A hunger to help
If you believe that some of the things we do as children serve as clues to how we may act as adults, then it’s obvious Danika Gagnon’s entrepreneurial instincts took hold early in life.
“I recall making bookmarks and selling them on the street,” says Gagnon (BA [Communications] ʼ08). “Other people had lemonade stands — I had bookmarks. So I think I always had it in me.”
The “it” seems to have stuck with her as an adult. She and business partner and co-founder Dylan Corbett have just marked one year since creating The Hunger Republic, an online clothing business that directs a portion of every sale to helping underprivileged kids in the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya.
Gagnon and Corbett, a business graduate of Bishop’s University and friend, began talking around two years ago about starting a business with the mission of not just making money, but helping out people in need. Corbett had moved to Alberta, so their blue-sky sessions, plotting and planning became Skype-a-thons, with some brainstorming going until 3 a.m.
It wasn’t until Corbett took a backpacking trip to Africa that The Hunger Republic mission and brand were stitched together. Corbett’s aunt introduced him to Kenyan Martin Kibera, a charismatic former footballer who had founded a local charity called the Gatina Youth Empowerment Project (GYEP), based in a poor neighborhood of Nairobi. Corbett volunteered with the group for a week and saw in person the kind of change that even small amounts of money and other aid could make to the community. Gagnon and Corbett decided Gatina was the place to focus their help.
The Hunger Republic’s clothing line, ranging from T-shirts to leggings to hats, is minimalist in design, sleek and understated in black with a white logo. When a customer buys an article online, he or she can direct a donation to any one of four areas of aid for GYEP: food, education, sports and community development.
“We wanted to make sure that we were giving them tools to grow in a sustainable manner,” says Gagnon.
The donations in the four categories mean children get nutritious snacks through an after-school program, school supplies for a term, or sports equipment. Community development aid goes to a farm that grows vegetables, sells them in the market and channels proceeds back to the GYEP while keeping some of the harvest for the farmers’ consumption.
GYEP Director Martin Kibera says the community really appreciates the funds it receives from The Hunger Republic.
“The children get supported in acquiring necessary books for their education. They also participate passionately in football training and matches during the after-school time, weekends and holiday where they are engaged positively,” says Kibera.
For now, The Hunger Republic is a small business, but it’s getting noticed in larger circles. Gagnon and Corbett were recently nominated for a Canada Post E-commerce Innovation Award, making the top five in their category. They were also chosen as the Quebec regional award winners for the 2015 Startup Canada Award for Sustainable Development sponsored by TELUS, which recognizes outstanding achievement in advancing Canadian entrepreneurship. They now move on to the national final, with winners to be announced in December in Toronto.
The next step is to expand their clothing line and to scout out other charities they can help. For now, they rely on social media, word of mouth and cross-promotional events to generate traffic.
“One of the beautiful things about being an entrepreneur these days is that there are so many tools available. We created our own website using Shopify, and I think it looks pretty good. There are so many companies starting up, you have to create a niche or a voice and get people to know who you are. That’s one of our biggest challenges,” says Gagnon.
Having a communications background helps with the challenge, she adds. (Gagnon works as a media relations officer at the University of Ottawa). While she took only one business course in university, working in media relations gives her an advantage.
“It’s helped me synthesize a ten-second pitch. Whether I’m pitching my story to media or a prospective customer — or down the line, investors — I think I’ve gotten good at communicating what we do. I engage people quickly.”
Gagnon and Corbett realize that theirs is not the only company with a social conscience. However, Gagnon points out that large firms frequently have separate corporate social responsibility departments whereas The Hunger Republic’s good deeds are built into every customer transaction.
While once she sold bookmarks in front of her house, Gagnon is now hoping more people will bookmark her company’s website.
“People are more aware of social issues around the world. Social media, the Internet, these all shed light on issues and people want to do something about it. I think if you have a choice between a company that is going to pocket all the profits and a company that is going to give some away to help people, a lot of people would prefer the latter. And everyone needs clothing.”
Danika Gagnon co-founded The Hunger Republic, a socially responsible clothing business. Photo: Mark Holleron