After a massive earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010, Ian Rosenberger wanted to help. Six weeks into the recovery effort, he hopped a plane to Haiti. It was the sort of impulsive gesture that aid organizations discourage: a well-intentioned novice—in this case, an ad director in his twenties—going solo in a disaster area. “I did all this the wrong way,” Rosenberger says now.
By “all this,” he means Thread, his Pittsburgh-based startup, and Team Tassy, his companion nonprofit, both of which he started shortly after that initial visit. Thread, a B Corporation, turns trash collected in Haiti into what he calls “the most responsible fabric on the planet,” which gets made into clothing and accessories in the U.S., creating jobs in Haiti that Team Tassy prepares people for.
Despite his inexperience in textiles, supply chain management, and economic development, Rosenberger, 33, has built a fast-growing enterprise by relying on his entrepreneurial instincts and a fearlessness that had served him well as a finalist on the reality show Survivor, not to mention an MTV host and the founder of a video production company.
Recently, he talked to Spark Business IQ from Haiti about the art of finding opportunity in unusual places.
Where did the idea for Thread come from?
It came from the people I met. I went to Haiti thinking I’d take photos to raise money for nonprofits doing disaster work. And I came across a kid in Port-au-Prince named Tassy who had a tumor on his face. He was dying. So some buddies and I raised money and got him the surgery he needed in the U.S. It wasn’t until we dropped him off in Haiti that I realized the experience was mostly self-gratifying. We set Tassy up for the same end as most guys his age—a short life and a violent death.
I started asking, “What does it mean for the poor not to need you anymore?” I looked at what Paul Farmer [cofounder of Partners in Health], Bill Strickland [founder of Manchester Bidwell Corporation], and Geoffrey Canada [president of the Harlem Children’s Zone] are doing, and I started to develop a philosophy for the kind of business I wanted to start: Poverty is an epidemic—the largest killer on the planet—and the cure is dignified work. So I’d like to create jobs.
How did you identify recycling as the best vehicle for your vision?
Everywhere you look here, you see poverty and trash. I had written in my journal early on, “If Haiti could turn trash into money=good.” Months later, I went back to that entry, and I Googled, “What can you turn trash into?” We made our first fabric 18 months ago. It wasn’t attractive. It was shiny and the same color as the bottle it came from. We’ve gotten a lot better since then. We just developed three fabrics for our first multinational brand.
How did you get apparel companies to take you seriously as a newcomer?
Once we had a quality product and an intimate knowledge of our supply chain—it’s staggering how many brands have zero idea where their materials come from—that attracted potential clients and advisers, like Bill Besselman [vice president of strategy and consumer insight] at Under Armour. And that translates into real momentum.
Cash flow can be such a challenge for a new small business. How did you manage?
The first year was brutal. We wondered, How are we going to make payroll next week? But once we had a couple of angels who believed in us, things got better. Part of the problem was that when we started, nobody believed we were for-profit. I’m a big believer that we can have an impact on the environment, we can help people, and we can make money. But I had to convince investors.
What eventually made you effective at raising money?
In the beginning, I had no idea how to speak the language of investors. We raised $750,000 in excruciating fashion—$50,000 at a time. But I learned how to pitch actual investors. I’d tell them why this is a company not just worth $5 million or $6 million, but $100 million or $200 million in three to five years if you look at what we can do for brands and the textile industry. We just raised more than $2.75 million, which took a tenth of the time that the $750,000 did. But you have to go through that process where you’re bad at it and get punched in the face.
What sort of impact is Thread having?
Our Haitian partners are amazed that something with no value could be turned into something beautiful. From a forgotten neighborhood. From one of the poorest countries in the world. There’s such pride. People here are not used to seeing a real win like that. We want to connect their stories with the people who are buying products made from our fabric. We believe the more connected those people feel, the more they understand that the poor are no different than them. That’s the whole reason it’s called Thread.
Ian Rosenberger is the CEO of Thread
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