right before the recession, to bring some FEED love home. "I knew that I wanted FEED to support feeding hungry Americans but I wanted to do it big and I wanted to do it with the right partner," she says. She immediately thought of Target, which has a reputation for its philanthropic efforts -- the company gives more than $4 million each week to local communities. Target is also accustomed to managing alliances with designers. "The partnership came about very seamlessly," she says.
Bush Lauren worked with Target to create 50 new SKUs for the store -- from its signature FEED bags to hoodies, kitchen accessories, jewelry and even a folding bicycle. The goal for the partnership, which Target rolled out in June with a major advertising campaign, was to raise $10 million for Feeding America, a large hunger-relief charity. The goal was met on August 19.
Lessons learned from the Target partnership will help Bush Lauren expand FEED’s product line. On tap: a diaper bag, a line of leather bags and perhaps some kitchen items. And in response to rumors that she may at some point create her own Lauren Bush Lauren-branded line, she says that she has no interest in putting her own face and name on products. "I am FEED and FEED is me," she says.