I’m from Sweden. After finishing school there, I was recruited to play basketball in the US, where I also studied at Kent State University, Ohio. I worked over there for 10 years, but towards the end of that time, I was really looking forward to coming back to Europe. I came to Barcelona through the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. I’ve lived here now for 10 years, and I’m still not ready to go back to Sweden. I’ll never go back if I have it my way.
In 2008, my husband and I made our first trip to Ethiopia. Ethiopia was a country that we loved and felt a connection to, even before visiting, because we have friends from there. It’s also one of the more interesting African countries, being the only country that was never really colonised. It has a long history, incredible architecture and plenty of interesting things. It’s also extremely poor. So we decided we wouldn’t just go as tourists, but would turn our holiday into a volunteering trip.
Our Ethiopian friends told us about an American NGO called ‘A Glimmer of Hope’, and through them we sponsored a water project. On our first trip, we went to see it. As you can imagine, that changes everything. We saw, firsthand, how people in a country like that live day to day. Women and children who walk three to five hours every day of their lives, carrying 40 pounds of water on their little shoulders, walking on bare feet in the cold and the heat. And the water is dirty. It smells so bad you wouldn’t even go near it, but they drink it and bath in it. We realised that with money and the right channels, you can do so much.
With a Glimmer of Hope and our own non-profit fundraising campaign ‘Water Is Life’, we have completed 21 wells in Ethiopia to date. We have gone and visited some. It’s a big deal for the communities if they know you’re coming. They want to greet you and show that they are happy by having a celebration. And they are in the middle of nowhere, so the fact that they have something to celebrate isn’t at all bad. You get to meet all the members of the community and hear their stories. It can be emotional.
We have a little boy whom we adopted from Ethiopia. Two years after our first trip, we went back to Ethiopia to pick him up. The process was long and when it’s your first child you don’t know what to expect. We waited for three and a half years, but, in the end, everything worked out as it was meant to. He was three and a half months old when we brought him home. He was teeny tiny, weighing half what a Swedish baby weighs at that age, but now he’s a healthy, big five-year-old. We’re so happy. And our connection to Ethiopia has become even stronger.
This kept us thinking about ways to help the people and communities there. As entrepreneurs, we thought, ‘What if we could create a product that could finance the wells instead of always having to ask the same people, year after year, for money?’ We wanted something that could provide sustainable funding for clean, safe drinking water in countries like Ethiopia, while offering a quality, desirable product that consumers could buy knowing there was an added social value to their purchase. Think of Toms Shoes, for example.
The concept of DonandMerit started there. Then my husband, Joan Vinyets—who has a background in design, business anthropology and innovation—noticed how often men empty their pockets before sitting down at a table. First it’s the mobile phone, then the wallet and the keys. Especially in a warm climate where wearing a jacket isn’t always practical. That’s when Joan came up with a new dress shirt design that includes two pockets disguised as pleats.
We worked with Esaú Yori, a fashion designer, to work out the details, making a classic shirt with a modern twist that is both beautiful and practical. A phone and wallet, even a passport, can lie flat along the sides of the man’s torso, stored and unseen, adding just enough weight to pull the creases and wrinkles out of the shirt. It’s a comfortable, stylish solution to filling up your trousers. Since the pockets are protected under his arms, it’s also a great way to avoid pickpockets.
Our product isn’t just a shirt. It’s a concept, an innovative design that solves a problem and a philanthropy project. It’s a force for good in the world. Every customer can register his shirt to see the water project he contributed to. He receives the GPS coordinates of the well and a photo of the community that is provided with clean drinking water from that well. I can’t wait until we’ve sold our first 1,200 shirts—then we will have financed an entire well with the help of our customers and our collaboration with Charity Water.