We're here to highlight the best and brightest innovators in Asheville, North Carolina!
When I meet Hannah Davis at her favorite West Asheville coffee shop, I'm immediately struck by her uplifting energy and her youthfulness. Not yet 30, Hannah has already founded a successful business: BANGS Shoes.
Even if you're not familiar with BANGS, you'll still be familiar with the business model. BANGS creates simple canvas shoes that are awfully nice to look at, and they donate a portion of their profits to Kiva, a microfinance-oriented non-profit that funds projects internationally. Davis started BANGS with the vision of giving back: according to her, this vision came before the product itself. At the heart, BANGS is about connecting people to help them build something--helping to start a relationship with the end goal of financing a business.
The idea for the actual product came while she was teaching English in China, when she noticed the simple, clean style of a typical canvas shoe worn by workers. But Davis struggled to situate her altruistic tendencies in a business model.Source: Instagram
"I realized there was a difference between a consumer of a business and a donor to a charity," says Davis, "because the consumer wants a product that's good and well-made in the end, whereas the donor is more interested in the altruistic side of things, in giving money but not necessarily caring about having a good end product."
When she realized that difference, "I almost quit," she says. "Because what I was really interested in was how this was going to impact the people the money was going to. I had to start thinking more along the lines of a business. I had to create a great product."
Once she got over that hurdle, she figured out her primary (but by no means exclusive) audience: she would be speaking to people like herself, members of the much-misunderstood millennial generation. "Luxury for people our age isn't about having a lot of money in your wallet," she says. "It's about being able to travel." And what signifies globe-trekking more clearly than a pair of comfortable, stylish shoes that can take you places?
This approach not only applies to her customers, but also to her workforce. BANGS exists entirely online, and most everything from design to production is outsourced, which means people can work remotely, from pretty much anywhere with an internet connection. It's a new kind of business model that has been picking up steam for a generation that often prefers lifestyle and location to a guarantee of income from a 9-to-5 office environment.
It's also a model that Davis is always evolving. After a year in business she made the decision to move her shoes out of physical stores and onto the BANGS website, where all sales are now done, and business has been booming ever since.
For Davis, Asheville was just another part of this equation. She moved here from Bushwick in Brooklyn about a year and a half ago. "I appreciated the feeling that the amount of time you put into your job wasn't the most important things for people who live here," she said. "In NYC, people work until 10 pm and brag about it. They brag about staying and sleeping at work. Here, I got a lot of questions about things other than work, like, 'When did you last get outside?', 'What did you do when you were there?', 'What breweries have you been to?' It was such a different feel.
"BANGS is something I can take anywhere I want, and quality of life is super important," she says. "I love Asheville."
As with many things related to BANGS, it was luck--and her connections--that brought her to town. After searching unsuccessfully for three months for an apartment in Brooklyn, she found herself with no place to live and no strong ties to the area. Her sister had been living in Asheville and had just moved into a new apartment with a free bedroom on the west side of town. "It was perfect timing," she says.
Luck, fate, or timing--whatever it is, Davis refers to it when we're talking, and also in the TEDx talk she gave at Georgetown University. But it's more than just that--it's about her ability to think creatively in situations that might stump other people, something that seems to be a trait possessed by most young people who hit the job market during the last recession.
"The recession forced people to get creative," she says. " The reason all of this happened is because my parents told me my whole life that there was a trajectory: go to college, get the degree, get a graduate degree, get a job. And that would be it and I'd have my life. But when I was out of college I couldn't find work. My parents basically said, 'We were wrong; good luck.' So I decided to go to China and teach English. Of course money isn't everything, but I realized that I needed money and security to be able to pay rent. That's how this all started, because of the necessity of having to think outside the box rather than taking the path our parents told us we would walk."
Entrepreneurship is something that people think of as an inborn talent. Something that can't be learned, but that just is inherently part of a person. But Davis thinks differently.
"I am an entrepreneur and a business founder," she says, "but 'business' was not a word I particularly resonated with before starting BANGS. In fact, I had a strong reaction to the word 'business' and I didn't like it. I didn't see myself doing that. Instead, I came in with this vision and then was able to build the business from there.
"This generation has had to think really creatively, and that spirit of entrepreneurship is, in a way, a necessity. It's something we've had to cultivate in ourselves."
BANGS supports other entrepreneurs, not only through Kiva but also in their production. Their factory, located in Vietnam, was started by an entrepreneur.
"There's all these stereotypes when you hear about Asian factories," says Davis. "But the reality can be very different. Entrepreneurship transcends cultural boundaries, which means it also exists in Asia."
The BANGS Factory is very different place from most Vietnamese businesses. For starters, it's family owned. Hannah works with the son of the entrepreneur who started the factory group.
The BANGS Factory cares about their people and works to create the best working environment possible. For example, the Founder of the factory group BANGS works with really loves naps. "At one point when we were visiting, we came into the factory, and it was completely dark. And a woman there said, 'It's naptime.' The workers recieve an hour and a half lunch with a recommend nap. If that's not innovation, I don't know what is," says Davis.
For Davis, it always comes back to connection. "I'm much more interested in connection between people as the path to production and sales," she says. "The connection piece was there for me at the root of all of this. The spirit of entrepreneurship doesn't necessarily come from having a real head for business or automatically knowing exactly how to create a business or a brand. It is about being invested in human connection and seeing how that unfolds, and helping that unfold by creating a product that drives it."
If you're interested in being a part of what BANGS is up to, you can apply for their Ambassador program. Applications are now being accepted for spring 2017.
Follow BANGS on Instagram here.