CEO and Co-Founder
The storied Fifth Avenue windows at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman are usually reserved for designer fashion vignettes. So when the elite emporium devotes some of that treasured space to a burlap tote, you can be certain something special is afoot. It turns out that’s no humble handbag, but the latest offering from FEED Projects, the two-year-old philanthropic campaign devoted to tackling hunger. The new, handmade FEED Kenya bag is an exclusive collaboration with the fabled department store. To learn more about the FEED’s newest effort, Elite Traveler Style Editor Tanya Dukes spoke with FEED founder Lauren Bush, fresh from the activist’s latest trip to Kenya to see her project’s profits in action.
ET: Tell us about how FEED got its start?
Lauren Bush: I came up with the idea for FEED when I was an ambassador for the UN World Food Program. After going to many countries and seeing the realities of hunger first-hand I wanted to find a way to give back. The impetus for the first FEED bag was to create something manageable that someone could do to alleviate hunger. A lot of the time people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of need. Buying a FEED bag is a measurable opportunity to help. Each purchase is tied to providing a specific number of meals for schoolchildren.
ET: You launched FEED in 2007 and the bags were immediately everywhere. Did you expect it to take off as it did?
Lauren Bush: Not at all! I thought it would be a one-off project. I started the first collection with [co-founder] Ellen Gustafson. It all really started with one bag. We got our first order from Amazon.com, so we had to set up a business to fulfill the orders! Now we’re selling around the world and have donated more than $5 million to feeding programs. We have a collection of five different bags.
There’s FEED Projects, which is the for-profit business and the nonprofit FEED Foundation, which distributes the funds to feeding programs. For the most part, the profits go to World Food Program projects but we’ve branched out a bit. We want to keep the focus on feeding kids at school. It’s important for children to be able to learn without being distracted by hunger.
ET: You’re CEO and co-founder of FEED projects. What’s a typical day like for you?
Lauren Bush: It really varies. It’s a full-time gig starting a small business. I’m involved with everything from marketing to meeting with retailers. And I’m creative director, so I’m involved in the design of all the bags. It’s kind of haphazard but it’s really fun. It’s definitely been a learning experience. When I see someone carrying their FEED bag and think about what that represents in terms of feeding hungry kids, it definitely makes it all worthwhile. It’s really neat.
ET: You’ve just launched the FEED Kenya bag at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. How did that come about? How is the new bag different from its predecessors?
Lauren Bush: We’ve been wanting to partner with Bergdorf Goodman for a while; it’s the chicest department store in America, so we were really excited to have the opportunity. The FEED Kenya bag retails for $195 and it’s the most luxurious thing you can do with burlap! It’s a limited product in that it’s hand-beaded and hand-worked. And it’s really made in Kenya. Local women and students from a community school for the deaf make each one, so it’s a way to encourage local artisans. I was just in Kenya to see the feeding program and the co-op where they’re made. The FEED Kenya bag has really vibrant Masai fabrics and reflects that culture. Half of the retail cost goes directly to feeding projects—that’s a really good ratio. Two Kenyan children will get school meals for a full year for each bag sold.
ET: The collection of FEED products has expanded beyond totes, like FEED teddy bears that launched earlier this year. Do you envision a whole line of FEED products eventually? What else is on the horizon?
Lauren Bush: FEED is really different. Most companies put out products for the sake of a having a line. We find a charity we want to support and develop a line around that. It makes FEED really unique. The teddy bear project supports distribution of a substance called Plumpy’nut. It was created to give really good nutrition to children five and under. We partnered with my mom’s company Teddy Share; they make the bears for us, but all profits go to support distribution of Plumpy’nut through an organization called Industrial Revelation. A bag that’s coming out in September will be the FEED Read bag that will be available at Barnes & Noble and will support World Food Program libraries and distribution of local language books.
ET: So far, most of your work has focused on developing countries. Do you have designs on domestic projects, too?
Lauren Bush: We’re just in the planning stages for projects in the U.S. FEED will stay kid-focused and school-focused. Even if food isn’t as scarce in the U.S. as it is in other places, there are still hungry kids. They may be eating but they’re not getting the right food. We want to promote access to healthy school meals.
ET: You’ve modeled, have a fashion line and are CEO of FEED. How do you manage your time? Is there cross-pollination between the roles?
Lauren Bush: (Laughing) I’ve cloned myself! Well, I don’t model anymore, which takes care of that. The clothing collection [fashion line Lauren Pierce] is similar to FEED, in a way. With the clothes, it’s another project that gives back and has a focus on supporting women and artisans. It’s a little more exclusive and, of course, is only for women. FEED is more mass, which is the point. We’re trying to make as much money for the feeding projects as possible. There’s a similar sensibility—the mindset for both is the same. I love what I do and feel very lucky.
ET: With two presidents in your family tree and your philanthropic work with FEED, do you have any interest in politics?
Lauren Bush: Not at this moment. I love what I’m doing. I’ve never had an inkling to go into politics. My mission is just to affect change where I can. Business is such a positive force to do that that I haven’t really thought about pursuing politics.
For more information about FEED Projects visit www.feedprojects.org.