I have to say, it feels really good to have my first piece of substantive post-election content going live on Veteran's Day. While the world keeps turning and we all have work to do, this is a great opportunity to take a moment to appreciate our country, and thank our service men and women for what they do every single day, regardless of who governs us.
A few weeks ago I got to sit down at Grumpy's in Midtown with my friend Melody as well as Betsy Núñez and Emily Núñez Cavness—two sisters who founded Sword and Plough, a line of bags and accessories made from military surplus and manufactured by veterans. The 26 and 29-year-old sisters come from a military family that includes their father, uncle and cousin, and grew up on military bases.
Over coffee and pastries, we discussed everything from modern military life to starting your own business, and how Sword and Plough has found a way to include veterans in every stage of their development. The result is a collection of cool, durable and stylish accessories that both benefits and shines a spotlight on a community that needs our support. Below, check out my interview with Betsy and Emily, including their favorite spots to hang out in Denver, where they live and run their company.
// CLICK THROUGH TO READ MY INTERVIEW WITH
THE FOUNDERS OF SWORD & PLOUGH //
First I have to know, where does the name Sword and Plough come from?
Sword and Plough comes from the ancient phrase “to turn swords into ploughshares," which means to take a military technology or material and apply it to a peaceful civilian application. That’s exactly what we’re doing at Sword and Plough.
Emily, I'd love to know a bit about your experience serving in the military. Are there things you wish people knew about a modern military career?
Sure. I graduated from Middlebury College and commissioned as a Lieutenant from the University of Vermont’s Army ROTC program in 2012. My initial assignment was to the 4th Engineer Battalion, where I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Following the deployment to Afghanistan, I served in 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Carson, Colorado.
Military service is a challenging, one of kind leadership opportunity that requires creative thinking and the ability to adapt. Most positions within the military have a very high level of responsibility, which increases as you advance in rank. The Army has challenged me to lead and motivate diverse groups of people to accomplish missions in varied environments—often under tight deadlines. Those are skills that directly align with entrepreneurship. I'd want people to know that service members and veterans are some of the most dedicated, hard working, technically skilled and proven leaders I know. From a desire to serve others and accomplish a goal, to time management, teamwork, communication, and management skills, these are all characteristics and skills that I’ve developed in the Army and that have made me a better entrepreneur.
Where did this idea for Sword and Plough come from? Why an accessories line?
The "aha moment" occurred when I [Emily] was a senior at Middlebury College and attended a talk at the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Several experiences from my life collided including being inspired to serve from seeing my dad, uncle and cousin’s impactful military careers, being one of few Army ROTC cadets at Middlebury and wanting to bridge the civil-military divide, as well as empower veteran employment.
I asked myself: What in my life is sometimes discarded that could be harnessed and turned into something beautiful with a powerful mission? Immediately, I thought of military surplus. Then, as I looked around the room and saw my fellow students, I realized every person had a bag of some kind next to them. I thought, we could take these extremely durable materials that have such unique stories and turn them into stylish bags that anyone would want to use.
Next, I thought about who would be involved in the process, and it made complete sense to empower veteran employment at every stage from design to manufacturing to fulfillment and even models. My mind was running so quickly and together with my sister Betsy, we knew this was an idea we had to pursue!
How did you turn that idea into a reality?
Our business model is built around a lifecycle—we involve veterans at every stage of our business from design to manufacturing to fulfillment and even our models. We repurpose thousands of pounds of military surplus into our stylish bags and accessories, and work with veteran-owned and operated manufacturers and business partners throughout the United States to make and ship our goods. (We've partnered with six of them so far.) We also donate 10 percent of our profits to organizations that support veterans, such as Got Your 6 and Team Red, White and Blue. In this way, we are able give back to the original users of our products’ materials and empower them, too. Since launching in 2013, Sword and Plough has supported 55 veteran jobs.
What's it like running a business with your sister? Is the rest of your family involved at all?
It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to create, launch, and run a business with a family member! We never thought that we’d have the opportunity to live, work, and run our own company from the same city as adults. We are a very strong team and serve as supportive co-founders to one another because we know each other incredibly well, trust each other, and our strengths complement each other very well.
All of our family members support us in their own unique way. Our mom is very creative, made our first prototype, and continues to provide great design advice. Our dad serves on our Board of Advisors and provides a lot of advice about logistics, and our brother, Thomas, has worked with us within the past two years in the areas of sales, operations, and business development.
What's next for your brand?
You can expect expansion, exciting new products joining our collection, and more opportunities to purchase S&P products in person in many cities around the U.S. Each year we see incredible growth within our community of customers, fans and supporters, which in turn enables us to scale our social impact. And today (Veteran's Day), we are excited to release our new holiday offerings including an adventure-friendly unisex duffle bag made from military surplus and a collection of hand-hammered jewelry, tie and money clips formed out of the brass from 50-caliber shell casings.
Okay and finally, you have both relocated to Denver to run S&P. Let's discuss your favorite...
And how would you spend an ideal Saturday in the city?
I would start the day with a bike ride followed by a trip to ink! Coffee, and then later in the day I would head over to the The Central Market in RiNo for Vero Italian pizza, check out William Matthews Studio around the corner and explore the neighborhood, and then at night I’d catch a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater with a group of friends.
You can explore whole Sword and Plough product line here. In the spirit of disclosure, I'll not that my friend Melody does the PR for the brand, and along with facilitating this interview, gave me a chance to try out the brand first-hand. I've been carrying their wool crossbody bag throughout the fall (especially when I was in Sun Valley!), and same goes for their trail cap—which has been perfect for hiking in Idaho and running early morning errands in the West Village. I've also recently added this dainty necklace—made from a 50 caliber shell casing—to my daily jewelry stack.
All images courtesy of Sword & Plough.