How Lauren Bush Lauren Hustled a Customs Agent to Save the First Order of FEED Bags
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an accidental entrepreneur, but I definitely didn’t start out with a business plan,” says Lauren Bush Lauren, the founder and CEO of FEED, the social business that sells products—primarily bags and accessories—that fund the distribution of food to children in need across the world. Like many entrepreneurs, Bush Lauren wanted to solve a problem and realized, somewhat by chance, that starting a business was the best way to create a solution. In 2007, she launched FEED, and it’s since grown into a household brand and is responsible for having distributed more than 100 million meals around the world. But in its earliest days, the CEO learned primarily through trial and error.
Step 1: Focus your passions and pitch your idea.
Bush Lauren had gotten involved with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) early in her college career at Princeton, working as a student ambassador to get young people to engage with the organization. She’d traveled to both Central America and Africa with the WFP, and each time returned feeling inspired but frustrated. “There are so many amazing programs helping so many children around the world, and it made me feel like the issue of hunger is very solvable -- but at the same time, it’s very abstract and difficult for people to engage with,” she says. “It was a shock to see the realities of hunger and poverty, and it was an equal shock to return to America and college life and struggle to engage my peers in conversation on this issue.” Her idea for the FEED bag was to create a covetable item that directly related to the issue of hunger; the burlap material mirrors the rations bags that distribute food around the world. A portion of sales would go back to the organization. She took it to the WFP, which was supportive, if not completely convinced of its potential. “I think the idea seemed outlandish to them, and for the most part, they didn’t quite get it,” she says. “But it just made me think that they’re so great at what they do, and here is something that I can contribute in a space they’re not focused on. Build a separate social business to tell that story.” Today, the WFP is still FEED’s biggest giving partner.
Step 2: Leverage your existing network.
There’s no denying that Bush Lauren is better connected than most budding entrepreneurs. She is, after all, the granddaughter of the 41st president, had a successful modeling career while she was in college and at the time she started working on FEED, was dating her now-husband David Lauren, the son of Ralph Lauren. “I had taken design classes, but I didn’t necessarily know how to bring something to the market,” she says. “But I tapped into those resources in my own network, my friends in the fashion industry and asked around. I got help on technical pieces of design that I didn’t quite know how to perfect. I got proper production contacts. I asked a ton of questions.” She spent eight months working with a potential production partner before her first prototype was perfected. “You’d think a tote bag made of burlap and cotton wouldn’t be complicated,” she says, “but we really wanted to make it a billboard for the brand and message. And we still work with that manufacturer today.”
Step 3: Fight for your product. Literally.
After Bush Lauren had a sample she was happy with, she started taking orders just from friends and family. “Those first sales were pretty grassroots,” she says. “I’d just been talking to people about this bag for so long, they were just like, 'Sign me up for five.'” She had placed an order for a couple hundred items and asked the manufacturer to ship them to her at the UN. “We got a call from customs at JFK Airport asking where our customs broker was,” she recalls. “It’s someone who signs and vouches for products, but it’s very nuanced, and it’s a specific job. But we didn’t have that, because I had no clue that was a thing that existed.” So she and a team member rented a minivan, drove to JFK and unpacked their shipment in front of a customs official. “After four hours of us begging to get our bags out of customs, this poor guy felt so bad for us, he bought one! But I’m pretty sure it was a pity purchase,” she says, laughing. “It was very triumphant.”
Step 4: Think big, even if your operation is small.
Feeling empowered, the founder starting talking to “anyone who would listen,” she says. A helpful network of mentors and casual advisors led her to a contact at Amazon, who would prove invaluable to FEED and its future. “At this point, it was 2006, the beginning of the green movement and reusable bag movement, so it was very timely,” Bush Lauren says. She convinced Amazon to do a small test of her product, and the internet giant placed an order for 500 bags. “One of my best friends from college built our first website, and it linked to the product on Amazon, so we never had to fulfill our own orders,” Bush Lauren says, adding that some fashion-world press in publications like Marie Claire helped get the word out about FEED and its mission. “We sold those bags in two or three months, way faster than either party anticipated. After a year and a half, we’d sold 20,000, and they were our exclusive seller.”