The ‘Spark Tank’ Entrepreneurs

Dwight School students create eco-friendly hygiene kits to help homeless in winter and COVID

17 Nov 2020 | 01:03

Each year, the Dwight School hosts its own version of the entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank” among its students. “Spark Tank,” as the independent college prep school in Upper West Side calls it, had a unique pitch from one of its junior students last year. And now, the eco-friendly nonprofit organization called SustainABLE Start has designed thousands of hygiene kits to help the homeless during winter in a pandemic.

A successful Spark Tank pitch helped founders Chloe Trujillo and Victoria Buendia-Serrano develop a business plan, and aided in funding for resources. For the preliminary round of hygiene kits, they asked the investors for $1000 for kits. They then got feedback from those who received the kits to see what needed to be improved and began to grow as a team by raising donations, performing community outreach and being effective via social media.

“Through Spark Tank, we gained a board of advisors, and I have also been in contact with all the school deans to let them know how students can join the team,” said Nina Hissnauer, a sophomore at the Dwight School and the startup’s communication manager. “Soon, we’re going to send a community email asking parents if they have items for our product drive, or if any of them would like to donate to help the organization grow.”

In winter 2019, Trujillo and Buendia-Serrano just wanted a way to help the homeless. After a late-night dinner, Trujillo and her friends were lost in the city and could not find their way back to the subway. A homeless person nearby was able to guide them to where they need to go and safely get back home.

“I, like any other teenage girl, was kind of wary talking to him,” said Trujillo. “But, he turned out to be the nicest person and he knew his way around the downtown area. We were talking to him and he said he knew the city well because he’s lived on the street for a while - he makes it a point to help people get to the train safely, knowing it’s not the safest area. He probably needed to worry about where he could sleep safely but, he was focused on helping other people.”

Trujillo says the incident really motivated her to help out her neighbors, just as she had been helped.

The two students went to a local dollar store, picked up hygiene supplies and began handing them out on the subway along their commute to school. Soon, their friends got on the idea, and the pair created an organization to take a more structured approach.

Eco-Friendly Partnerships

SustainABLE Start now has over 80 members and is completely run by high school students; they do have adult advisors for the financial and marketing sides of the organization.

“We made it into a non-profit so our donations could be tax-deductible, and before COVID hit, we were hoping to get some type of state funding,” Trujillo said. “However, money is tight right now in all areas within the government, so we began working more with companies that are able to give us products. Most of our partnerships are eco-friendly - we wanted to make sure even from the very beginning we weren’t harming the environment.”

Each kit costs about three to four dollars and contains 10 items. These kits contain deodorant, homeless resource guides, toothbrushes, toothpaste, wet wipes, three-ply mask, hand sanitizer/alcohol wipes, socks, feminine hygiene products and - to top it off - hand-written notes from contributing members.

SustainABLE Start’s partnerships include Knock Knock Give A Sock and Crystal Deodorant among their eco-friendly partners. It would not be cost effective for the organization to be fully eco-friendly and the kits would cost closer to $6 or $7 each. However, they emphasize environmental aspects as much as they can.

Other bulk hygiene kits do not have deodorants and the homeless resources guides that they provide and typically, cost slightly less at $2 per kit. In order to make more kits, SustainABLE Start goes through the Good360 program, an online store where companies can register to access products for a really low price — they recently got 2,000 toothbrushes for $100.

“Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be about hygiene, it was supposed to be more about hats, gloves, blankets and things like that, but that’s seasonal,” said Trujillo. “I wanted to make sure if I start something, it would have an impact all year.”

First Donor

Chancellor of the Dwight School Stephen Spahn was actually the first donor to SustainABLE Start. Trujillo spoke to him before she made the organization a non-profit, and he was supportive of the move.

“He was one of the first people who encouraged me to give it a try through Spark Tank ‘cause the worst that could happen is that it fails - there aren’t huge stakes,” Trujillo said. “He [Spahn] handed me $15 from him and his assistant to make the first two kits. The original plan was for it to cost $7 a kit, but as we bought in bulk and made partnerships, it significantly lowered the cost. He said, ‘we’re giving you our lunch money and making our first donations.”

Trujillo added that support coming from him and Matthew Moran, the director of Spark Tank, was a really big deal to her because they had experience with business and other student projects.

SustainABLE Start has already given out 2,600+ hygiene kits since March, when the coronavirus hit New York CIty. The non-profit organization managed to raise more than $11,000 in that time span through GoFundMe and their student-made website. Before March, they handed hygiene kits out as individuals and did not keep a tally, so the total is even higher. As the months have gone by, they’ve exponentially increased the amount of products they use, which has lowered the cost per kit as they now buy in bulk.

With a goal to hit 5,000 more kits by 2021, Hissnauer believes they can reach that mark with donations. She believes that the organization will not only be able to help the homeless, but also make people come together as a community.

As a high school senior, the founding member Trujillo has a decision to make as she transitions into college after the next semester. The decision will depend on her college’s proximity to New York.

“I will still play a big role in this,” Trujillo said. “Right now, we still have many different fundraising chapters all over the country, in cities such as Santa Monica, CA, Boulder, CO and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They don’t hand out kits because we order items in bulk to our location in NY, and unfortunately it’s not cost-effective to send them around the country. If I move away, I will start another chapter to actually hand out the kits there.”

“Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be about hygiene, it was supposed to be more about hats, gloves, blankets and things like that, but that’s seasonal,” said Trujillo. “I wanted to make sure if I start something, it would have an impact all year.” Chloe Trujillo, co-founder of SustainABLE Start