Until about six years ago, I’d been one of many pioneers in the sustainable design movement, where the collective goal was to make environmental responsibility more mainstream. I’d spent about a decade and a half in the industry, enjoyed my share of wins, and seen incredible progress, but I was no longer feeling challenged, so I started looking around for what my next big thing might be.
When, in 2017, I still had no clue what that big thing was, I decided the answer was most likely waiting for me at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and applied to become a Sloan Fellow. If I was accepted, I’d uproot my life (and my kid’s life) because, I mean, it’s Stanford.
I poured through course lists and got excited about classes with names like “Problem Solving for Social Change,” and “Formation of Impact Ventures.” I dreamed about the people I would meet in those classes and the things we would build together.
I studied like a crazy person, took the GMAT (twice), diligently wrote my essays, waited, found out I was on the short list, interviewed, and then waited some more.
With nothing left to do to sway the admissions committee, I decided to fill some of the wait time by volunteering for an organization that helps move people out of homelessness. From my vantage point as a volunteer, I got a rare, first hand look at what it takes to get someone into stable housing and I was overwhelmed by the generous donations of items from the community to help turn that housing into homes.
But I was also overwhelmed by the chaos.
Somewhere in the juggling act of managing housing voucher logistics, landlord requirements and client concerns, case managers would rummage through boxes in search of bedding, towels and dishes for clients’ new homes. There was always too much of one thing and not enough of another. Sometimes the quality was good, sometimes it wasn’t—sometimes I’d see entire boxes of donations get thrown out because they just weren’t what was needed.
I was sure there had to be a better system, so I asked around to see how other nonprofits handled the process of soliciting, receiving and distributing home essentials to their clients. Know what I found out? There is no process. Every organization I talked to was existing in this chaos, and in many cases, clients weren’t receiving home essentials with any consistency.
In one, crystal clear ah-ha moment I knew that this was the problem I was going to solve for social change. I’d been a designer for nearly two decades, and here before me was the ultimate design challenge: create a social enterprise to support case managers and their clients by consistently providing the items they need in a well-organized, streamlined way.
Mere days after my revelation, I got the “thank you so much for applying” email from Stanford. I didn’t make the final cut.
I cried for an hour (because, I mean, it’s Stanford) but it was clear that my heart had already moved on. Before the tears were even dry, I was consumed with details like where I was going to source quality items, how to inspire consumers to purchase items for people they’d never met and, most importantly, who I needed on my team.
Just before my Stanford adventure, I’d consulted for a start-up backed by Google Ventures and I’d met some seriously talented people there. I recruited one of them to be my co-founder in April of 2018… and then another one in June. One month later, on July 19, we launched.
It was the same week I would’ve started at Stanford. I didn’t plan that. The universe is just funny that way.
Today, our company is 15 months old, and the three of us have grown into a mighty team of five! We’ve worked with over a dozen nonprofits in six different states to provide 1902 forks, knives and spoons, 2392 dishes, 1146 pots, pans and cooking utensils, 1242 towels, bathmats and shower curtains, and 1385 pillows, blankets and sheets — all packaged into 457 well-organized, totally streamlined bundles of home essentials to celebrate individuals and families making an inspiring leap out of homelessness.
And, my friends, I am here to tell you that this impact is just the tiniest little tip of our iceberg.
This month we’re launching a registry so couples can celebrate their wedding with big impact. Over the holidays we’ll be running our first campaign to provide warmth for those who don’t have shelter. Next spring we’re launching an educational initiative and hosting our first epic team building event (which will provide 750 bundles of home essentials to folks in need, here in Austin!).
Not long ago, someone asked me how I felt about spending all that time and energy trying to get into Stanford. It was hundreds of hours. Didn’t it seem like a waste?
“No", I said. “I’m grateful. I’d been stuck for a few years and Stanford is what un-stuck me.”
Stanford got me thinking about what would be possible IF ONLY… and that made me realize that I never really needed the if only. I only needed to glimpse it.
And that’s an education, if ever I’ve had one.
-Kelly LaPlante (founder + CEO)