Community Development and Applied Economics
Co-founder and Partner - Moral Fibers
In the beginning of this final semester at UVM, Jake Bobrow ’11 wasn’t sure that he’d really ever use the skills he gained as a Community Entrepreneurship major after he graduated. In March of his senior year, however, he helped out his friends Matt Brightman and Martin Weise at McGill University—as any good friend would—with a business plan outlining a for-profit company that helped people and communities starting at the roots of poverty through art. Their target community was artists in post-earthquake Haiti, and as the only undergraduate finalists in a McGill-hosted business plan competition, the group won $15,000 to put toward the business concept.
“Basically the day I graduated from UVM I decided I wanted to go full-time with it,” reflects Bobrow. The company is Moral Fibers, and while it is not a nonprofit, Bobrow and his cofounders feel that a business type distinction doesn’t affect the amount of good that a business can do.
Moral Fibers keeps a staff of six, including Bobrow and partners Brightman and Weise, as well as Sam Mcguire, their photographer and marketing assistant, a designer in New York City, and a Haitian manager, who started out as Moral Fibers’ translator. Eric finds artists whose work suit the style that Moral Fibers is looking for. “Every time we go [to Haiti] he’s our guide and connects us with artists. His name is Eric, but he calls himself the ‘Haiti boss man.’ We pay him as an employee of the company and he’s signed on eleven artists to produce art for Moral Fibers.”
The agreement that Moral Fibers has with its artists is kind of like a company-driven artists CSA share (CSA, or community supported agriculture, is an arrangement between a consumer and a farmer in which the consumer pays the farmer a lump sum at the beginning of a growing season, and in return for their payment, the consumers receive produce each week from the farm for the duration of the growing season). Moral Fibers buys ten pieces of art from each artist each month, so that the artists have a stable and steady source of income, and can focus on creating art.
Right now the company creates high-end shirts showcasing artists’ pieces in a variety of ways. Collaborating with their creative directors, Dougan Khim and Bernard James, in New York City, the company is moving into designing and producing jackets, leggings, dresses, “the whole nine yards,” says Bobrow.
Their financial structure is one that could easily be written into the textbook of a community-oriented entrepreneur class. “Our current model is that 15% of revenue goes to the artist” which is about 25 hours of minimum-wage labor in Haiti, says Bobrow.
“We then give another 10% per shirt to a development project in the artist’s community. Right now the project receiving these funds is an afterschool program that teaches the arts and dance.”
Bobrow’s projections are big, “we are somewhere between a designer/fashion brand, a TOMS shoes, and American Apparel. That’s our vision for it.” His time in CDAE was valuable after all, “I’m using everything I learned in CDAE to some degree. From the marketing classes to the international development classes to the business plan classes and the strategic planning classes.”
Moral Fibers recently incorporated in Vermont in order to take on investors in their company and in their vision. “We want to keep our offices here. Vermont is a great place, especially because of the ethical side of our business; it’s great to be associated with Vermont. It strengthens our brand image. We also have to balance that out with the fashion side of things with our designers in New York City. We’re trying to find that balance.”
“Really we believe that the for-profit model is the best way to be a sustainable business and help the greatest amount of people.” Listing off Moral Fibers’ priorities, Bobrow reflects, “it’s people, planet, profit. That’s kind of the bottom line we’re going after.”