CMC Senior's T-Shirt Company Wins Kravis Concept Prize

Just four months after its initial launch, Serengetee—a t-shirt company started by CMC rising senior Jeff Steitz—has already made $10,000. The company, which Steitz conceived while abroad on Semester at Sea, is a blend of charity and small business venture.

Serengetee’s t-shirts and tanks, which can be purchased for $22 through the company’s website, come in eight basic styles. Each shirt has a pocket, which customers can customize by choosing from a list of 65 fabrics from around the world. But what makes Serengetee unique, said Steitz, is its charitable side. For every tee or tank that customers purchase, Serengetee donates 50 percent of its proceeds to the country from which the fabric came.

The company’s success has caught the attention of college newspapers around the country. But it has won more than just accolades. This spring, Serengetee received first place and a $4,500 cash prize at the 22nd Annual Henry R. Kravis Concept Plan Competition and a $500 People’s Choice Award.

Steitz and his partners officially began working on Serengetee in January, but the idea for the company sprouted much earlier. Steitz said he was inspired by fabrics he found in local markets while he was on Semester at Sea, a study abroad program where students spend five months sailing around the world. Shortly after he visited Ghana in September, those fabrics gave him an idea.

“I had the idea that you could take these fabrics and incorporate them into something simple,” said Steitz. “Our goal was to connect the customer to these different countries through the fabric.”

Steitz said he’d attempted other ventures in the past, but that this was the first one that “clicked.” “Other ideas, you’ll be obsessed with them for a week or two, then they’ll kind of taper off, but this one didn’t,” Steitz said.

He began talking with other students on the program about his idea of starting a company that incorporated fabrics from around the world into a simple clothing line. He found support from Claremont College students who model tanks on Serengetee's website.

University of Arizona senior Ryan Westberg, Providence College senior Nate Holterman, and St. Lawrence University senior Alex Arifi also help run the organization.

Once back in the United States, Steitz, Arifi, and Holterman returned to their respective campuses, but they continued collaborating on the company, deciding to operate it from California.

Steitz recruited Thomas Carey (HM '13) to develop Serengetee’s website, and Serengetee teamed up with other Claremont College students—Emmy Perez (SCR ’13), Madeleine Busacca (CMC ’13), Allie Jones (SCR ’13) and Sean Yen (PZ ’12). Then they filed their LLC—the paperwork that allows them to operate as a company—and started the trademark process for their name, logo, and slogan, “Wear the World.”

Finally, on February 17, Serengetee’s website went up. Just one month later, they had already sold 300 shirts.

Steitz still remembers the early days of filling t-shirt orders. Partners worked from Steitz’s College Park apartment to cut material, pin it to a black or white t-shirt or tank and then take the shirts to a tailor in Pomona. Soon, the single tailor couldn’t keep up with the orders, and Steitz had to look for more help.

Steitz attributes part of the company’s early success to its Facebook page, which received 1,000 likes in the first four days of going live and now averages between 4,000 and 5,000 unique hits a day. In that first week, Serengetee offered a promotional two-for-one t-shirt deal. In order to receive the promotion, participants had to change their profile picture to Serengetee’s logo for one week and write three posts about Serengetee in that same time period.

But Steitz also attributes the company’s early success to Serengetee’s charitable business model.

For each $22 shirt Serengetee sells, it donates 50 percent of the profit to the country the fabric for the shirt pocket came from. Twenty-five percent of the profit goes toward microfinance loans that support local business, and the other 25 percent goes directly to nonprofits and charities that work in the country.

Steitz says that Serengetee’s charitable mission makes it popular with college students.

“I’ve found that college students are very generous if you give them the chance,” Steitz says.

That charitable mission has also helped to market the company.

But Steitz isn’t just worried about promoting Serengetee’s image. “Personally, I care a lot about helping these communities around the globe. It’s really important to me to give back,” he says. “You can still make a lot of money and do great things in the world. I feel like there’s often this idea that you can’t do both at the same time.”

People often compare the small company to Tom’s because of both companies’ charitable missions, said Steitz. But although he said he admires Tom’s, he emphasizes that Serengetee’s mission is different.

“One in four people [in South Africa] has AIDS. Tom’s can give back as many shoes as they want, (but) they’re not going to solve the AIDS epidemic problem with shoes.”

Steitz says he and his partners are preparing for the next phase of developing the company: getting the clothing line placed in retail stores. This summer, Steitz, Holterman, Arifi, and Westberg are living in New York and marketing Serengetee to stores ranging from small boutiques to retail giants like Nordstrom.

What’s the key to his success? Lots of people have good ideas, Steitz said. But he actually went out and did his.