In light of the launch of our Koreatown Market Bag, we spoke with neighbor and collaborator Shea Parton, co-founder of the inspiring and philanthropic Apolis. Apolis was founded in 2004 by brothers Raan and Shea with the simple idea that business can create social change. Some serious dedication and about ten years later, Apolis has impacted economies in countries as widespread as Uganda and Peru, while at the same time building on the community in their home base of Los Angeles. Shea conducted an interview with Poketo for Style.com, and now we get the inside scoop on Apolis.
How did Apolis come to be?
My brother and I grew up in Santa Barbara, CA, and our parents knew we would never appreciate how amazing of a community Santa Barbara is, so from an early age we followed our parents’ heart for the non-profit world and traveled across the globe learning about on the ground non-profit work. Throughout our travels, we realized that despite cultural differences, whether language, currency, or even plug outlets, we were mostly blown away by all of the similarities—everyone has the same desire to laugh, learn, and provide for their family. Growing up our parents pounded into us the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We discovered that there are plenty of well-trained fisherman in developing economies, but they often don’t have proper bait or a big enough pond. We saw an opportunity to co-design products with communities and cooperatives and bring these products to a wider audience and a stronger market. From an early age, my brother and I knew that we wanted to have a business together. It could have been anything, but textile and manufacturing companies are really the first step on the ladder of development within developing economies. We started with t-shirts in high school, and we came to Los Angeles in 2007 to focus on the brand full time.
Apolis stands apart from other lifestyle brands for it’s commitment to global advocacy. What does it mean to be a “socially motivated” brand?
It all falls under the certification that we received about two years ago called B Corp. There’s a similar certification in the architecture community called LEED certification. We came across B Corp through Patagonia being the first B Corp in California. The B stands for “benefit”, and refers to benefiting workers, the community, and the environment. I think in many ways it’s used as more of a marketing term, but we wanted it to be something that we could really get behind.
What inspired you to start the Market Bag series, which now includes over 74 partners in 8 countries and supports employment for 21 women in Bangladesh?
Raan does everything creative and I handle the business side, and if it was up to me the Market Bag would have never happened. Raan was like, ‘This is such a great product and it has so much potential’, and I was like ‘We’re in the men’s business, it seems like such a distraction.’ But Raan insisted that it had potential, so we went with it. Now, over 40,000 market bags have been made, the production of which has employed over 21 women for over a year. It’s very incremental as far as impact, but it’s a lot bigger than it looks on paper. We started with a test order of 50 units, and now it’s become something that we couldn’t have even dreamed of.
Why did you choose Bangladesh to produce the Market Bag?
There’s an incredible history of jute fiber in Bangladesh that has created a ton of industry. It has become a staple as far as textiles go. We saw this jute fiber tote being made in Bangladesh and we were like ‘Hey, let’s keep the shape and basic idea, but add a couple of details to it to make it more our brand.’ Really, the sense of potential came when we were able to connect the local market to more of a global purpose. We had the idea to give our retail partners exclusive distribution of the bag, so we support the local market, but connect everyone to the matrix of what it means to employ these women in Bangladesh.
Tell us about your outpost in Tokyo.
We believe that opening additional stores is going to be through first learning regional markets. For the short term, we decided to do a traveling, temporary installation called Nomad Market inside of our retail partners’ shops. The installation features the Apolis collection and uses an iPad to showcase our films and a little photo gallery that gives us an overview of each country that we work in. The goal is to bring our global products and stories to a local audience within a very intimate installation that is currently located at the Journal Standard in Tokyo.
Describe the Apolis customer in three words.
Global, Thoughtful, Timeless
You’ve developed projects in Bangladesh, Uganda, India, Peru, Honduras, and the Middle East. Where do you intend to impact next?
Our hopes as far as what’s next is very relational. Our hearts hurt for the people in Korea, but we’re not reading the news and saying ‘Hey, let’s go there’. We ultimately need someone on the ground that we trust. We have built off of the philosophy that each transaction builds trust, and that’s what we’ve found to be true throughout our Middle East cross-border collaboration. These countries are arguably in the midst of the most intense conflict in the world, and they are talking about how their leaders are claiming progress but nothing is really happening. Advocacy through industry isn’t about rethinking the world, it’s about using commerce to bridge a lot of these issues . As far as the future, it’s mostly about sustaining and growing what we are already doing, and being thankful for the stories that drop in our lap. In any given month we’ll receive about fifty opportunities, and only one of those actually goes to the next level because there are so many things that are hard to sort logistically.
Clearly, you are a well traveled bunch. Where do you escape to when you need a break from it all?
We love spending time with family. My wife’s family is from Southern Oregon, Raan’s wife’s family is from Colorado, and our family is from Santa Barbara, so any of these places are go-to’s.
Interview by Chantal Chadwick