Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Omri Bojko and Jason Sochol at their New York office to discuss their brand, The Vanity Project. The Vanity Project began in 2011 in an effort to connect fashion and philanthropy by taking the logos of different philanthropic organizations and placing them on t-shirts which sell on their website. They give 51% of the after-expense profits from the sale of each shirt back to the charity represented by each tee's logo. The Vanity Project currently represents 26 charities from different locations in and outside New York. Some of these include the Boys & Girls Club and The Story Pirates. However, founders Omri and Jason already have plans to extend their reach well beyond 26 philanthropic causes.Omri and Jason's story is very relatable. As they touched on their background I thought a lot about my guy friends from college. Omri, born in Israel, and Jason, born in Maryland, ended up in Chicago graduating as friends with history degrees from Northwestern University in 2008. At the time they had no idea what they wanted to do so they followed the flood of familiarity into the finance pool. They stayed in Chicago working for different hedge funds as traders. After three years both Omri and Jason faced, what they described as their "quarter life crisis." They asked themselves if living and trading the stock market everyday would be the extent of their impact in the professional world. While finance was fiscally pleasing it certainly did not fill the emotional void they were experiencing.The lack of emotional and mental stimulation in their post college jobs caused greater uneasiness because both Omri and Jason (who's mom is a cancer survivor) knew what it was like to lead meaningful lives in the past. In high school, more so than college, the two were constantly stimulated by their participation in various clubs, sports and volunteering. High school may seem more insignificant the further a person excels in his or her career. However, positive memories from this time in Omri and Jason's life were a factor in their inability to settle on an average lifestyle. The two decided to take action by volunteering for nonprofits in Chicago. Doing so not only found them personal satisfaction but also allowed them to use their finance backgrounds to make a difference."What our finance backgrounds made evident was the inefficiency of these organizations. We asked ourselves if we could use capitalism's principals and apply those to nonprofits in order to make more money for these charities" Omri said. Then the wheels started turning. As fashion conscious individuals, something they noticed immediately was the undesirable logo marked t-shirts being sold at the events thrown by these nonprofits. Omri and Jason asked themselves, "Seriously--who wants to wear this stuff?"Initially sparked by shirts that were being sold at the nonprofit events, they started to consider the overall lack of quality design in the general graphic tee market. Omri and Jason interpret t-shirts as a form of self expression and question people's reasoning behind wearing shirts that have nothing to do with their identity. "It is one thing to promote your brand but it is another to have a shirt that says 'Varsity Soccer' when you don't even have a soccer team," said Jason.After much brainstorming, Omri and Jason came up with the Vanity Project. The idea was simple--take cool charities and charity logos and make cool shirts out of them with a portion of profit benefiting the charities themselves. "It's human nature to want to look good, hence 'The Vanity Project,' but why not wear something that expresses who you are and what you believe in while looking good and giving back?" said Omri. This vision eventually landed them in New York City in 2011.Both Omri and Jason have an entrepreneurial spirit and they knew the energy of New York City would be most conducive to success. Living in New York keeps them motivated. "This city is magic. It's as if everyone who lives here has to pay a toll--everything is expensive and no one is easy on you. But you have to feel like you're not important at first so you are humbled and willing to work your way up. I have never experienced an energy like the one that exists here," said Omri.Both Omri and Jason describe starting their own business as a humbling experience and a learning process. To this day they are thankful for the finance jobs they ended up quitting because those jobs gave them the experience they needed to create a profitable business. Those jobs also allowed them to financially support themselves as a start-up. "I would recommend you get work experience before starting your own company because we couldn't have done what we did as quickly as we did without understanding how business structures work and what motivates people," said Omri. "You have to have proof of concept and demonstrate commercial viability especially if you are interested in attracting and impressing outside investors," he continued. But, if you can prove a successful revenue model, even on a small scale, Omri and Jason believe in profitability on a large scale."Scale," after all, became the word of the day as Omri and Jason described the newest endeavor behind The Vanity Project. Currently, they have licensing agreements with 26 different charities supporting causes that range from education and youth to poverty and hunger to social equality, and much more. These charities were chosen as a result of networking and personal relationships in addition to a desire to satisfy a wide variety of causes. What if they wanted to satisfy the needs of 500 charities however? Operating on this large of a scale would not only overwhelm their consumer but escalate inventory costs perpetually.Omri and Jason's solution was a second leg to their business plan: a nonprofit services company. This service allows certain nonprofits their own website separate from, but hosted by, The Vanity Project. The product in these storefronts does not necessarily have to be designed by The Vanity Project's team but the charities would get their products through The Vanity Project's manufacturing efforts. On these web platforms organizations can advertise the sale of a specific shirt design for a specific amount of time and showcase fundraising goals if they so choose.The separation of The Vanity Project's retail line and their product services company would allow Omri and Jason the ability to separate their consumers into three categories: donors of the charitable organizations, socially conscious individuals, and street wear focused consumers. The product services company satisfies the first category who is only interested in product from the charity they care about. The last two consumers are satisfied by the product assortment and designs filtered by Omri and Jason on their own site.Toward the end of my interview Jason and Omri had sold me on The Vanity Project through the passionate expression of their vision. I think they would be surprised to know that one of the most powerful perspectives they left me with resulted from a story Jason told. He mentioned how he had a phone call with an organization called Wildlife Friendly that went something like this:
"I was told a story about elephants eating farmer's crop. The elephants were eating these farmer's livelihood so the farmers were shooting them. An elephant expert came out and advised the farmers to plant chili next to their crop because elephants hate chili. So the farmers followed instruction and sure enough the elephants went elsewhere. The chili, in turn became a desired commodity that the farmers ended up selling and making a decent amount of money from. They made enough that the famers were able to actually allocate grazing land for the elephants."This story is all about connecting the dots to better our environment. It is about finding solutions to problems in a way that encourages a conscious and environmentally friendly lifestyle. In the same way Omri and Jason are providing an outlet for people to live their lives more consciously by being mindful of what they wear and supporting causes they care about at the same time. The two are connecting fashion and philanthropy in a powerful way and I certainly hope they can succeed in raising awareness and inspiring people to #wearreal.