by Damie Choe
Sharing With A Purpose (SWAP) is a student-run nonprofit organization started through the Skandalaris Center’s StEP Program.
As a freshman with no prior business experience, Julia Ho embarked on her first entrepreneurial journey through Washington University’s Student Entrepreneurial Program (StEP). This program offers students the opportunity to own a business on campus. According to StEP program director Jessica Stanko, student entrepreneurs with compelling business ideas can get approved by StEP’s board of directors, and subsequently receive guidance and access to relevant programming opportunities. However, all StEP businesses remain wholly owned and operated by students — an aspect that makes it unique among other university entrepreneurship programs.
Together with three other students, Ho co-founded the Trading Post to increase sustainable practices within the WashU community. United by their passion for sustainability, Ho, Nancy Fang, Nathan Stein and Zachary Hernandez created a physical space on campus where members of the community could come together and form a new “green” culture. The Trading Post is an offshoot of a pre-existing campus organization called Sharing With a Purpose (SWAP) that was converted into a StEP business in 2012. SWAP collects items from students at the end of the academic year and sells those items to others during move-in day at the start of the following year. However, the owners of SWAP wanted to create a means through which such recycling could occur year-round.
The Trading Post, located on the South 40 at Washington University in St. Louis, is unlike most stores you’ll visit. On any given day, members of the WashU community pop in to browse the store’s eclectic selection of items. If you see something you need, or even just want, you can take it home with you at absolutely no cost. In a practice known as “free-cycling,” students take or leave items at the Trading Post to be repurposed rather than simply getting thrown away.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing, but what made it work was we all worked really well together and we all really cared about the vision.” said Ho. “It gave me a lot of good experience dealing with different people, and it sort of forced us to figure out how to create something new – something that didn’t already exist. Doing that gave me the knowledge and confidence to do the same thing following graduation.”
Ho’s experience with SWAP and the Trading Post has had an impact on her career and life. She is the founder of the Solidarity Economy St. Louis which operates on the four principles of justice, sustainability, self-determination, and cooperation — values that very much echo those of SWAP. In this role, she helps to build a network of businesses and individuals with the aim of creating a “solidarity economy” where just and sustainable systems help people meet their basic needs.
Students who create businesses from scratch through the StEP program have to sell their business shares to underclassmen their senior year. “Such students have the pleasure of seeing their business ideas implemented and become self-sustaining following their departure from WashU,” said Stanko. “Underclassmen who buy into existing businesses have a slightly different experience: They instead get the chance to be innovative by creating new marketing strategies and attracting new clients by expanding or diversifying products and services.”
Since its founding, SWAP has collaborated with a number of different organizations to expand and diversify its initiatives and services. The Trading Post has added a seamstress service making it even easier for clothes to be repurposed or repaired rather than discarded. SWAP also has teamed up with campus fashion magazine Armour to sell unique clothing at the DUC in an initiative they call WUpcycle.
Eva Blumenfeld, Director of Marketing and External Relations at SWAP, says they get a ton of damaged clothes that nobody wants. But even these items don’t go to waste. “There are amazingly talented freshmen in the Sam Fox fashion program who don’t get to design anything until their sophomore year,” she said. “This is their chance to get experience by creating clothes and selling them at flash sales.” Collaborative and mutually-beneficial initiatives like these are common at SWAP.
Underclassmen can “buy in” to StEP businesses with the help of the Skandalaris Center, which offers loans up to $10,000 to do so. But because of SWAP’s status as a nonprofit, underclassmen don’t have to buy into the business: Instead, SWAP leadership selects its next owners from involved underclassmen.
Inspired to join the organization as a first-year student at WashU, Eva Blumenfeld “aggressively attended meetings” and has since become Director of Marketing and External Relations at SWAP. Since joining SWAP, Blumenfeld has developed an internship system where the pathway to rising in the ranks much more clear-cut. “It’s important to find strong people to follow you who will help to foster a positive community after you’ve left,” said Blumenfeld. She holds the current interns in high regard. “The six of them are becoming incredible leaders in this community, and they are undoubtedly the future of the organization.”
“If you are passionate about a project, you can get funding for it on this campus. And that’s not something enough students explore or know during their four years here,” says Blumenfeld. Working in a small business like the Trading Post has opened her eyes to the exciting nature of startups. “You can move and shape it how you want while still pushing the core message of sustainability.”
When asked about her most meaningful experience as part of the Trading Post, Blumenfeld says it’s when she sees regular customers who depend on them. She recalls how one international student can only bring one suitcase with her for the entire academic year. “She supplements half of her wardrobe through SWAP and feels good because she can donate it back, she doesn’t spend any money, and it’s so sustainable,” said Blumenfeld.
“If you are passionate about a project,
you can get funding for it on this campus.
And that’s not something enough students explore
or know during their four years here.”
A particularly exciting SWAP initiative came to fruition towards the end of March. WashU officially joined a collective of universities as a part of The Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). Started at the University of New Hampshire, PLAN unites sustainability organizations, such as SWAP, from different universities to engage in an international conversation about no-waste in academia. PLAN tours the country with speakers, workshops and panels with the aim of informing students about how to reduce waste in their communities. With WashU joining their ranks this spring, PLAN’s Points of Interventions Tour will help to increase awareness of WashU’s sustainability initiatives on campus.
SWAP has become an established presence at WashU. They have diverted over 20 tons of material from landfills and have engaged over 7,000 WashU community members. With its cool and sustainable initiatives and team of dedicated staff, SWAP is clearly in it for the long haul.