Three years ago, 1st Lt. Emily Núñez Cavness was the lone ROTC cadet at Middlebury College, in Vermont, headed for a career in the military.
"I would put my uniform on, and walk across campus, and receive a lot of confused or surprised looks," said Núñez Cavness, 24, now the executive officer for a military intelligence company with 10th Special Forces Group, at Fort Carson, Colorado. "A lot of my classmates were curious about my service and why I wanted to serve ... I definitely felt like a minority."
But after attending a series of talks on social entrepreneurship at the college, inspiration struck, she banked on her good idea, and now she and her sister Betsy, 27, have launched a wildly successful start-up. The business, Sword & Plough, upcycles military surplus items into luxury handbags and backpacks — and hopes to bridge the military-civilian divide.
"Having grown up in a military family, I knew that there was a lot of surplus that was wasted, or burned, or thrown away," said Núñez Cavness. "I knew immediately I could create something powerful with that. And I was on a college campus, where everyone has a bag, so I thought, 'Why not turn these into fashionable bags?' These would be appealing to people like my classmates."
The sisters, daughters of a retired Army colonel, started the business in fields where neither had any experience: retail, manufacturing and fashion. Betsy Núñez had a sales and marketing job in Boston at the time, and she worked with her sister on the side at first to develop their logo, designs and a business plan.
The idea caught fire. Not only did they have a stylish product, but it was environmentally responsible and aimed at employing veterans.
After their business plan won a $3,000 grant from a competition at Middlebury's Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Núñez Cavness won a prestigious slot with the Dell Innovation Lab. They have since built a board of advisers that includes Hasbro's Alan Hassenfeld, Trader Joe's Doug Rauch, and Annie McChrystal, wife of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
They launched their idea on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter after Núñez Cavness graduated military intelligence school, with the goal of raising $20,000 in 30 days. Dramatically, they met their goal within two hours and ended with more than $312,000 in seed money.
"It was amazing because we knew our idea was something a lot of people believed in, but at the same time, we knew we had a lot to deliver," Núñez Cavness said.
The bags, which sell for $220 to $290, are made from surplus materials that were available in large quantities and durable. They have used laundry bags, sleeping bag covers, parachutes and shelter-half tents. They are branching out, and have since incorporated blue twill fabric made from Coast Guard uniforms. Key chains, hats and other items are available.
"We'd love to work with anything we can get our hands on," Betsy Núñez said. "We're looking to expand our collection with all kinds of colors and patterns."
The two incorporated veteran employment into their business model, inspired by stories from service members who have struggled to find meaningful work after the military. The bags are made by Green Vets Los Angeles, and businesses in Oklahoma and Colorado who are dedicated to hiring veterans, in keeping with the company's mission.
With higher unemployment rates for vets than the national average, the two sisters are pushing the message that vets have skills that apply in the civilian workforce. "We really want to show that veterans are an empowering asset to communities, because they bring such amazing, decisive leadership, and a variety of technical skills," Núñez Cavness said.
While doors have opened for the Núñez sisters, there have been a few bumps. Just after Núñez Cavness deployed to Afghanistan last year, with orders flooding in through Kickstarter, their leather supplier went bankrupt — forcing them to react quickly.
"She wasn't even situated in Kandahar," Betsy Núñez said of her sister, "and I was up against needing 2,000 to 3,000 square feet of leather for more than 1,500 products, and custom dyed leather can take anywhere from four to six weeks."
They had a limited ability to communicate on Skype, and Núñez Cavness had work to do in Afghanistan. Betsy Núñez drew on their network of advisers, researched some 60 different suppliers and finally found a new one.
Today, the two live in Denver, where Núñez Cavness is on active duty full time, leading about 100 military intelligence soldiers by day. Nights and weekends, she works on the business—with the support of her supervisors at 10th Group, she said.
"It really doesn't feel like work because I'm so passionate about it, and it's so fun to lead the team, but it does require significant time I guess I could be relaxing," she said. "I really wouldn't have my life any other way."
She and her sister credit their Army upbringing for making them fearless and hardworking. They say it helped that they have a creative mom, who made Halloween costumes, jewelry and lamps, and a supportive dad, retired Col. Joe Núñez, who served in the Army for 30 years as a logistician and professor at the Army War College.
To veterans, they say that if they can start from scratch, so can you. They recommend seeking out business accelerator programs for veterans.
"Sharing your idea is so important," she said. "When you share it with someone, it's no longer just your personal thought, it's something real."
SWORD & PLOUGH PRODUCTS
Visit www.swordandplough.com. The Nuñez sisters are still developing a system to offer and validate military discounts and hope to roll it out in 2015.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.