Gabriel Mandujano spends all of his time thinking about laundry.
It wasn’t always that way. The 31-year-old founder of Wash Cycle Laundry got his start in non-profit community development work in West Philadelphia. But when he came back to the United States after serving as an advisor to sustainable transportation projects in Mexico City for some months, he knew he wanted to start some kind of bike-oriented business. His friend suggested a diaper laundering service, but Mandujano thought bigger. What if he launched a full-scale laundry service by bike?
What started out as Mandujano and a couple of friends cycling laundry loads on bike trailers in 2011 has now spread to Washington, D.C. and, as of last week, Austin, Texas. The company relies on big contracts with hospitals and institutions like Drexel University to pay the bills, and a fleet of bike trailers that can each haul loads weighing as much as 600 pounds. While many of these organizations would have trucked their laundry to distant processing centers, sometimes hundreds of miles away, Mandujano’s outfit relies on local, high-efficiency washers and driers that he rents out from larger facilities. The process saves thousands of gallons of water a year, not to mention fuel, Mandujano says.
Convincing clients that bikes could make a significant difference wasn’t easy. “We really needed to prove ourselves,” Mandujano says. “You try and raise money from a venture capitalist, and they’re like, yawn–the laundry business they think is low impact. Proving that our model can really be scalable and viable for heavy duty commercial applications has been hard. Biases have to be overcome.”
Many of Mandujano’s employees have had to face a different set of biases, too. More than half of Wash Cycle Laundry’s 39 employees were formerly incarcerated. The company serves as a leg up into the working world for people who struggle to find jobs after prison.
Sandradean Barber, Wash Cycle Laundry’s customer service liaison, describes spending 14 months in jail on false charges that were eventually dropped. But even though she was innocent, she still lost her home and her career as a dental assistant. While still incarcerated, the 33-year-old mother of three started taking spin classes with an organization called Gearing Up, which then linked her up with Wash Cycle Laundry when she got out. After working there for six months, Barber’s found permanent housing and is engaged to be married.
“I plan on staying there and growing with the company,” Barber says. “I’m very proud of Gabe and what he’s doing–especially with the fact that he’s giving people second chances. I think that’s incredible.”
Using the same hiring model, Mandujano hopes to radically scale up in this coming year. “At this point we know the types of business and customers who will use this right away,” he says. “We’re going to begin a national roll out in 2015.”