The only shirt that educates

Hampden-Sydney college students discover social entrepreneurship and start a career while getting an education

Hampden-Sydney college is unique in many ways. It is the tenth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, oldest private college in the South, and one of the few remaining private colleges for men. Hampden-Sydney’s motto is to “form good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning.” It’s a humble and noble goal—one that complements the Sullivan Foundation’s own mission beautifully.

Cheng and Beck meet local kids during a trip to the Dominican Republic

Two Hampden-Sydney students have decided to put the College’s motto into action in a manner every bit as unique as the college itself—by launching a philanthropic business while maintaining full academic loads. Although many young entrepreneurs launch their first ventures while still in school, few take on such a risky and time-consuming project with the primary goal of raising money for charity. But Jacky Cheng and Tanner Beck, both members of the class of 2018, did exactly that in the spring of their junior year. Inspired by their participation in college-sponsored mission trips and motivated by the philanthropic work of several Hampden-Sydney alumni, Cheng and Beck launched Pan, a clothing company “on a mission to eliminate illiteracy.”

Meeting a need

For Beck, the emotional bond he formed two years ago with a young Haitian refugee, Ubi, on a Hampden-Sydney trip to the Dominican Republic turned into a commitment to the child’s education.

“I decided that the most significant thing I could do for Ubi’s family was to pay for his school fees and books,” Beck says.

Educating just one child wasn’t enough, though. After a second trip in January 2017, he was determined to make basic education a reality for even more children.

“Ubi’s parents were so incredibly thankful that their son could go to school,” Beck says. “Their response made me realize that, in many parts of the world, education is not readily available, yet I believe it’s the key to long-term impact.”

Cheng’s belief in the power of education to transform lives comes from his own personal experience. The son of Chinese immigrants, he knows first-hand how valuable his educational opportunities are—opportunities that his parents and grandparents never had, but were determined to give him.

“When my parents moved to America, they could barely speak English, but they worked hard to provide me with the best schooling and activities they could,” Cheng says. “From a young age, I knew how much they valued education, and now I have the chance to be the first in my family to graduate from college.”

Now Cheng wants to use his own education to help others.

“Knowledge is so powerful; ultimately it’s the tool that will give people opportunities and help communities create jobs.”

A process of discovery

Cheng and Beck, both economics majors, originally thought that law or public policy, rather than business, would be their avenue for making a positive change in the world. But a chance meeting last fall with class of 1985 Hampden-Sydney alum Toby Usnik—well-known in the business world for his work at Christie’s International, the New York Times Company, and American Express—changed Cheng’s perspective.

Usnik’s passion for corporate philanthropy and social responsibility convinced Cheng that partnering a business with existing charities might be the fastest way to make an impact. Usnik was on campus to address students about purpose-driven careers, but when he talked with Beck and Cheng, he found that they were one step ahead of him.

“These young men were already practicing what I was preaching—defining their purpose and integrating it into their careers…and making the world a better place in doing so,” Usnik says.

In May, after further mentorship from Hampden-Sydney alumni and faculty, the two students launched a month-long Kickstarter Campaign to fund Pan, a socially responsible clothing company that donates five textbooks for every item of clothing it sells. They managed to raise over $13,000. They’ve also formed a partnership with Hope for Haiti, a well-established charity that already has an active book program and staffs 24 schools on the island.

Putting in the hours

While both students admit that starting a business from scratch is far more work than they ever imagined, they feel that, at this stage in life, they have very little to lose. Preparing to launch the business just two weeks before final exams, Beck noted, wasn’t easy, but that wouldn’t deter him.

“There’s no better time to do this than now,” he says. “Of course, the time management has been difficult, since we both spend about four hours a day working on the business on top of our academic work, but we’ve learned so much about the world beyond the classroom.”

The simple, 5-books-per-shirt formula is designed to offer customers a direct understanding of how their purchases make a difference. Their motto is a little more modern in tone than Hampden-Sydney’s. It’s “the only shirt that educates.” Their mission, however, is very much in line with the timeless one embraced by their alma mater.

Beck and Cheng hope the business will grow quickly, but their primary goals go far beyond that of traditional entrepreneurs.

“I don’t think success is measured in profit, but in finding purpose and fulfillment,” Cheng says. “We’ve found something meaningful in our lives and we’ve decided to pursue it.”

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