Business launched in Harrisburg helps the homeless
Two fashion entrepreneurs originally from India and Erie have chosen Harrisburg to launch an online business that will donate to the homeless as part of its business model.
KNO Clothing sells T-shirts and other clothing. Each time someone purchases an item from the business, KNO Clothing will donate an item of clothing to the homeless, co-owner Anthony Thomas said. Thomas, originally from India, lives in New York, and business partner Stephen Caldwell lives in Philadelphia. They chose to launch the philanthropic fashion endeavor in Harrisburg because it is near their alma mater, Cumberland County-based Messiah College.
Stephen Caldwell, left, and Anthony Thomas co-founded KNO Clothing, an online apparel company with a philanthropic mission. On Dec. 3, they partnered with Bethesda Mission’s Mobile Mission in Harrisburg to donate and distribute new socks. Photo/Amy Spangler
Harrisburg’s size compared with the cities where they live also makes it a good test site, Thomas said. The proprietors can better monitor the business to see what works and what does not because of the smaller scale. The company held a launch party for KNO Clothing on Saturday at Passage to India in downtown Harrisburg and participated Dec. 3 in the Harrisburg-based Bethesda Mission’s Mobile Mission outreach to the homeless. KNO Clothing also will donate a portion of its profits to charity, Thomas said. It plans to cut a check to Bethesda each fiscal quarter, with the amount depending on how good business has been, he said. Thomas was born and raised in Kerala, India. His family was not overly affluent, but they were upper middle class for India, where many people live in poverty, he said.
At Christmas time, the issue of homelessness is a popular one to combat, Thomas said. This business and its philanthropic nature are a way to help combat it all year long, Thomas said. Some of the business remains a work in progress, Caldwell said. He and Thomas are seeking a partner to help with wholesale prices on clothing such as hats, gloves and socks for their item-for-item donations in winter, he said. The business purchased socks for the homeless in Harrisburg for their first donation Dec. 3, Thomas said. KNO Clothing will purchase and then donate new items because it helps with the recipients’ sense of dignity, Thomas said. Often, when they receive donated items, they are used, he said.
Caldwell and Thomas have known each other since freshman year at Messiah and have shared an interest in fashion. They talked about starting a business and helping people, Caldwell said. But the two never talked about the idea much with others while they were at Upper Allen Township-based Messiah. At the time, it was such a fleeting dream, Thomas said. KNO Clothing will start marketing its products heavily through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Also, because of its philanthropic aspects, the co-owners try to get speaking engagements to promote the company, Thomas said. Eventually, they will look to purchase more traditional advertising, such as print media, and are open to having retailer feature the products, he said.
KNO Clothing is partnering with Bethesda to distribute the donated clothing items to local homeless people. The mission operates shelters and outreach operations for the homeless in the Harrisburg area. Bethesda and other organizations across the country already do good work, Thomas said. “We do not want to recreate it. We want to work with the experts.” There was some skepticism when the two entrepreneurs first approached Bethesda Mission with their ideas, Executive Director Chuck Wingate said. He worked for many years in business development, including in Asia for Amp Inc., before coming to Bethesda about five years ago.
But after meeting with the two men and hearing their plans, he said, he found them to be young, savvy people who really want to do something with impact.
“They are idealistic, to be sure, but they are not naïve,” Wingate said. And they wanted a more detailed view of what Bethesda knows about homelessness and homeless people so they could take action in a smarter way, he said. Strong, intelligent efforts are needed to help the homeless in Harrisburg, Wingate said. Wingate also was the first general manager for Amp Tools India Pvt. Ltd. in Thomas’s home state of Kerala, so the two shared an immediate connection, he said. From a business perspective, the two seem to have a good strategy, Wingate said. Selling through the Internet helps to keep overhead costs low. Over the long term, they will have to keep designing relevant products that people want to buy. “These guys have done enough homework to be credible,” Wingate said.
The business model and the specific plans to help the homeless have developed over the past year, Caldwell said. Caldwell said he walks by numerous homeless people each day in Philadelphia, where he is an investment banker, and it has had an effect on him.
“You want to do something more than handing them a $5 bill,” Caldwell said. “You want to help these people.” Wingate has been instrumental as an adviser in the process, offering business advice, Caldwell said. And he allowed the duo to meet with the homeless at Bethesda’s shelters, he said.
“It helped reinforce our mission,” Caldwell said.