The smell of Chinese takeout wafts through the air as Alex Torrey and his closest confidants of managers and interns gather around a single table in their open layout office space for a working lunch. Black scribbles fill whiteboard walls that decorate the space through lists of goals, charts and doodles, but even with the lack of color, nothing about this office is dull. It is a quiet sort of chaos that embodies the way Alex and his brother Jonathan run their T-shirt company, umano.
For Torrey, the path to social entrepreneurship was not clear-cut. He spent his time at the University of Georgia in the Terry College of Business experimenting with music business and finance, but he quickly realized he wasn’t in love with the “super lame wall street investment banker thing.” After learning more and more about what entrepreneurship, and more specifically social entrepreneurship, was he had an aha moment. He quickly realized he had always wanted to create something that added value to the world through his own ingenuity. He wanted to create a product that stands on its own but also serves a social purpose. Torrey and his brother, also a graduate of the Terry College of Business, quickly came together on a mission to become business owners. After much trial and tribulation, they returned home to Athens, GA in 2011 and umano was born.
Torrey believes the basis of social entrepreneurship is that “you don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well.” They built their company first and foremost around the idea of giving back to the community through their for-profit company. They decided to focus on encouraging art education for children living in poverty. Their parents are teachers so the Torrey’s have always had strong ties to the educational community. They wanted to take it a step further and feature the artwork from the kids they were engaging with, they just didn’t know in which way to incorporate it. After much consideration, they felt that T-shirts could portray the stories and the message in the best way. Upon deciding on a product and discovering the best methods to make the product, they had to decide on the best way to interact with these children. For every T-shirt sold, a backpack of school supplies is given to a child in need through events the brothers call ‘giving trips’. During the trips, the umano team interacts with the children, encouraging them to be as creative and artistic as they want. Alex really believes that the giving trips are the best part and make the entire experience worthwhile. The school supplies provided give the children hope and excitement about their future educations.
Even though the mission was set and the idea was powerful, starting a business from the ground up with little to no knowledge about clothing or what it takes to make it proved difficult. Alex and Jonathan moved in with their parents and rotated between sleeping on the twin bed and the air mattress in their shared bedroom. They were screen-printing every shirt in their parent’s garage until the city found out and Alex got sentenced to 6 months probation for essentially running a smalltime but illegal operation. “I begged Jonathan to let me go to jail. Just think about the publicity that would bring the company!” Alex jokingly states. Alex and Jonathan are so hands on they still make the trip down to Miami to pick up their inventory with a trailer hitched to their bumper. Alex doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and getting involved with every aspect of the production, from manufacturing to retail. He finds it difficult to give up control as the company continues to expand. He strives to make the customer experience perfect and wants to ensure that the social mission of the company is clear. However, with growth comes more work, so Alex has relied on his staff heavily to become an extension of himself.
Alex has made an impact on his staff and effectively creates a work environment that allows for freedom of expression. “The benefits of working for a small company are that you get to wear a lot of different hats,” says marketing manager Julia Skyes, better known around the office as Ju. The interns for umano came to a general consensus that Alex creates an office atmosphere consisting of open communication and respect amongst the staff. “He is definitely the reason behind our family and team vibe,” says intern Kendall Janis. Alex is a storyteller that inspires everyone around him with his passion to make the world a better place. Even those who are just fans of umano, such as sophomore marketing major Waynie Lee, can see the power behind Alex and umano. “Yes they have the goal of making money, but more importantly, they have the goal of giving back to underprivileged kids, which is a most admirable feat I would say,” says Lee. Alex truly impacts each and every person he meets or inspires through his mission.
For Torrey, the road to success has taken every ounce of drive, patience and energy he has, but he’s not done yet. Not even close. He started off as a youong entrepreneur and still lives by the mindset of “go out and earn your keep, earn everything.” Alex and the umano team are working every day to achieve their overall goal of giving away 10 million backpacks by 2020. Even through all the hardships, Alex can’t imagine doing anything else. When people ask him about his job he simply replies, “I don’t go to work; I go to umano.”
By Sydney Haymond