How A Teenager Distributed $400K Worth Of Eco-Friendly Hygiene Kits To New Yorkers Experiencing Homelessness
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Chloe Trujillo, and when I was 16 I founded my nonprofit, SustainABLE Start. We’re a 510(c)(3) organization that creates eco-friendly hygiene kits for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, but the best part is that we’re entirely run by high-school students.
Since March, we’ve provided 9,000 hygiene kits in all 5 boroughs of New York City, totaling over $380,000 in value.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2019, after a late dinner, I became lost with a friend. Our phones were dead, and we had no idea how to get to the subway -- but then a man offered us directions.
Like any other teenage girl, I was wary of talking to a random man. When I asked him why he wanted to help me, he told me that he sleeps on the streets and knows they’re not the safest. He likes to take it upon himself to help people get home safely, as my friend and I weren't the first to get lost at night.
The incident really motivated me to help keep my unhoused neighbors safe; the man probably needed to worry about where he could sleep safely, but instead, he was focused on helping others. I began carrying snacks, toiletries, beanies -- anything you could think of -- just in case I ran into someone else who was experiencing homelessness and wanted help from me.
In NYC, it’s uncommon to go a day without being asked for spare change on the street, so I knew there was a huge need for consumables such as the ones I carried. To reach my goal of making kits for all 60,000 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, I knew I needed to scale my team and raise more money. As an entrepreneur, founding a nonprofit was the logical next step.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
At first, since it was wintertime, I wanted to give out beanies and gloves to keep my neighbors warm. However, I realized that by the time we raised enough money to have our first distribution event, it would likely be warm out. After talking to some of the clients at the New York Common Pantry, where I’ve been volunteering since I was about 12, I realized that hygiene products were much more crucial and very overlooked when it came to individuals donating. I decided to create hygiene kits because I wanted to make sure that if I start something, it would have an impact year-round.
The first time we gave out kits was March 2020, and they only had toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, and deodorant. At our first distribution event, conversations with our clients revealed that wipes, feminine hygiene products, and several other items were desperately needed. However, given our limited donations, we had to choose between leaving out items or making fewer kits. To best allow our resources, we started working closely with shelters to create customized kits for their clients.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we first launched as a nonprofit, I received thousands of dollars in donations within a few weeks by constantly posting on my LinkedIn and other personal social media. It was really exciting, but I quickly realized the bulk of the money was coming from my friends and family, which meant they were probably giving me a one-time gift, rather than investing in my clients. I knew that if I wanted to keep up the revenue, I had to shift away from one-time donations and instead rely on continuous partnerships. Once the kits were fine-tuned, I started reaching out to companies that could supply our items.
It’s important to show off what you’ve accomplished because as teenagers we are constantly overlooked or seen as a “cute charity,” rather than a successful business that took hours upon hours of hard work.
Learning what should be in kits was the easy part -- organizing a team of teenagers was the tricky part. At first, I bit off more than I could chew -- I was managing financials, filing legal work, fundraising, running the social media and website, contacting partners, the list goes on… -- but as more people wanted to help, I began creating positions for my team to gain real business experience from.
By letting my teammates run different sections such as blog writing and fundraising, I realized the nonprofit was equally empowering for us teenagers, not just those who received our kits. To make the experience most beneficial for my teammates, I curated a board of advisors who are experts in their fields, from data analytics to sustainable development. Because our members are now more specialized in their roles, we’ve become much more efficient and professional.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I must admit, I am still figuring out the answer to this question. We’re only a year old, and in that time we’ve gone from individual cash donations to one-time company donations and item drives, to long-term partnerships with companies to sustain ourselves. I think our adaptability is what has allowed us to keep up the momentum, and I also think that my teammates’ willingness to learn how to excel at their job is why we’re doing so well.
In terms of brand visibility, we’ve been really fortunate in that our business has so many cards to play. Not only are we helping others, but we’re eco-friendly, and we are only in high school! When it comes to doing business, these three things are often seen as a disadvantage; our organization isn’t profitable, eco-friendliness is often costly, and lack of experience usually results in failure. However, we’ve learned how to play these cards in a way that maximizes the publicity and support we receive.
Another key factor to our success is our network. When we started a year ago, I reached out to so many companies asking for donations, and everyone said no except for Adina, CEO of Knock Knock Give a Sock, who offered to supply our socks; I believe she helped because I sought advice from her, not just her products. As a young person, I’ve had no difficulty reaching out to others for help, and growing my network this way has helped me gain partnerships with companies like Victoria’s Secret and Bombas. However, I think people of all ages will get the same type of support just by asking; at the very least, it doesn’t hurt.
Finally, I think that tying my identity to my nonprofit has helped me so much. Like I mentioned, thousands of dollars were donated because my friends and family wanted to support me -- my extended family in Florida has no reason to care about New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, but because they saw how passionate I was about my work, they wanted to support me. In April, when I texted all my friends about the nonprofit, we got nearly 4,000 web page views!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we’re focused on becoming more stable in terms of revenue. We’ve already given out 9,000 kits in just 10 months, and though each kit is worth around $40, we’ve managed to bring our production cost to $3-4 per kit. However, 100% of donations have gone towards making kits thus far, with overhead costs such as storage space and bank account fees being paid for by myself and my mom (we have no paid employees).
Our long-term goal is to have all of our kits provided for by partnerships ($0 cost) and use our cash donations for these additional costs.
To minimize the costs, we are actively pursuing partnerships with companies, but also expanding our team. Since our leadership team is going to college, we are in the process of starting chapters wherever they go to attract college students who are actively pursuing careers in the spaces we need help with. Right now, a group of students at UPenn/Wharton is helping us improve our business strategy in terms of marketing and partnerships, and another chapter will likely focus on creating content to highlight our neighbors.
Additionally, in 2021, we will be holding distribution events in April, August, and December to distribute another 10,000 kits, and we hope to make 90% of our partnerships with eco-friendly companies.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned how to delegate. I used to think that I could be the only one who could really bring my vision to life, but because the nonprofit is so community-based, the real vision is shared by all of my teammates. I also think it’s extremely important to have a partner that is more of a visionary (which I think is myself), and one who’s more of a realist (which I think is Olivia Wang, my Vice President) so that you constantly are progressing, but in a way that is not reckless.
I’ve also learned how important it is to show off what you’ve accomplished because as teenagers we are constantly overlooked or seen as a “cute charity,” rather than a successful business that took hours upon hours of hard work. I used to be super modest with what we’ve done thus far, but now I love to talk about what my teammates and I have accomplished! I couldn't be more proud.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Since we’re teenagers, Instagram is our home turf. We are super grass-roots, so attracting more teenagers to help spend time furthering our cause is key to keep up the momentum. Also, since the most rewarding part of what we do is interacting with others, the platform is great for posting pictures of us in action (we also Livestream with our neighbors!).
I run the website on Squarespace because the interface is really friendly for someone like myself that is not an advanced coder, but it also provides options for writing my own HTML and CSS code which is great for creating a fully customized site. The platform lets you create forms for newsletters, sell products, and it also lets you see how many impressions you get over X time, where they’re from, and what pages they look at the most -- this is invaluable when it comes to explaining our value proposition to partners.
I post our kit-making events on Humbler.co, which is a ticketing platform for nonprofits. My favorite aspect is that they take an extremely small fee for donations (which people can make directly through the site!), and because the people behind the platform are very involved in the community, their users are too, so I have a very big success in finding volunteers through there.
Finally, I use Donorbox for our donations because you can embed it right on the website. The interface is very clean, the percentage of donations they charge is low, and they offer users the ability to subscribe to our newsletter which has helped us gain at least 100 more subscribers.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Between college applications, being a full-time student, and juggling SustainABLE Start and my other extracurriculars, I admittedly haven’t had time to read (although I just started Built to Last, which has been recommended for entrepreneurs and business leaders like myself).
However, I’ve started following informational Instagram accounts like Coalition for the Homeless to learn more about my clients and how we can best serve their changing needs. I also heavily rely on mentors, who are just professionals that have expressed interest in helping us grow.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My advice is to keep an open mind. Though my vision of helping others has remained constant, we’ve gone through many changes to make it happen. People will flake, hidden obstacles will surface, but as long as you’re adaptable you’ll reach your end goal (and your company will become more resilient in the process!).
My second piece of advice is to find and use mentors! I’ve learned so much about team management, resource allotment, and countless other aspects of business I had no idea existed simply by asking others for help.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking for people to join our team! Our jobs range from photographing to business strategy, so whatever it is that you want to explore through us, just reach out and we’ll find a place for you on the team. Since everything is volunteer work, you can choose how much time you commit, we just ask that you follow through.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.