What Joining The Army Taught One Designer About Creativity


Emily Núñez Cavness funneled her Army experience into a startup that turns scraps from military materials into bags.

Emily Núñez Cavness is cofounder and CEO of the socially responsible fashion brand Sword & Plough and an active duty U.S. Army officer. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo as part of Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry. Emily and Doreen are both speaking at the 17th annual Texas Conference for Women, the largest gathering of women in the state, on November 15th.

Doreen Lorenzo: Tell me how you ended up where you are now.
Emily Núñez Cavness: Coming up with the idea for Sword & Plough was really a natural evolution of my life’s events.

The aha moment for the company occurred when I was a senior at Middlebury College and attended a talk at the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The speaker was talking about how a business incorporated recycling into its business model. After hearing that talk, several experiences from my life collided.

For one, I grew up on military bases. Because of this, I was aware of the discarded surplus generated by the military and wanted to find a way to reduce that waste. Looking around the room at Middlebury, I saw every person had a bag of some kind next to them. I remember thinking to myself, we could take durable military surplus materials that have unique stories and turn them into stylish bags that anyone would be excited to use.

Together with my sister, Betsy, we knew this was an idea we had to pursue. But, there was more.

Growing up in a military family, I was inspired to serve after seeing the impactful military careers of several close family members. Yet I also knew the difficulties military personnel face when transitioning back to civilian life, like finding meaningful employment.

When we first came up with the idea for Sword & Plough, we knew we wanted to support veterans and veteran employment any way we could throughout that process.

Today we’re lucky to do all of these things at Sword & Plough.

So, how is Sword & Plough different from your traditional fashion brand?
Sword & Plough is very different from a traditional fashion brand because of our quadruple bottom line and ability to create social impact at every stage of our business.

Before starting the company, we thought a lot about how we could empower veterans through meaningful employment opportunities and partnerships. We now involve veterans in every stage of our business, from design to manufacturing and even the models on our website. They’ve brought unique skill sets to our brand from designing to sewing to manufacturing. Even our fulfillment center is veteran-owned.

Since launching in 2013, we’ve supported 55 veteran jobs through our company and manufacturing partners. We’ve also repurposed over 40,000 pounds of military surplus and donated 10% of our profits to veteran nonprofit organizations.

Veterans are highly skilled technical professionals and proven leaders that want to continue to serve their communities. They are great assets and we’re proud that a big part of what we do at Sword & Plough encourages more people to talk about the inspiring veterans and service members in their lives.

You’re obviously very passionate about social entrepreneurship. What drew you to it originally?
As a kid, I was really interested in building things and trying to make fun inventions. My parents also instilled in my siblings and me a desire to give back and help others.

To me, social entrepreneurship makes so much sense. If a company has the ability to achieve impact and positively affect people’s lives and the planet in addition to making a profit, I think that’s definitely worthwhile.

Did your time in the military influence your approach to fashion design?
As a result of my military service, I’m very in tune with the cutting edge gear and technology soldiers use to carry out missions. And yes, all of the exposure to functional and durable equipment has had a major influence on the way I think about design and fashion.

Working with these durable materials sometimes poses design challenges for our team. Several years ago we received some very thick military aircraft insulation, which was difficult to sew. At first, we had no idea what we were going to do with it. After a lot of feedback from customers and several iterations and prototypes, that material inspired our first wool product line. It’s these kinds of design challenges that really motivate us to create new products.

How did your Army experience in Afghanistan make you a better leader?
More than anything, it taught me how to be an effective leader. Military service is a challenging, one-of-a-kind leadership opportunity that requires creative thinking and the ability to adapt. Being in the U.S. Army challenged me to lead and motivate diverse groups of people to accomplish missions in various environments and often under tight deadlines.

There are also many situations when creativity is helpful. When I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, one of my jobs was to serve as our unit public affairs officer and interview our unit’s Afghan National Army partners in order to receive feedback on the civil engineering training they were receiving and the partnership overall. I was curious to see how our partners might react to my presence as a female, and I wanted to give myself and my interview the best chance at succeeding. So, I purchased a scarf from the local market and wore it instead of my helmet as a sign of respect for their culture. It was immediately received well, with interest and was a great icebreaker.

The lesson I learned from that experience is that situations are often uncertain, but you can improve your chances of fostering relationships by putting in a little extra effort, showing respect for those around you, and bringing a positive attitude.

Does being a woman make your job harder or easier?
The challenges I’ve experienced have been around communication and perception. For example, there have been a couple times when I’ve communicated what Sword & Plough is about to a businessman, and they make a remark that the idea is “cute”. A woman-owned fashion company is nothing new, but we’re not just that. We’re a social enterprise that creates impact at every stage of our business model while making durable and stylish products.

Changing this perception is something that is very important to me. Having strong role models such as my parents and grandparents and mentors in the Army, as well as several books such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, have helped shape me into the leader and CEO I am today.

What advice would you give women today that are navigating a career change?
Don’t be afraid to start something new in a field that you might not have a lot of experience in or a specialized degree. Start brainstorming and dive right in! Find a supportive community and mentors in your industry that can help you as your idea grows and develops.

Do you think there are leadership approaches that come more naturally to women?
I think that women are able to naturally multi-task and empathize with others, which are definitely helpful leadership skills. I’ve experienced first hand in both the Army and at Sword & Plough how the ability to empathize is so crucial to understanding how to motivate people. It also increases trust and respect within a team.

What does design mean to you today?
If you asked me this question as a young girl, I would have focused on the design of physical things—what’s pleasing to the eye. Today, I see and apply design on a much larger scale to products as well as services and business processes, such as creating meaningful brand-customer relationships and finding creative ways to implement customer feedback.

I know we can’t hug in the workplace but if we could, are you a hugger?
I am definitely a hugger. A hug is a great way to connect with other people, show that you’re happy to spend time with them and that you appreciate them.

This article first appeared in www.fastcodesign.com

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About Author

Doreen Lorenzo

Doreen Lorenzo is an independent business advisor and the former president of frog and Quirky.

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