Talking via Skype, Sword & Plough CEO Emily Núñez Cavness held what appeared to be a routine business meeting with her sister and Chief Operating Officer, Betsy Núñez. But when Núñez Cavness, who’d been working remotely for several months, turned to look behind her, the mood suddenly felt very chaotic. Barely out of college, Núñez Cavness said a quick goodbye and hung up. Off camera, she suited up, grabbed some equipment and rushed for cover. An Army officer, Núñez Cavness was stationed in Kandahar, the capital of the former Taliban government in Afghanistan. Her work call had been interrupted by mortar fire.
“It was not the usual start-up location,” Núñez Cavness says.
Most start-ups have stories about their origin that border on the mythic — tales of discontent, intrigue and ambition that are repeated to investors and customers alike. Sword & Plough, which repurposes surplus military gear into stylish bags, makes most Silicon Valley narratives pale in comparison. Yet Núñez Cavness understates the difficulties in her retelling. Listening to her quiet voice, she makes you believe that balancing active duty deployment and entrepreneurship isn’t a tough tightrope to walk and that small business ownership from a combat zone halfway around the globe is common.
Perhaps her nonchalance is because of the scale of the challenges Núñez Cavness wants her company to address. Sword & Plough isn’t just another fashion house, one more Balmain selling military jackets at H&M; instead, she sees the company becoming an “American heritage brand,” supporting 38 jobs for the nation’s 573,000 unemployed veterans, reducing 35,000 pounds from the military’s tons of waste and creating bonds between civilians and soldiers in the process. (It also donates 10 percent of its profits to veterans’ groups.) This mission is almost as ambitious as the Biblical verse her company’s name is derived from — “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” — promising a new era of peace and creation.
Núñez Cavness was born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where her father taught political science and international relations. Growing up on a base, she remembers hearing that military surplus was burned or buried — a problem she pondered for two decades, until she was a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Inspired by her father, she signed up for the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) at another school, an hour’s drive away in Burlington. Leaving at 6:30 a.m. for weekend training exercises while her classmates slept off hangovers, Núñez Cavness was the only cadet on her liberal arts campus. She often detected hesitation students who didn’t know how to ask her about military service. (An art student, leaving the studio after an all-nighter, once asked her what play she was acting in.) “I would get confused looks walking around campus,” Núñez Cavness recalls. “People didn’t know that I was in R.O.T.C., but I just saw it as an opportunity to strengthen the understanding between the civilian and veteran community.”
While listening to a talk by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen (a nonprofit venture capital firm that funds solutions to global poverty) at Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Núñez Cavness heard about a company that used recycling in its business model. In that instant, all of her history — the knowledge about what happens to military surplus, any alienation she felt at college and worries about future employment that other soldiers expressed — coalesced.
“What, in my life, I saw wasted on a daily basis could be harnessed and turned into something beautiful. As I looked around, I knew that every student in there had a bag of some form propped up next to them. Why not make durable bags that would be appealing to my classmates, really anyone?” Núñez Cavness remembers. “I was so excited that it was difficult to stay focused on the speech, because all these ideas were running through my mind.”
Núñez Cavness learned what a business plan was (it hadn’t come up in her international studies or French classes) and put one together with her sister. The siblings worked on the business through Núñez Cavness’s senior year, reaching out to contractors who make tents, sleeping bag covers, aircraft insulation, even parachutes. They set up a Kickstarter in April 2013 and asked their friends to buy a bag. Within two hours, they reached their $20,000 goal. By the end of the first day, they tripled that amount and eventually raised $312,000. Clearly, the demand for their product was there, but soon, Sword & Plough’s co-founder wasn’t (Núñez Cavness deployed shortly after graduation) — all while the company suddenly had 1,500 orders to fill.
Núñez Cavness rarely discusses specifics of deployed life with her garment employees, but she warns them when missions will put her out of contact for a few days. For the most part, they know she’s safe, but the occasional loss of internet can lead to anxiety and uncertainty, “this fear of what could have happened or might happen,” says Haik Kavookjian, a college friend who assembled Sword & Plough’s first bags on his mom’s old tabletop sewing machine and now serves as the company’s creative director. Still, her service and her work ethic are inspiring.
“Her ability to multitask and to manage the team while still working for the military, I can only assume comes from her strictly regimented training with the Army,” Kavookjian says. “Especially in the startup space, a lot of times what you find you need is that drive to continue at midnight, finishing work that needs to be done. Her ability to push on and keep going is something that the military has prepared her for.”
There is “a ton of overlap” between roles, Núñez Cavness says. In effect, she serves as CEO of both her domestic business and her military company. She began conducting business meetings based on the same tactics used in military trainings, and she stresses long-term planning, an important aspect of military strategy.
Núñez Cavness’s success could just have easily gone awry. Balancing responsibilities at home with active deployment could help strengthen a soldier’s resilience, but for another service member in the same circumstances, the stress of two jobs could be overwhelming. Founding a business from a military base is a case that’s “unusual though not unheard of,” says Charles Engel, a retired Army colonel who served as a psychiatrist for 31 years and is now a senior health scientist at RAND, a global policy think tank. Many doctors stationed abroad often “moonlighted” on nights and weekends to earn a little extra cash, he says. As long as Núñez Cavness’s superiors checked off on the business, Engel doesn’t see any problems.
“Some people will have the capacity to juggle different things and will even find it stimulating to be challenged in that way. Another person will be rapidly overwhelmed in that kind of circumstance,” Engel says. “What the leadership worries about in the military is that you would have obligations that would come into conflict with jobs in the military, obligations that might prevent you from deploying or otherwise distract you form your work overseas. Your primary job — being a soldier or sailor or airman — that’s the one that takes priority.”
Duty comes first and foremost, Núñez Cavness agrees, but her work with Sword & Plough sometimes helps her remind why she enlisted. One month after she arrived in Afghanistan, she received a big package, sent from a name she didn’t recognize. Inside was a handwritten note from a Vietnam vet, mentioning how impressed he was by Sword & Plough’s commitment to helping veterans. He included black-and-white photos of himself in uniform, on top of some cookies, candy and playing cards. “It was incredibly special and surreal to think — to know — that even there, in the desert in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away, somebody was moved by what we were doing,” Núñez Cavness says.
As Sword & Plough continues to bridge the military civilian divide, it’s likely that this isn’t the only care package Núñez Cavness will receive.