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The “TOMS Shoes” of Backpacks

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

Interview with Ark Collective Founder, Kevin Moshayedi.

By Jenny Hoang

A few months ago, I was looking for a new backpack and ended with a great one from Ark Collective. Turns out, Ark Collective is a backpack company with a dual mission business model. That is, it’s a for-profit entity that has an integrated social mission in its business. Inspired by TOMS Shoes’ One for One Movement, Ark Collective has the Get to Give Model, where instead of shoes, it gives away a backpack for each one that it sells.

I had the chance to interview Ark Collective’s founder, Kevin Moshayedi, and asked him about his business and motivation behind his work. A business major who learned about corporate social responsibility in his courses, Kevin’s business idea was hatched in his last semester in college. He wanted to create a company that could help him grow as a person and also help other people out as well. After talking to a friend’s mom, a teacher in Los Angeles, he learned that there are 14 million students throughout the United States who live under the poverty level and as a result cannot afford adequate school supplies. This lack of resources limits their performance in school and also negatively affects their self-esteem and motivation. It was then that Kevin decided to create a company that made backpacks that served both customers and these underprivileged students. He founded Ark Collective the summer after he graduated in 2009.

What struck me most about my conversation with Kevin is it seemed obvious to him that his company should have a mission that creates positive impact for his community. His attitude toward his business was about being on a journey and experiencing life, rather than it simply being “work.” Though, none of this is that surprising once you realize that Kevin is a Millennial.

The millennial generation, a segmentation that has had more marketing research done about them than any other, has had ongoing debates about their characteristics in the workplace. The Washington post article subtitled, “Working Hard or Hardly Working?” makes evident the popular perception of this generation of workers as “lazy,” “entitled,” and “spoiled.” My interaction with Kevin, however, shows another view, such as described by International Workplace, where Millennials are known as a value-based generation who are “civic-minded, risk-taking, bold, innovative, entrepreneurial, flexible, optimistic and balanced in their views on the role of work and life.”

Millennial values are seen throughout the Ark Collective. It is well-reported that unemployment is high in this generation who graduated college during The Great Recession. Kevin is well aware of this having hired some of his friends who couldn’t find jobs. Known as “The Pack,” they do more than give away backpacks to young students in Los Angeles. Taking a hands-on approach to community involvement, the employees and their friends started a weekly program they call “Treasure Tuesdays.” Wanting to find creative ways to deal with their waste stream, the group takes the plastic bags that the backpacks are shipped in and head out to do beach cleanup at Newport Beach. In colder months, they offer tutoring to students and work at soup kitchens. They also partner with local artists who paint designs on their canvas backpacks, and even held an art show to auction off these pieces in order to donate the proceeds to local children’s organizations. Moreover, knowing that arts education funding is being cut in schools, they started selling sweaters to use the profits for art kits they include in their backpack donations to the students.

Everything the Ark Collective does is thoughtful, values-based, and lives up to their greater mission. Their story should help tip the debate toward the latter view of Millennials as civic-minded, engaged citizens and workers. The possibility of this is critical to the sustainability movement. If there is a whole generation ready to take leadership by upholding beliefs of creating holistically-mindful, community-oriented businesses that innately believe in the triple bottom line, there is hope yet for saving our planet.

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