Army officer's idea transforms military surplus into fashion items

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By ANGEL CANALES | ABC News | Published: August 15, 2014

Editor's note: Second Tour, an ongoing ABC News series, profiles military veterans excelling in the civilian world. It is republished with permission. Read more from the series here.

DENVER — Serving in the military while being the CEO of a fashion company can be intimidating but it’s a perfect match for U.S. Army 1st Lt. Emily Núñez. She saw a need and filled it, helping veterans along the way.

Núñez, 24, is the CEO and co-founder of Sword & Plough, which creates bags and other accessories out of repurposed military surplus, like shelter halves tents, laundry bags and sleeping bag covers.

“As an officer in the U.S. Army your job is to lead soldiers and to motivate them to accomplish a task," she said. "As the CEO, my job is to ensure that we’re accomplishing our social mission while keeping the team excited about what we’re doing."

Although Núñez was committed to a career in the military, she and her sister Betsy Núñez, 26, founded Sword & Plough in 2012. Growing up in a military family, Emily followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the Army. She currently serves as an Intelligence Officer with the Group Support Battalion in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson, Co. Before joining the military, Núñez enrolled in the Army ROTC at the University of Vermont and and Middlebury College in Vermont in 2008.

The idea to create her fashion company came to her after a talk at the Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship about businesses that had incorporated recycling into their plan. She began to think about what around her was routinely wasted and could be recycled and turned into something powerful.

”I was aware that there was a lot of military surplus that was wasted, thrown away or burned,” she said.

Emily Núñez told her sister about her idea to turn a military shelter halves tent into tote bags.

“I knew this was something that could be very special and could become something really unique,” Betsy said. The sisters began to build on the idea for their business model.

Sword & Plough’s name comes from the biblical phrase to “turn swords into ploughshares” from the Book of Isaiah. For the women, it means readapting military technology for a peaceful civilian purpose. “Some of the materials we use have been used by the Army and military since the Civil War,” Betsy said.

Emily and Betsy never went to school for business, and they didn’t have any experience in fashion, but they said they relied on help from the Middlebury center in building their company.

Last year Sword & Plough participated in Mass Challenge, the largest international startup accelerator and competition. More than 1,000 young companies applied for 120 spots.

Preparing for that pitch was nerve-racking, Betsy said, because her sister was serving in Afghanistan. They practiced their pitch over Skype.

The company’s social mission is to empower and promote veteran employment, strengthen military civil relations and reduce waste. All items are made in the U.S., and the company works with veteran owned, operated and staffed manufacturers.

“I really wanted to create a product that would physically touch civilians in a beautiful way and to remind them of veterans and the sacrifice that they made but also the challenges that they encounter as they transition into civilian life,” Emily said.

The pitch paid off; the women were awarded $50,000 to grow their business.

For Emily, veteran employment was the main company goal. During her time at the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., she heard about veterans having difficulties finding meaningful employment.

“I spent a lot of time with soldiers of all different ranks and services and many of them told me about friends of their who were getting out of the military and faced challenges as they tried to find employment,” she said. “That experience always stuck with me.”

The company’s launched started on Kickstarter in 2013 with a goal to raise $20,000. Their campaign raised more than $310,000, and the company has provided jobs to 35 veterans and recycled over 15,000 pounds of military surplus.

“I want Sword & Plough to be a leader in the field of social entrepreneurship that is able to communicate effectively the awesome skill that veterans bring to communities,” Emily said.

Emily and Betsy Núñez, at the Sword and Plough launch in April 2013, hold the signature tote and urban ruck bags.


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