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The Red Brick Talks series has spoken with some of the most inspiring and innovative entrepreneurs in the UK. To date we have spoken to Solly at Socialbear (formerly Instabear), Matt at TickBox, George at Gojimo and Lizzie at ThirdYearAbroad (now Global Graduates). To close the series of Red Brick Talks, we interviewed young entrepreneur James Boon about life and his ethical business Elephant Branded.
Elephant Branded is the youth fashion and apparel startup that is on a mission to make the world a better place. The business, set up by Bath architecture graduate James Boon, sells ethically made clothing, purses, beanies, bags and iPad cases. The team then deliver a school kit to a child in Africa or Asia for every product sold.
The company asks ‘Why do some children have the right to an education whilst others don’t?’
Answering this question and creating sustainable long term change and employment is at the core of the business. Currently EB is helping to improve lives across the globe with projects in Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Cambodia. This month the company has just launched Elephant Branded Adventures which allows volunteers aged 18-25 to engage with their mission on the ground with either a 5 week Summer Program or a full Gap Year. This new chapter represents a real expansion of the businesses and is arguably a testament to the ethical model which James has constructed.
To date the business has worked with Virgin, featured in major newspapers and has appeared on BBC 3’s Be Your Own Boss. In 2012 James was selected as one of Google’s Young Minds and in 2013 he met Bill Clinton to discuss the Elephant Branded concept. James now serves as a UK Government Start-Up Loans Business Ambassador and he also helped launch UnLTD in Hong Kong.
James’s dedication and success demonstrates how ethical entrepreneurialism can work and also highlights how young people can make their mark through the business startup culture.
We asked James some more questions about life, his time at university and Elephant Branded:
1. How long has Elephant Branded been running?
“Elephant Branded has been officially running for I suppose around four years or so, however it is hard to define exactly as there was a lot of development in the early days.”
2. Who are the current EB team?
“The core Elephant Branded team in the UK is Kate who runs the operational side of things, and Alex who runs our tech. We also have a great warehouse and support team with Rae, Becky and Martin. In Cambodia there is Pry and Mey as well as the ladies we work with. We also have partners in Colombia where we make knitted products and we are currently also working in Africa. We also have partners who help us donate the bags all over the world and I try and manage everything from Hong Kong.”3. So what motivated you to launch your own business?
“Elephant Branded really only came about in the last few years, however I suppose the motivation for it came around a lot earlier. I studied Architecture at University, which I suppose is not the normal route to becoming an Entrepreneur.
“In my second year I had the chance to go to South Africa as part of my degree and to build a school there, so I jumped at the chance. Blood sweat and tears went into building the school and it looked great. However I remember the first day the school opened and the kids came in and had nothing. I looked at the school we had made and yes it looked great on the university prospectus, however actually it wasn’t a school it was a shell, the bits that made a school were missing.
“The trip changed my mindset about a lot of things”
“The trip changed my mindset about a lot of things and I ended up not going down the normal city route but instead took up an Architecture job in Southern China. I loved it and spent all my time travelling, but again I would see schools that were built by NGO’s or governments, but that simply lacked the basic school equipment.
“On one of my travels I stumbled over a village making basic bags from old recycled cement bags and thought if I could change the design a bit and make things such as ipad and laptop cases, then we could fit this to a western market. That is when the idea struck and I started working with Pry and Mey to make bags with the local ladies with the idea that for each one sold we could donate a school bag and kit to a child in one of the schools I had visited.
“I really just started selling to a couple of friends and that was all I thought it would be, however since then it has grown beyond any of our wildest dreams.”4. Have you always been entrepreneurial?
“Nope, to be honest before I started I did not even know what the word cash flow meant, however for the first year that was all I cared about. I think starting and running a business is like doing a practical MBA the difference is if you make a mistake it can have much bigger consequences than failing an exam. So you learn fast!”
5. Do you run the business from Hong Kong?
“Yes after going back to the UK to finish my masters degree I took up a job in Hong Kong and live here, it is a great city and is super vibrant. Also it sits in the opposite time zone to the UK so surprisingly is the perfect place to manage a UK business from. I have most of the day free until London wakes up at 5pm HK time, so it kind of allows me to have two days for the price of one. Also as much of our operations are based out this side of the world, it is much easier to pop to Cambodia for the weekend than it would be from the UK.”
6. How did your time at the University of Bath impact the business? What help did they give you?
“The University of Bath were great and we actually took part and won their Spitalfield market pop up day. It was really useful to see what customers wanted and were looking for and I think put us in good stead for selling in John Lewis, which we started doing a couple of months later.” 7. How have you helped children in Africa and Asia?
“We do not raise money, but instead provide school kits or school kits and a bag for each product sold depending if it is an accessory or a bag. As where possible these kits and bags are locally sourced to better help the local economies we work in, it varies a lot so we do not count in monetary terms but more in schools and children we have helped.
“We have been completely overwhelmed by the support”
“Initially the plan was to be able to donate 50 school kits to one of the schools I had worked with and I would have been happy with that. However we have been completely overwhelmed by the support and over the last few years we have donated to schools in Cambodia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leon, Mozambique and Uganda, all thanks to peoples amazing support.”8. Elephant Branded provides in some ways traditional aid but also ethical/sustainable employment. What is your view on this and aid generally?
“It’s a tricky one; I do however think that there is a fine line between emergency aid and long term dependant aid. There are situations which require a response now, like an earth quake etc.. however also there are situations where rather than providing stuff, instead give the local people the skills and support as well as access to international markets to do it themselves can be a much more efficient and long term solution. This has been one of the highlights from Cambodia, seeing the village run itself from a bottom up approach, as it gives each person a sense of purpose and fulfilment that simply giving aid hand outs does not achieve.
“Rather than providing stuff, instead give the local people the skills and support”
“Again it is hard to say as it really depends on the situation. In terms of the UK, I think organisations like DIFID are good, but do face issues. We do not get any government support as we simply do not have the resources, time or staff to fill in all their forms and deal with all the application stuff that the grants entail. I do feel that this is a shame as people like Pry and Mey who would most benefit and actually know what is needed are unable to even consider applying for these sort of aid grants.
“Instead, sadly it is often large charities/ NGO’s or even agencies who apply for the DIFID Aid as they have the resources to do so and then subcontract out the work. For a civil servant in Whitehall, I can understand why the tick box approach is easier, however I do think there is a gap between the real on the ground local knowledge and Aid in general.”9. You currently manufacture in South America and South East Asia. Do you plan to manufacture in Africa?
“Yes, as we donate a lot of our school kits in Africa it has been one of our big aims to manufacture products there too. With the long term idea that products made in Cambodia will donate school kits to Cambodia and products from Africa will donate school kits to Africa etc.
“These things take time, as for ourselves it is important to make sure we keep to our core values and find the right way of doing it. However it will be exciting to see what comes out of Africa this year and I am hoping people will like the products!”. 10. A lot of your products are made with discarded Elephant Branded cement bags. What do the cement company think about the business and your brand?
“We have a good relationship with them, I think they think we are a little crazy!
“The bags are collected by our volunteers and removed from otherwise going into landfill. If you check out our Facebook page and website, you can see we have our own logo, which will be used on all future products as we start to expand out of the Elephant Branded cement bag material.”
11. How did you find balancing your degree and running a business?
“I have learned in life that there are always more hours in the day than you think and if you are passionate about something, then you will find time to do it. We have found cheats like we have automated our order and dispatch system. In the first year we upgraded to an automated warehouse in Bristol to avoid the need to go to the post office every day.
“University is the best time to set up and run a business”
“However, honestly I think that University is the best time to set up and run a business and in fact may lead to you building your own dream job, rather than constantly looking for one.”12. As a UK Government Start-Up Loans Business Ambassador, what do you think of the start-up loans scheme?
“I think the scheme is a great way of getting people a foot on the ladder and a chance to try something out.
“We give out grants and mentoring support to grass roots ideas”
“I have however tried to look at taking a step further and last year helped to launch UnLTD in Hong Kong where I now sit as one of the board directors. Rather than a loan, we give out grants and mentoring support to grass roots ideas, with no strings attached. The idea is to give people the chance to test something out and just give it a go as I did.” 13. What have you learnt in your first few years of trading?
“I think the first year is a bit of a blur, there is so much happening and going on, that you really do not know which way is up. One thing I would say however is not to get too caught up in the excitement, lots of people will offer you investment and money which at the time sounds great, however I would suggest to be very careful about taking it. Often although it may be nice, you do not need it and later down the line it could become a very expensive mistake.
“One of the best things we ever did was not to take investment in the early days”
“As I now, through UnLtd HK, sit on the grant based investment side as well as the start up owner side, I can see the perks of both, however honestly I think one of the best things we ever did was not to take investment in the early days and instead grow organically, as it allows us to keep to our core values.” 14. What would be your top tip for other young entrepreneurs?
“Well I suppose as even with the warning above, honestly I would say to just do it! I have met so many amazing people and have had opportunities I could never dream of just by giving it a go. From meeting Mey and Pry, to Bill Clinton and Richard Branson, it has been a crazy few years, none of which I would have done if I had simply taken up a grad job. I think that is the key, you really have to figure out what you want in life and that really comes down to, do you work for someone else or work for yourself. It is a very personal decision.”
15. What would you tell young entrepreneurs to avoid doing? Or what mistakes have you made and learnt from?
“Honestly I think that you have to make mistakes to learn, if you do not make mistakes, then often you are not pushing forward, as often it is the mistakes which you learn the most from and actually grow your business. So making mistakes is certainly not a bad thing.” 16. Have you had any major clients or interest?
“Over the last few years we have worked with the likes of: Google, Virgin, John Lewis, BBC, GQ, Vogue and Cathay Pacific Airlines, not to mentioned a host of other amazing organisations and people. Again we are very small, but one thing I have learnt, is that if you do not ask, you do not get and that I think is one of the best lessons in life!”
17. What does the future hold for Elephant Branded?
“The next few months of Elephant Branded should hopefully be very exciting, I am heading off to Cambodia for a bit to work on some new product lines and we are also launching EB Adventures, which will through our partners, allow people to come out and volunteer in some of the schools we work with in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.
“I want people to be able to see the human side to what we do”
“People will have the chance to really get engaged in the local community and make a huge difference to the children. I want people to be able to see the human side to what we do. No longer will it just be a bag that donates a school kit to a child in the world, but with EB Adventures, you can go out and be part of that difference, I think that will be very exciting!” 18. What do you personally hope to achieve in the future?
“Well that is a big question… Honestly I am not sure. If I can have a happy life and find away to make a living by also helping those around me, then I will be happy.
“The last few years, and especially living in Hong Kong have taught me that happiness is not a fancy apartment or a new car, but is based on personal connections and relationships and self meaning. That is part of the reason I am going back to where it all began in Cambodia for the next few months to figure out the next steps in my personal journey and life. Either way, I hope it will be exciting!”
This concludes the Red Brick Talks series. We hope you found it valuable and interesting to read!
Previous Talks Interviews: