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From Ad Man to Bag Man: How ESPEROS Founder Oliver Shuttlesworth Revamped Social Entrepreneurship

Let’s face it: Plenty of brands and businesses out there embrace social entrepreneurship by way of the one-for-one model. You know what we mean – you buy a bag or a pair of shoes and someone in need gets a version of the same thing.

While ESPEROS follows the same model, this Austin, Texas-based bag brand takes that model a step further by providing one year of education for a child in need for every bag purchased.

We spoke to the founder of ESPEROS, Oliver Shuttlesworth, about social entrepreneurship and the power of ignorance.

Inspiration strikes

First came the career in advertising. Oliver studied at the University of Texas, started his career and quickly found himself unfulfilled. He began to think of ways his talents (sketching, designing) and his passion (education) could form a career.

For a lot of us, travel serves as a point of inspiration, and no doubt it played a key role in the launch of ESPEROS. Oliver traveled through Central America, where he saw the crippling effects of poverty and heard from parents about their goals to provide a better life for their children.

As I talked to members of the communities I visited, I began to hear a common desire: Parents wanted to provide their children with access to education. Shortly after those trips, I found out that a child could be put through school for as little as $20 per year. At that moment, inspiration struck.

“As I talked to members of the communities I visited, I began to hear a common desire: Parents wanted to provide their children with access to education. Shortly after those trips, I found out that a child could be put through school for as little as $20 per year. At that moment, inspiration struck.”

Oliver realized that with 75 million children around the world lacking access to basic education, he could either walk away and return to a comfortable job, or do something about it. He took a leap of faith, and ESPEROS was born.

Worst-case scenario

Anyone who’s ever dealt with a major career change or considered starting a business knows the excitement – and the fear – that comes with such a big decision. He began to think about the worst-case scenario, and what might happen if he left his full-time career and the company failed.

“My final motivation to leave my full-time job and start ESPEROS stemmed from my lack of a reasonable answer to that simple question,” Oliver said. “It struck me that I could always go back and find another job. In large part because of that, I decided to make the leap, and I never looked back.”

He mocked up a design for a backpack and then had 50 bags produced by a shop in Austin. And while he had no experience in any part of product production – from designing to retail – he thinks that helped to give him a clearer view of the industry and of the process.

“I had no experience designing products, no experience sourcing raw materials or managing manufacturing and no experience in the retail industry. Honestly, my ignorance to the inherent difficulties each of those presented helped me immensely in the long run.”

Embracing social entrepreneurship

Founding ESPEROS and becoming a social entrepreneur has been one big lesson to Oliver – both with the necessity of design (he calls it critical to the brand’s success) and the difficulties and realities of entrepreneurial life. He even found himself frustrated by other socially focused companies following a similar business model.

“I think (the ‘one for one’ model) is flawed for several reasons. I thought that model could be improved and that we could make a substantial impact on children and communities in the developing world by actually working to provide access to education for children in need.”

‘You just have to ask’

Even though he’s now getting the hang of running a business, there are several things Oliver might have done differently. “The path in your startup journey will be fraught with emotional highs and lows, but I cannot overstate the importance of taking a measured approach and resisting the urge to make decisions based on emotion,” Oliver says. “That seems so obvious, but it can become difficult when you are head down and engulfed in all-things-your-company.”

Another thing? Oliver would have built a team of advisors and mentors – something he now has, but didn’t at the start. “Don’t go it alone. There are a number of people with amazing experience who want to help. You just have to ask.”

But as they say, the only real way to learn is by doing, and so far, we think ESPEROS is doing pretty well.

“By pairing smart, quality products with a powerful mission, my hope is that ESPEROS will be able to make a significant contribution to children, families and communities around the world over the coming years.”

We have no doubt.

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