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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Midd Alumna Wins Harvard Pitch Contest

On Feb. 10, Sword & Plough, a company founded by recent Middlebury graduate Emily Núñez ’12, won first place and the audience choice award in the Harvard Pitch for Change competition. The competition welcomes contestants who present ideas promoting the creation of social value. Sword & Plough aims to increase veteran employment and civil-military understanding while reducing waste by offering bags crafted of surplus military materials.

An officer in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Branch, Núñez is co-founder and chief executive officer of Sword & Plough. The company was named after the ancient saying “to turn swords into ploughshares,” meaning to move from the battle field to the civilian realm. In the contest, hosted by the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Sword & Plough competed against other social entrepreneurs to give a winning elevator pitch for their idea or project.

“Just getting to spend the day with all these other social entrepreneurs with awesome ideas for social innovation and change was incredibly inspiring,” said Núñez.

“There were over 100 submissions, including students and alums from MIT, Harvard Business School – it was very intense competition and they won both awards,” said Director of Environmental Studies, Faculty Director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Professor of Economics Jonathan Isham. “Emily is just moving at this amazing pace and succeeding left, right and center.”

Isham also sits on the board of advisors for Sword & Plough.

Núñez said the idea for Sword & Plough was born last January while listening to the keynote speech by Jacqueline Novogratz during the first Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship Symposium, but was also influenced by her own experience growing up in a military family.

“A lot of the time military surplus material is burned or buried if no one does anything with it,” said Núñez. “So it was that night that I thought, ‘What if we were to take this material and turn it into something beautiful that someone would want to buy?’”

A central goal of Sword & Plough is to improve awareness of veterans’ issues.

“While I was at Middlebury, my friends were always so supportive of my efforts with Army ROTC and my future service in the military but sometimes it was really hard to relate [to] what I was doing or certain concepts just because they hadn’t met many people who were in the military before,” said Núñez. “So I thought, well, everyone uses a bag of some sort throughout their day; what if we could take this surplus material and turn it into something beautiful and desirable with a story behind it that could reach people like students at Middlebury or young urban professionals?”

Sword & Plough has since partnered with Green Vets LA, a nonprofit started by U.S. Army Reserve Major Jim Cragg where veterans, injured and non-injured, are employed to sew reusable bags.

“[Green Vets LA] started as a form of therapy for these wounded veterans to have conversations together but also make something,” said Núñez. “They started out by making first-aid bags for Special Forces units so it felt like they were still part of the fight and still part of the service in a way – I started talking to [Cragg] and he thought this could be a great partnership.”

Sword & Plough has designed and produced five prototype products, including a messenger bag and tote bag and is planning a fundraising campaign through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, starting around March 15.

Núñez cited the support of the Middlebury community as essential to the company’s launch.

“Sword & Plough would be nowhere close to where it is today without the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, MiddChallenge, [Project on Innovation in the Liberal Arts Director] Liz Robinson and [Isham] and everyone who supports those opportunities at Middlebury,” said Núñez. “Two weeks after I thought of the idea after listening to [Novogratz] at the symposium last January, I competed in the MiddChallenge competition and we won first place there, and that was another huge opportunity through Middlebury that gave us additional confidence and funding to help us move forward.”

Núñez met Dr. Charles MacCormack, former president and CEO of Save the Children, and Susan Ross, former president and CEO of the Fairfield County Community Foundation, through the Center for Social Entrepreneurship – both now sit on the Sword & Plough Board of Advisors.

Isham emphasized that one of the most important roles faculty can play is encouraging students like Núñez to pursue innovative projects.

“You need to provide space for the students to pursue creative ideas and this is a great example of what happens when you do that,” said Isham.

When asked if she had any advice for current Middlebury students hoping to start social enterprise projects of their own, Núñez said having a strong team that works together is important.

“Having friends who are supportive of you is so important, especially in the beginning,” said Núñez. “You can’t do it alone, and I couldn’t do it alone.”

“The Sword & Plough team has grown quite a bit from last January and finding team members who are really skilled in areas where you’re not has made Sword & Plough progress so quickly,” said Núñez.

She also said that time management is key.

“I know Middlebury students are already incredibly busy...but being as organized as you can with your time is very helpful,” said Núñez. “But with that, also be sure to set time aside and dedicate it purely for friendship and the people that are close to you because Sword & Plough wouldn’t exist if I didn’t have the friends and family that I do.”

Despite being an active-duty military officer, Núñez said, “There’s never really a day where I feel like I’m too tired to work on Sword & Plough and I think that’s because I believe in its mission so much and I’m inspired by the progress we’ve already made.”