Ryan Westberg, a senior studying economics at the UA, helped start a charitable business in the fall of 2011 after studying abroad with Semester at Sea. Serengetee sells pocket T-shirts, with the pockets made of fabrics from different countries. For each shirt sold, 13 percent of the proceeds go to a charity in that country. The company also has T-shirts with flag pockets, from which a percentage of sales goes toward micro-finance lending. Serengetee has taken in $150,000 in revenue since the company launched. This year, it will be donating money to Pencils of Promise to build a school in Ghana.
Tell me more about how the business started.
In 2011, I studied abroad on Semester at Sea, where I traveled to 13 different countries all over Africa, Asia and Central America. And while on the trip I met one of my best friends, Jeff Steitz, and he goes to Claremont McKenna College. That's who I started this with. We were able to see ... how amazing every country was and how unique and diverse the culture. We also were able to see the immense problems that still exist, the poverty, and that really inspired us to think of ... a creative way to make a difference. So we began collecting fabrics in all the countries we visited and by the end of the trip we just had a huge collection. We wanted to do something cool with them so we came up with the idea to make them into pockets on T-shirts. And that's how the idea behind Serengetee began.
Was there a defining moment when you knew you had to do something to help these countries?
India was definitely a huge culture shock for me ... because I did see, like, dead bodies on the side of the road and the overcrowding. But there's just so much promise in these countries ... but also people don't have the opportunity that they need to advance out of the poverty that they're stuck in.
Which is your most popular fabric and what country is it from?
It changes so much because we're always getting new fabric. (But) there's some cool stories behind our Solomon Islands fabric. They don't have huge textile plants there but a girl that helps us source fabrics visited and she had the villagers draw their culture onto paper ... and then we made it into a fabric. So it's like completely inspired by the Solomon Islands. So that's like a really cool thing and the fabric looks awesome.
Why did you decide to donate to a school being built in Ghana?
For 2013, I just wanted to do something huge; something that would change the lives of generations to come. ... It's a huge goal because it's going to cost like $25,000, but I was able to raise almost $1,500 in one day. ... so throughout the course of a year I think it's a very achievable goal. Building a school changes a community, not just the life of a few people. That can give children opportunities that they never could've dreamed of.
So why Ghana?
Ghana was one of the first ports we visited. ... and Pencils of Promise just started to break ground there so it'd be one of the first schools there if we're able to raise the money in time. Ghana doesn't get the attention it deserves.
What is the most important thing you've learned since starting this business?
We came into this not knowing a single thing about the apparel industry. Not knowing a single thing about anything that has to do with our business. We just knew we had an idea, we knew it was a cool product and we really just thought we could sell it. We started the business for two reasons: We wanted to travel and we wanted to make a difference and give back to charities around the world. Clearly, we thought this could be big but it just got way bigger than we could've imagined. And now we're just trying to run with it, keep it going. We started with $3,000 and we had no idea we would get featured in Forbes less than a year later.
What would you say is the best part about giving back?
The fact we were able to create something that's not only beneficial for our lives but beneficial for people's lives around the world. We're able to do something that we love and are passionate about but also are able to enact change around the world. It's always nice to be part of something that's bigger than just yourself.