On January 18, Bob Dalton, CEO of Sackcloth & Ashes, spoke with our VP of Programs Abby Schwalb about Bob’s personal journey in creating a mission-driven business and driving local impact.
Sackcloth & Ashes is a blanket company with modern designs and a goal to “blanket the United States” by donating a million blankets to homeless shelters across the country. Bob and Abby’s shared passion for helping people experiencing homelessness really shone through, leading to three key takeaways.
Check your biases
Bob started by sharing his own life experiences that started him down this road. When Bob was in his early twenties, his mother went through a series of events that culminated in her living on the streets. This was a dark time in Bob’s life but changed his perspective. “Prior to my mom experiencing homelessness I was the guy that would drive by people on the street and judge them,” he admitted. “My perception of the homeless community was that they were more on the lazy side and that they could work harder to get out of their situation.”
His mother’s hardship shattered that belief. She had multiple college degrees and was one of the hardest-working people Bob knew. Through her experience Bob started to recognize how the system is stacked against people experiencing homelessness. Most jobs and many government assistance programs require a permanent address. Homeless communities are often over-policed and will be issued citations for minor offenses such as jaywalking, loitering, or sleeping on a sidewalk. These citations cause friction when searching for employment or permanent housing (on top of adding financial burdens) and sometimes even disqualify people from such opportunities. Add these systemic barriers to the day-to-day struggles of people experiencing homelessness and “getting back on your feet” quickly becomes onerous. After witnessing these challenges firsthand, Bob set out to make a change.
Start small, start local
Despite his willingness to help, Bob didn’t know where to start. He began calling shelters to ask what they needed, and the overwhelming response was blankets. Bob bought a sewing machine and got to work making blankets which he sold under the “buy one give one” model pioneered by TOMS, donating one blanket to a shelter for each one sold. He quickly found that he wasn’t the best seamster and hired his first employee to make the blankets while he took care of the distribution. Bob drove all across the state selling to small businesses until Sackcloth & Ashes developed a small but reliable client base and a serviceable website.
“When you start something and are really pursuing something that you feel like is the right thing to do and trying to do good in the world, something happens usually that comes up that helps you get to the next phase,” Bob shared. For Sackcloth & Ashes, that “something” came in the form of an email from Instagram telling him they wanted to feature him the day before Black Friday. They only had 80 blankets in inventory, but they managed to handle the major influx in demand. From there the business took off; Sackcloth & Ashes now makes about 15,000 blankets a month and has partnerships with wildly popular brands including Disney, National Geographic, and Star Wars.
As Sackcloth & Ashes grew, so too did the opportunity for Bob to scale the company’s impact. He became enthralled with grassroots organizers and traveled around the country to work with them and hear them speak. Over time, he noticed a number of themes, but chief among them was to keep your primary focus on local impact. This struck a chord with Bob and is now a core part of his impact vision. “I believe that if we’re going to make a difference in any sort of a legitimate sustainable way, it has to start at a local level. Our best way forward is going to be mobilizing and supporting local solutions.” As a result, Bob cut back on his travel and instead worked on making a more meaningful impact in his own city. The company partnered with local grassroots leaders on a number of philanthropic initiatives to give back to their community, many of which work with unhoused populations.
There’s always room to do more
Sackcloth & Ashes’ Higher Purpose has always been to help people experiencing homelessness. For Bob, however, just one Higher Purpose wasn’t enough. He and the team started looking for additional ways to create an impact. They found that recycling old clothes was a huge opportunity. The blankets are now all made from old shirts and sweatshirts. These garments are sorted by color, then shredded in a process called carding, spun into yarn, and eventually woven into soft and beautiful blankets.
“That’s something that we really pride ourselves in now;” Bob said, “looking at every aspect of the business and asking, ‘What can we do to make an impact?'” By using this method to craft their blankets, Sackcloth & Ashes is combatting waste associated fast fashion and using the carding process to eliminate the need for dyes, which often use harsh chemicals that are bad for our skin and the environment.
Want to learn more?
Bob’s primary focus might be helping people experiencing homelessness, but his lessons can be applied across a variety of industries and Higher Purposes. For more on Bob’s personal journey, Sackcloth & Ashes’ work, and stories from their community, you can visit their website.
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