In March 2012, my business partner Ross Lohr and I drove from Boston, Massachusetts to Morganton, North Carolina with a car full of t-shirts that we were planning to upcycle into t-shirt tote bags and circle scarves. Two years later, we have sold over 15,000 custom t-shirt quilts. How did we go from upcycling random t-shirts that we thought were ironic, into becoming an affordable way for people to preserve their t-shirt memories? We made a whole lot of mistakes, but we tried not to make the same mistake twice. In order to save other aspiring entrepreneurs some time, here are five things I wish I’d known back then:

Do your research: There is more than one place in the United States that does cut and sew.

Instead of doing our research and being resourceful, we drove across the country to find our manufacturer. On the one hand, we made a lifelong connection with the people at Opportunity Threads in western North Carolina; on the other: we did not have enough traction to justify a road trip. There are now also a lot more resources to find textile-manufacturing plants, and we should have done our homework.

Hearing that you have a ‘cool’ idea is different than people purchasing your product.

A lot of times in the social enterprise or for-profit world, people ask their friends and network if they would buy x if it existed. Most people say, “Yes, that’s a cool idea.” But when the product is actually presented, oftentimes it's too expensive or just not that good. During that first spring of trying to convince people to buy our totes, we asked a lot of people what they thought, and the typical response was that we had a nice concept. One night on the bus coming home, we asked a random passenger what she thought, and she said, “It looks like the first bag ever created—it’s not very good.” At the time, we felt she didn’t understand the “story,” but if we had stopped and really listened to an unbiased consumer reaction, we would have saved a lot of time and money.

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Here's How Your Old T-Shirts Can Create Jobs

When you are done with college you get a degree, lifelong friends, time management skills and a whole lot of t-shirts.

When you're done with college you get a degree, lifelong friends, time management skills, and a whole lot of t-shirts. A t-shirt for the basketball game, for your student club, for a party, or for community service events. They become your scrapbook—representing your highs, lows, mistakes, and triumphs.

This is why it made sense for us last summer to go to a school like Harvard, and propose that we turn all those Harvard branded t-shirts into upcycled tote bags that can be given out to alumni. Not only are the bags not adding more waste to the textile stream, but they're also creating fair wage work in the USA.

Our pitch fell on deaf ears, just like it did at many other schools. They were used to a price that could only be offered in the far east, where the cost of labor is 90 percent lower than U.S. wages. We learned that universities want to be green, but are addicted to fast fashion prices. Instead, at Harvard reunions they passed out a hat, with a big “Made in China” tag on it.

While America’s t-shirt production has almost entirely gone overseas, we at Project Repat saw an opportunity to create fair wage jobs out of people’s sentimentality around their shirts.

There is a lot of talk now about re-shoring, and bringing jobs back to the U.S., but it’s hard to translate broad sweeping policy talk with tangible ways for all of us to help. A lot of times in the very undefined "social enterprise" sector, something that seems like a good idea, isn't something people will actually buy. While it was difficult for us to get universities to pay for U.S. labor, we felt the American consumer would appreciate knowing that their clothes were made responsibly.

We also heard from customers that they wanted something made from their t-shirts. We liked the tote bags option, but it wasn’t something consumers were really looking for. The terms "t-shirt quilts" and "t-shirt blankets’’, however, get more than 70,000 monthly searches. With these items, we found a way to simplify our production process to make them more affordable to the customer.

And apparently there was a lot of demand for a t-shirt blanket—surprising news to two boys in their late 20s. In the past year, we have sold over $750,000 worth of custom t-shirt blankets.

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Lessons From Bangladesh: It's Time to End Fast Fashion

In Savar, Bangladesh where the collapse happened, there are over 100,000 factories, and only 18 regulators.

We expect bosses to have the common sense to create a safe working environment for their employees, especially when the sky is falling.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened in the most recent tragedy in Bangladesh. When garment workers—who happen to make clothes for some of the largest brands around the world (Wal-Mart included)—alerted their superiors to crumbling walls, they were told to keep working. A few hours later, more than 400 of them were killed. This comes only a year after Aminul Islam, a union organizer, was brutally murdered for his attempts to organize the textile industry workers.

These stitchers and sewers were making little more than $1 a day and some of the world’s largest brands were using their labor. The response from the global brands is to first deny they knew anything, saying, “This factory was a subcontractor,” then to admit guilt, and say, “We will work with regulators to best oversee our subcontractors.” As the world turns its attention to the next tragedy, the big brands hope consumers will lose interest, and stop sharing stories on Facebook and Twitter about Bangladesh. They are probably right. Most people will forget, and continue to buy cheap clothes, but we are missing the point—and the lesson—if the tragedies don’t force us to change our behavior.

In the book, The Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution, author Edward Humes outlined how Wal-Mart realized that their bottom line could be improved by being more green. For example: One slight change in reducing box size for their toy packages could save several million dollars each year. Since Wal-Mart has such tremendous spending power, they have influence over their suppliers, and they laid down the law. In turn, the manufacturers they were working with had to alter their way of doing things to appease Wal-Mart.

But that same fight for the improvement of their environmental footprint has not yet been translated to their economic footprint. Like many other major apparel companies, they are dropping the ball. A key component of being a better partner to the earth is also treating your workers with respect, which starts with better wages. If a place like Wal-Mart (which is incredibly profitable) starts paying their employees a decent wage, other companies will follow suit. If Wal-Mart calls for this to happen, it will. When workers feel empowered and have the dignity to make their own economic decisions because they have more money in their pockets, we have created more consumers, and also a healthier work environment.

While the debate drags on about more regulation, we should heed lessons from William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s new book, The Upcycle. They make the argument that we need to stop creating systems that need regulation. For example: the new toaster with a warning label that says, “This toaster should be turned on a few times and allowed to heat up fully to burn off the coating on the wires.” This label is broadcasting that this thing exists, but it would be best for the health of humans and planet if it did not. The fundamental premise is that instead of creating something that is already broken or can be harmful, we should be creating systems that function well from the beginning.

Why create working environments that need to be regulated? Since the early '90s, when Nike was chastised for the awful conditions their shoes were made in, they have made serious efforts to regulate and hold their suppliers accountable.

Unfortunately, there are huge flaws in this model for retroactive change. In Savar, Bangladesh, where the collapse happened, there are more than 100,000 factories, and only 18 regulators. While the brands preach accountability and set new standards after disasters, they can instead identify production partners from the beginning, like Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic.

We can apply the same principles of the "upcycle" to building textile manufacturing environments that empower workers. There are places with these practices already in place, like Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC and 99 Degrees Custom Manufacturing in Lawrence, MA, where workers are not just treated like cogs in the machine, but as active members of society that deserve both fair wages and the opportunity for upward mobility.

Just over 100 years ago in New York City, managers locked doors and prevented garment workers from escaping from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed more than 100 people. The result was a healthier working environment in the USA, with more regulations to prevent catastrophe. Maybe now is finally the time to address the root cause of the problem: let’s stop building bad textile manufacturing working environments. We have started to ask where our food comes from, and now we should know how the people making our clothes are treated.

Nathan Rothstein is president of Project Repat, which upcycles excess t-shirts into fashionable clothing accessories while creating fair wage employment opportunities in the U.S.

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How Businesses Are Launched, Big Easy Style

Entrepreneur Week comes to New Orleans.Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, the academic world responded to the disaster. Schools...

Entrepreneur Week comes to New Orleans.

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, the academic world responded to the disaster. Schools sent students to do relief work, symposiums were planned to discuss issues of race and class, and the city was soon filled with graduate students trying to analyze the storm's aftermath. And while the national spotlight has somewhat dimmed, New Orleans still continues to attract business students who are eager to help nurture an emerging start-up community.

Over spring break, while many of their peers lapped up tropical-flavored drinks, business students from around the country flew to New Orleans, where they were matched with local entrepreneurs as part of Idea Village’s Entrepreneur Week.

Almost five years after Katrina, Idea Village, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering economic development in New Orleans, has created a turn-key program that is beneficial to both MBA students and local entrepreneurs, but it was not always clear what would be the most productive way of linking the two.

Enter Daryn Dodson, who works for Idea Village, but had previously attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Dodson believes MBA students can be tasked with more than simply gutting houses. While the gutting was crucial to the immediate recovery of the city, business students had the potential to help businesses and nonprofits build capacity and work toward longer-term sustainability.

Unfamiliar with New Orleans' networks, Dodson googled "entrepreneurship" and "New Orleans"—which is how he discovered Idea Village. What followed was a conversation with its CEO, Tim Williamson, and a process by which business students were matched with local entrepreneurs. Over the past few years, Dodson has been creating relationships with schools, while trying to figure out how the local entrepreneur can best take advantage of the free consultation from the MBA students.

The week is about showing the rest of the country that New Orleans is a great place to start a business. Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and native New Orleanian, told participants, that the founders of America were true entrepreneurs, and that the “new founding fathers and mothers of the United State are the people of New Orleans.”

Last year, students from DePaul University helped create the social-media strategy for Naked Pizza, a local New Orleans restaurant that specializes in making healthy pizza at discounted prices. The company received a $15,000 investment and now, with the help of Mark Cuban, they hope to expand to other cities.

While the national and local press is great for creating buzz for the city, Darren Hoffman still has to worry about whether he has the competitive advantage and the right marketing plan to sell his product. Originally from Miami, Hoffman came to New Orleans almost five years ago to study jazz music. In February, Idea Village flew Hoffman to the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business to meet with their team.

Hoffman's business, TuttiDynamics, plans to sell lessons taught by the jazz masters of New Orleans: Shannon Powell, Jason Marsalis, Lucien Barberin, among others. The prototype is being built for the iPad, where the pupil, for example, can place it on top of the piano, record sound, send it to the master, and subsequently receive feedback from the actual jazz legend. Hoffman says, “It is vital that the artists are compensated for the value they created over their lifetime."

“It's great to get this objective feedback,” Hoffman told me when I asked about whether the business school students, not having had a background in music, affected the helpfulness of their advice. “I have the music background," he explained, "But these students have the business skills that can really help me launch my business.” He is now close to having the material to start selling lessons.

Most of all, students were able to apply what they are learning in the classroom to New Orleans start-ups. Julia Reardon, who grew up in New Orleans and attends the Chicago's Booth School, summed it up: “This is the first time I’ve volunteered besides gutting my own house. It really feels like we are contributing to something bigger than us.”

Nathan Rothstein has spent the last four years working in a variety of Katrina-related recovery projects. In 2006, he joined AmeriCorps and spent a year gutting houses. Three years ago, he co-founded and served as the Executive Director of the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiative, an organization dedicated to creating a support network to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans. He blogs about Gen Y leaders for True/Slant.

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