How do you go from the Notre Dame gridiron to the fashion runway to a founding a sustainable apparel company in Morgantown, WV? That’s what we wanted to know so we called up Chris Yura, 2003 Notre Dame graduate and founder of SustainaU, to tell us.
I was fortunate enough to work in the fashion industry as a model for five years following my graduation from Notre Dame. While I was attending Notre Dame, I was on a full scholarship as a football player. As you can image the transition into fashion was a bit non-conventional from my former college football past but one that lead me to better understand the fashion industry. God has a plan for our lives, and going from football to fashion is a testament to my own experience. As a model, I saw so many apparel companies marketing “eco-friendly” and “better for people” clothing collections. At first, I was amazed and supportive. But I started doing some research and found, at best, most of these attempts were merely marketing strategies. But these strategies were gaining adopters, as they seemed to be focused on the right message, which consumers wanted to hear. I wondered if it would be possible to create a brand that actually focused on improving the social, environmental, and economic sectors in clothing. This sent me on a journey to the Carolinas and other areas of our country that traditionally worked in the American Apparel Industry. What I found was a workforce in desperate need of investment and the on-shoring of labor with innovative recycling technology that could help make the USA more competitive in apparel. This inspired me to write a business plan, move back to Appalachia and start SustainU.
What role did Notre Dame play in bringing about your social enterprise?
My education from Notre Dame and my degree in Sociology greatly impacted my understanding and implementation of my business plan. At Notre Dame, I learned about what happened when NAFTA hit the South and the jobs that were lost, factories left empty. I first reached out to the licensing director, Mike Low, for guidance in creating my company. Mike and Tomi Gerhold, who head up ND Licensing, were instrumental in helping me hone my idea for market. The Notre Dame Family has been a huge asset in helping me foster an idea into a business. I have also had the pleasure of meeting other young entrepreneurs from the Gigot Center that have complemented SustainU’s efforts.
What are your biggest challenges?
Like many entrepreneurs starting a new idea in an industry that was working from a very different vantage point, the first three years consisted of Murphy’s Law. What can go wrong, will go wrong. Having the discipline and work ethic adopted as a student athlete, my mind-set has always been more focused on how you handle adversity than being stunned at a problem. I knew the mission of SustainU was focused on the right things, and despite the inevitable setbacks, I continued to improve my business and concept.
After moving past the start-up phase, our biggest challenge is keeping enough inventories and understanding how much to carry at one time. Our demand skyrocketed after year three. When consumers purchase apparel, they usually do not plan two months in advance. So, our company has to use past history to predict the correct levels while continuing productive development and a consistent cash flow position.
Have you had to compromise the social value of your project to succeed in the market?
Since SustainU makes a very unique product that is based on two things, products are made in America and they are 100% recycled, we service a market that expects these attributes. While other projects have come up outside our two principles that were very large, our team has always stayed true to our mission. Of course we could make more profit by jeopardizing one of our fundamental values, but we would lose much more than we would gain. We wouldn’t be unique and I would not want to be a part of something that is just the same as all the other brands. We are different for a purpose and that purpose sometimes comes at a sacrifice.
How will you measure success and know you have succeeded?
One retained job or new job at a time. One shirt someone is wearing or talking to someone about. That is how I judge our success because our apparel represents a greater idea, investment in American Workers and the implementation of Innovative, Sustainable Alternatives. I have seen our product in high-end retail stores in Boston, MA and I have seen students in my hometown of Morgantown, WV wearing a shirt we produced. I am equally as proud of both because this shows the adoption of this idea throughout the country in various markets and consumer segments. I feel like I have already succeeded, I do not think that there is anything I have to prove but there are large plans for the future.
What is your favorite story or memory about starting SustainU?
I remember when we were not funded very well in the first year and I went on a trip to meet with a very large apparel producer. Upon my return, I went to get my car out of the parking garage at the airport, feeling pretty good about the meeting and future of our business. As I approached the tollbooth, I put in my ticket and my company credit card (I did not bring my own credit card on the trip). As it turned out, we had no money in the account. I had to wait next to the tollbooth for 2 hours for one of our partners to deposit a personal check into the account so I could drive home. A little taste of humble pie is good for everyone, especially when you’re starting a business. This was a good thing because I do not take any order for granted or any opportunity. I know what it is like to have people not believe in a vision and doubt it’s potential. But, it you work hard and you are working for the right reasons, it will be a success in whatever degree it needs to be. Just as long as you can get out of the parking lot!
Thanks Chris! Now, do you want to sustainable Notre Dame t-shirt? Chris has you covered – click the image below.