By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three years ago, during his freshman year at Davidson College, Joe Morrison volunteered as a tutor for third graders in a local elementary school.
This year, as a senior, through Boston-based Citizen Schools, which has a local office, he is volunteering on a team at Martin Luther King Middle School in Charlotte that is teaching a class on how to start a business.
And he is about to contribute $1,000, part of it to buy materials for the class, the remainder to go to Citizen Schools, that he generated from Pax Backpacks, a social business he developed that was inspired by his freshman volunteer experience.
“One of the kids was a smart kid but was going through a lot outside of school,” says Morrison, a Chapel Hill native who is majoring in religion. “The process of working with him to pass third grade opened my eyes to the challenges students face, especially students from lower-income communities.”
His sophomore year, Morrison began looking into the concept of social enterprise and companies like Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker, which match every every pair of shoes or glasses they sell, respectively, by giving a pair of shoes to a child in need or a pair of glasses to a person in need.
Morrison decided to make and market backpacks to college students online and contribute 22 percent of his gross profit to charity.
So he developed a business plan with the help of business mentors, including John Bradberry, a Davidson alumnus and president and founding partner of Ready Founder Services, a Charlotte consultant to entrepreneurs, and Allison Dulin, special assistant to the president at Davidson who directed the school’s Venture Lab.
He presented the plan at business plan competitions sponsored by Davidson, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, N.C. State University and the Ashoka Foundation, generating $8,000 in prize money.
And late last summer, he ran a crowdfunding campaign using Indiegogo, a San Francisco-based digital “crowdfunding” platform — co-founded by a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill — and selling 70 backpacks, plus some stickers and t-shirts, and raising $7,000. He recently finished filling orders taken during the campaign.
The backpacks are manufactured at Parrott Canvas Company in Greenville, a firm he found through a trade association for luggage manufacturers.
The backpacks sell for $85, come in four colors, use a basic design from Parrott with some tweaks by Morrison, and are made with Cordura nylon, lined inside with Oxford cloth, and finished with Japanese-made solid brass zippers.
“The bags are meant to last a long time,” Morrison says.
Operating as a limited liability partnership with no paid staff, Morrison markets the backpacks on a website he designed hosted on bigcartel.com that provides e-commerce options like inventory tracking, promotional code offers and promotional product images.
His next step is to build on online presence through search engine optimization and social media advertising, targeting advertising on Facebook to people ages 18 to 25 who “like” Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker.
He also is assessing the price for the backpacks, looking at customer response and the long-term sustainability of his profit margin.
After graduating next spring, Morrison would like to work for a startup firm, aiming to learn as much as he can from a larger venture, and then “plow that into my own venture.”
“The charitable goal,” he says, “is to work with Citizen Schools to support their programming, specifically in North Carolina’s low-income schools.”