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Harnessing the Web for Haiti

By Lisa M. Collins

Paul Johnson and Elizabeth Brown of Dumbo's StudioE9 use Facebook and Twitter for Haiti and charity.
Photo by Joshua Kristal

On Jan. 12, 2010, a social-media guru from Dumbo was packing her clothes and heading to Sundance Film Festival when the magnitude 7.0 quake hit Haiti.

At Sundance, Elizabeth Brown was set to debut a new charity—Blanket America—that intends to hand-deliver blankets and hugs to every low-income adult and child that needs one. Brown has a child of her own, nearly two-years-old then, as well as a hot web design, marketing and development firm, StudioE9, that she runs with her husband. Her hands were full.

But the Haiti disaster broke her heart. The quake and its 52 aftershocks killed 230,000 and left 1 million homeless.

Brown had been to Haiti once, and was almost killed. She felt she had to return.

Brown grew up in Maine and studied anthropology and art. While at Columbia University, she attended an alternative spring break program in Haiti. An anthropologist was supposed to take the students to tour a slum. But the professor didn’t show up for the excursion. Next thing she knew, Brown said, a group of irate villagers ran off to get knives, while others threw stones at the students.

“I was almost killed. It was very traumatic,” Brown said. It turns out a group of doctors had visited the village earlier and promised to bring back medicine, but never showed up. Brown and her fellow students were the next Americans to arrive. The villagers were incensed.

“I left feeling unresolved and unsatisfied,” Brown said.

Instead of vowing never to return, Brown headed back after the quake to survey the scene with her partner in Blanket America, a linens executive, Mesh Gelman. Blanket America gave 80,000 sheets to the relief effort. Brown and Gelman wanted to do more.

In April, they launched Choose Haiti, and began to promote the effort on Facebook.

With Choose Haiti, as with Blanket America, Brown utilizes StudioE9’s savvy to harness the power of Facebook and Twitter to promote charitable work. For every person who uploads a photo to the Choose Haiti Facebook Page, the organization provides a blanket to the homeless in Haiti.

Within a week, Choose Haiti attracted more than 22,000 Facebook fans. As of December, the online effort created 1,000 jobs in Haitian tent camps, and had enlisted the support of former President Bill Clinton.

Here’s how the project works: Blanket America/Choose Haiti buys, in bulk, collected recyclable bottles from Haitians in the camps, and pays workers to sanitize the bottles and turn them into stylish bracelets. The bracelets are based on a design by a Haitian artist that incorporates paper mache images from Haitian newspapers.

As of early January, Choose Haiti has sold 250,000 bracelets, online and in stores, including Forever 21 and Ladies Foot Locker, for $10 apiece. For each bracelet sold, $1 goes toward rebuilding a factory in Haiti for the future production of Blanket America quilts and blankets; $1 to a job training center in Haiti; $2 to production; and $3 for shipping and handling (bracelet buyers get free shipping.)

Choose Haiti T-shirts are produced in Port-au-Prince.

The project now has 68,000 Facebook fans, and has been featured on CNN, BBC, NPR and elsewhere.

Brown says turning trash into art is “symbolic of the Haitians’ brilliance and an ability to reinvent themselves.”

Actor Kevin Bacon’s charitable effort, SixDegrees, supported Choose Haiti over the holidays. In a recent Time Magazine article, Bacon said, “If a person can spend a few dollars on a bracelet and know that they helped someone get off their feet, that’s a really cool idea. And a powerful one.”

The Clinton Foundation was instrumental in helping Choose Haiti, Brown said. The foundation hooked up Brown and Gelman with partners in Haiti, including World Vision, which oversees the production of the bracelets and pays the salaries.

“The Clinton Foundation played a huge role. That is their best value, the way they can make appropriate connections for people.”

And now, Harvard Business School is helping Choose Haiti by analyzing its business plan.

“Our goal is to sell one million bracelets this year. That should create 4,000 jobs,” Brown said.

Snowed-in

I talked with the South Brooklyn phenom the day after the blizzard.

How do you do it all, two charities, your own business and a toddler? I ask Brown.

“I drink a lot of coffee and I don’t sleep. I really don’t,” says Brown.

Indeed. Brown’s Dumbo-based company, StudioE9, builds websites, games, Facebook  and iPhone applications and handles all manner of marketing and advertising through social mediums Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, StudioE9 built a Facebook application, called viral loop, that went, well, viral when it launched in 2009, and was used by the likes of NBC to determine the monetary value of online campaigns and individual users.

Gelman hired StudioE9 to build a Facebook app that would allow donors to track where blankets were donated in states across the country.

Gelman is a partner at Extreme Linen, a major linen supplier to retailers including Macys, Target and Sears. He launched Blanket America because he wanted to do something charitable with his time, he said. For every blanket bought from Blanket America, one is donated to a person in need in the United States, as part of his “Buy One, Give One” program. So far, blanket drives have taken place in Brooklyn, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and Oklahoma, and 50,000 blankets have been donated.

Brown and her husband, Paul Johnson, were so passionate in their work for Blanket America that Gelman took Brown on as a partner. She handles brand development, messaging, product design and social media. Blanket America now has 157,000 Facebook friends.

America is at the edge of a new movement, Brown says, in which consumers use their buying power to donate to good causes.

Gelman’s concept of “Buy One, Give One,” for Blanket America plays into the best and worst of what America is all about, Brown says.

“I think similar to what you saw with the recycling movement, we are about to see the same thing, an ethical-consumer movement. It’s exciting to be part of that change, that paradigm shift in the way people consume,” Brown says. “We’re not really asking consumers to change their habits. America is a culture of consuming, and greed. But it’s also a community of giving and good. Buy One, Give One is a way to tap into both,” Brown says.

“We’re not asking people to stop consuming. We’re asking them to use consumption for good.”

Blanket America works with Gifts in Kind International (GIK) to ensure distribution to the needy. Forbes and Charity Navigator rank GIK as one of the nation’s best-managed charities.

And, when a factory is ready in Haiti, Gelman plans to move Blanket America’s textile production from China to Haiti. According to an article in Time Magazine, Gap is also planning to roll out a made-in-Haiti line, has already created more than 4,000 Haitian textile jobs, and may set up special Haiti sections in some stores.

I ask Gelman what his inspiration was for Blanket America, and for it’s Haiti extension.

“I had an internal thing pulling at me,” Gelman says, from his office in midtown Manhattan. “There’s nothing like the joy of giving.”

With Blanket America, all the blankets are hand-delivered, and the experience can be powerful, Gelman said.

“It’s unspoken, written in faces, a look of surprise, like, ‘Hey, you came all the way here to give me a blanket. Cool.’”

The need for blankets in the United States right now is high, Gelman said. It’s cold, unemployment is at an all-time high, and warming a house is expensive. One charity that works with Blanket America provides services to needy children in eight cities across the country. The organization asked for 400,000 blankets, Gelman said.

“And that’s just one organization that reached out to us,” Gelman said. “These are not just homeless people. It’s children in need, families. When it comes to people who don’t have what we have, they have survival skills. They have utilitarian needs. They need a blanket, and they want it to be warm.”

 

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