In the first Elmore Leadership Talk of the year, Country School students heard from Andrew Epprecht '13, a sock entrepreneur who launched his company as a 15-year-old high school student. A recent graduate of the Hotchkiss School, Andrew is on a gap year before enrolling at Duke University next fall. He was kind enough to fit in a visit to The Country School before taking off for Italy, where he will spend a few months studying Italian and working on his business.
Following an introduction by his former Country School advisor, Dean of Student Life Beth Coyne, Andrew told students he looked forward to "telling a little bit about my story - how I started the company, how it kind-of failed, and what I learned from that."
Andrew said he's always been interested in fashion and always wanted to start a business. So, when he was 14, he began thinking about what he might be able to contribute, and he kept coming back to socks. "I had a mission of keeping socks colorful and bold - there are too many boring socks in the world," he said. "Colorful socks are always good and they lighten up everyone's day."
After researching the field, he launched what was initially called Noble Stitch the summer before his junior year in high school, using a Kickstarter campaign to get started and then crowd-sourcing designs from across the globe (he even had a design submitted from Cambodia). He found a manufacturer in China who would make his bamboo-fiber socks and began marketing and distributing through online orders and also at local stores.
As he told students, though, his plan wasn't perfect and he discovered it was hard to effectively market his socks, especially as a full-time student who was involved in lots of extracurriculars, including varsity soccer and tennis, and who was also applying to college. So he decided to switch course, inviting some friends to join him and making use of their wide range of expertise. He also changed the company's focus. Realizing that schools like Hotchkiss are always looking for ways to show school spirit and reconnect with alumni, he and his colleagues began reaching out to prep schools and colleges to see if there might be a market for a school-specific sock. From that idea sprang the new incarnation of his company, Our Sock.
Andrew, who came to campus sporting his Hotchkiss socks, invites schools to come up with their own designs or works with them to find an appropriate design based on the school's logo, colors, and branding. So far his customer list includes secondary schools such as Cardigan Mountain, Blair Academy, St. Mark's, and Hotchkiss, and colleges including Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, Claremont McKenna, the University of Chicago, and Hamilton, with more in the pipeline.
Based on feedback from Andrew's talk, there will soon be an elementary school added to the mix! Students were eager to work with the template to design a Country School sock. Templates are being distributed through classroom teachers or advisers, and from those submissions, Head of School John Fixx said, a winning design will be selected. Once the design is finalized, production should take about two months.
Below, the socks Andrew and oursock.com developed for Hotchkiss.
Students listen, templates in hand.
In addition to what will ultimately be a Country School sock, there were a few other takeaways from Andrew's Elmore Leadership talk.
From Mr. Fixx: "Part of the lesson we want you to understand is that it's not always easy being a leader and it's not always easy being an entrepreneur. When you struggle at school with a test grade that's lower than what you want, that's preparing you for what Andrew's had to go through. Moving forward, sometimes with sad emotions, is what happens in life. It's how you respond to those setbacks. Lean into the setbacks - that's what you've heard today."
Dean of Student Life Beth Coyne talked about another lesson. Sharing a story about working with Andrew, her advisee back in the day, she described how 7th Graders wanted to do a fundraiser for cancer research. She and other advisors thought a walk to raise money might be a good idea, but Andrew had a different plan.
"He was like, 'Nope it has to be a bike ride,'" she recalled. "We looked at Andrew, and he said, 'This is how we can do it.'" And then he outlined a plan and he and his friends planned the ride, lined up sponsors, engaged participants, and even made a short film about it. In the end, they raised $4,000 for Smilow Cancer Hospital.
"When Andrew was a student here, he never thought there was something we couldn't do," Mrs. Coyne said. "If you have an idea to do something, never think you can't do it There are going to be obstacles in the way, but never give up."
And then there was one final lesson she wanted students to take note of. "Sometimes if you cooperate with others it will get easier," Mrs. Coyne said, referring to the way Andrew discovered his work would be more effective if he worked with others, pooling all of their unique talents.
The Elmore Leadership Program, one of The Country School's signature programs, was designed to develop students into civic-minded citizens who will become tomorrow's leaders, practicing our Country School core values of kindness, respect, and responsibility. In addition to a series of activities, programs, and experiences, Elmore Leadership exposes students to outside speakers, who share stories about their own experiences confronting challenges or making difficult decisions. Andrew is the third Country School alum to speak through Elmore. Previous speakers include Ari Mannan '03, a digital health entrepreneur working to improve care for our nation's neediest patients, and Tara Maloney '13, who shared lessons from her experience at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C.
For more about Elmore Leadership at The Country School, go to http://www.thecountryschool.org/signature.../elmore-leadership. To learn more about Andrew's business, visit http://www.oursock.com/.
Scroll down for more photos of Andrew and students, who asked great questions after the conclusion of Andrew's speech. A few samples:
"If you own a sock business, what are you going to study in college?" The answer: "Computer Science with a certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship."
"Do you think you'll end up doing more business?" The answer: "Yes, definitely. I'm just going to stay away from pens and pencils but anything that's a unique fit idea."
Thank you, Andrew, for returning to The Country School to share your experiences with students. Thanks, too, for helping us arrive at a super cool, wholly unique Country School sock. Stay tuned!