Whenever Washington and Lee senior James Williams wore one of his colorful, hooded shirts from Kenya around campus, people asked him where they could get one.
Now he has an answer — and a new business supported, in part, by W&L's Venture club, which aims to promote the spirit of entrepreneurship on campus.
A senior majoring in accounting and business administration, Williams' new import business has several dimensions, including a relationship with the international Feed the Children Organization.
The shirts in question are handmade using a traditional African fabric that includes cotton. When washed they become soft and comfortable to wear. Each shirt is unique. Williams will choose between five and 10 different patterns made from two materials—Kanga made from two embroidered squares that make a pattern with black lines, and Kitenge, which has more of a solid pattern running through it.
The idea for the business stemmed from a friend who returned from a trip to Kenya with hooded shirts made by a village tailor. "I thought that if I can go to Kenya and get these shirts that I think are so cool and sell them in the United States, then it would create a really nice symbiotic relationship," said Williams, who is from Columbia, S.C. "We benefit from creating a business and a bridge between Kenya and the United States, and we're also doing infinite good by improving the livelihoods of women through Feed the Children by giving them jobs and a source of income. That's the ultimate goal of this project."
During a five-day trip to Kenya in the summer, Williams met with directors of Feed the Children. They gave him a tour of their programs, including "Livelihoods" in the slums of Nairobi. That program aims to reintroduce into society women the organization has helped. About 20 of the women are tailors and to Williams this was a perfect fit.
"I explained that if they could make these shirts then I would buy all of them," said Williams. "And they agreed. So right now we are working through Feed the Children on product development and getting it just right. We're close to where we want it to be."
Meanwhile, W&L's Venture Club adopted William's business venture as one of its consulting projects, with a team of five students working on the business plan — senior Daniel Perez, a major in business administration; senior John Rehberger, a double major in economics and accounting and business administration; and accounting and business administration majors senior Burke Anderson, senior Blaire Fowler and junior Monica Devlin.
"We've completely changed the business model a couple of times," explained Williams, who is also a member of the Venture Club. "There's so much that goes into it and so much that needs to be done. We're working on manufacturing, production, product labeling, legal requirements and shipping—our biggest cost. There are always new obstacles that we have to find a way around."
Feed the Children has submitted a proposal to Williams and is now awaiting his business plan. The aim is for the business to be a wholesaler, marking up the product for retail stores and selling for $35 or $40. "We don’t expect to make a very big profit margin," said Williams. "But the shirts are all hand-made and a lot of time and effort is put into them. A huge part of what we're doing is trying to convey the message that this is hard-earned money for these Kenyans. It's not a donation or charity. So people will know that their money is going to Kenya and Feed the Children."
Williams plans to retail the shirts online and work them into trade shows and galleries in order to try and get the line picked up by retailers.So far, he has invested his own money in the business but eventually will be looking for investors and perhaps a small business loan. He would like to find a retail buyer for the shirts by the end of the academic year but sees the business as a long-term project he expects to continue after graduation and finding a job.
The business is tentatively named "Udu," after a traditional African drum, and the hooded shirts are called "Livelyhoods," after the Feed the Children program, and because, as Williams said: "these are hooded shirts and very lively."