December 14, 2015
Cornering the Market on Kindness
Entrepreneurs Forge a Humane Economy
Barely two years into her first job out of college, Kanchan Singh takes time off to see the elephants. She has a business degree from the University of Maryland at College Park and a position as a senior analyst with a leading consulting firm. But she is feeling restless, like there has to be something more.
“Eventually you realize that you’re not really living with a purpose,” she says. So in September 2014 she gets on a plane, like the ones that have carried her around the world for her job. But this time she heads to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and then on to an elephant sanctuary in the north of the country. An animal lover, she reasons the two-week vacation might give her the perspective she needs to figure out her future. Maybe she can revive that part of herself that made her active in her high school’s animal welfare club and led her to start a similar group in college.
The days with the elephants come and go, and soon Singh is back in the city of Chiang Mai, no closer to an answer. On the last day of her trip, though, as she prepares to fly home to Washington, D.C., fellow travelers offer to take her out to celebrate her 24th birthday. Their choice of venue will prove momentous: It is a curious type of restaurant Singh has never heard of before—a “cat café,” where people sip coffee in the company of felines. As she surveys the interior of “Catmosphere,” which has opened just the month before, Singh, who has five cats of her own, is charmed by the way the café cats move above and below the people in a space built just for them, with no restrictions on their freedom, approaching visitors, if the mood suits them, to rub up against a human pair of legs.
Singh is inspired. Suddenly, she knows what she will do next (and it will mean leaving her job).
Businesses get rewarded in the marketplace because they’re doing the right thing.”
- Cheryl Kiser, the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College
During her last weeks as an analyst, Singh draws up a plan and contacts the Washington Humane Society. In Asia, where stray cats are common and adoption is not, cat café animals are resident. But Singh envisions that her business, Crumbs & Whiskers, will follow the model of other nascent U.S. cat cafés and adopt out the animals, giving the Washington Humane Society another way to get adult cats into homes.
Singh does not have any capital beyond her own modest savings. She does not have a location. She does not have approval from the necessary city agencies or the support of her parents, with whom she lives in nearby Maryland. However, in November 2014, feeling the need to gauge interest, she announces to the D.C. metro area that it will soon get its very own cat café, similar to the one that has just opened in Oakland, California.
Singh creates a Facebook page and a Twitter account and invites anyone who is interested in the café to sign up for the “Gentlemeow’s Club,” a mailing list offering early supporters news and perks. A couple thousand people email her. Almost instantly, she has a following and lots of press. D.C., or at least the cat-loving segment of the capital region, is abuzz.
Soon Singh launches a website with a blog and starts preparing for a Kickstarter appeal in March, the month she will sever her last ties with the consulting firm. It is the moment of commitment to a risky venture. “I’m betting everything I have on the DC cat café,” she emails her supporters. “Time, money and my career.”
Entrepreneurs have always made such commitments. They give their hearts, their imaginations, their savings and lives and waking hours for the foreseeable future, to ideas that might work or might not. More and more, they, like Singh, are also giving themselves to a vision of a better world for animals. Call them humane entrepreneurs. Beyond the hope of eventually turning a profit, beyond a desire to be their own boss or create something from nothing, they’re motivated by the possibility and the excitement of changing the world, at least in a small way, on the particular block or in the particular community where they plant their business. That sincere motivation resonates with the public, drawing crowdfunding and customers, making success more likely.
As Singh is preparing to launch her business in D.C., a TV journalist in the same city is establishing a website for humane cosmetics, and a Brooklyn chef-turned-counselor, who had volunteered to be laid off from a halfway house for street kids, is setting up her tent here and there to sell a new type of vegan hot dog.
Increasingly, animal-friendly business models, small and large, are emerging from the private sector. While The HSUS works with corporate leaders in the fashion, cosmetics and food industries on advances such as McDonald’s cage-free egg policy, individuals are seizing opportunities to create more humane economies in their own communities.
At Babson College, a business school outside Boston, experts call it “social innovation.” Companies are changing as the dual forces of globalization and the Internet undercut traditional authority and make businesses accountable to an international public, says Cheryl Kiser, director of the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson. For a long time people have profited from animals suffering—on factory farms and in circuses, in research labs and puppy mills. Now companies have to worry about more than just the bottom line. They’re judged by how they treat people, the environment and animals. For humane entrepreneurs, whatever the size of their enterprises, this presents an opportunity.
“Businesses get rewarded in the marketplace because they’re doing the right thing,” Kiser says. “More and more people are buying into things; they’re not just buying things.”
Babson graduate Emily Lagasse, who served in Togo in the Peace Corps, wanted to experience the satisfaction she got while working in the West African country promoting small enterprise development. She also had a personal problem to solve: Fenway, the dog she adopted in Togo, where pets are fed human food, became ill after she gave him store-bought American dog food. So she experimented with recipes for home-cooked dog food and developed her own brand, called FedWell. Last year, the first large batch was produced in a factory and distributed to stores in the Boston area, where Lagasse lives. It sold out, she says. “People are excited to support local brands and aspiring entrepreneurs.”
On the Sunday afternoon Singh has chosen to launch her Kickstarter campaign, the big, large-windowed first floor of Penn Social in D.C.’s Seventh Street corridor fills with more than 100 cat lovers, mostly young, mostly female, some wearing boldly unchic cat sweaters. They drift in and pose with a cat mask and scepter and tiaras and cat-eyed glasses Singh has supplied, so they can post photos to social media. Many live in apartments where they either are not allowed to have cats or cannot afford the required extra security deposit and pet rent. A café where they can go and hang out with many cats is exactly what they want. “In a perfect world, I would have like 20 cats,” says Anna Lammers, a student at nearby Catholic University of America.
At 6 p.m., Singh officially kicks off the fundraising period, playing a lighthearted volunteer-produced video on a big screen. It depicts her wrangling with the D.C. Department of Health to get permission to create “a place where you can grab a cup of coffee, then play with cats.” Under Kickstarter rules, she will have a month to collect her goal of $15,000. If she succeeds, it’s all hers. If not, she doesn’t get the money. A half hour into the campaign, she’s raised $3,000. Within a day, 280 backers have given nearly $16,000. Within a month, 705 have donated nearly $36,000. “This is my new favorite memory of my entire life,” Singh says in a thank-you video. “I love you guys.”
Singh’s parents are beginning to come around, though they are still skeptical. “They think it’s less crazy of an idea, but they don’t get it,” she says. “They say, ‘You can have all the buzz in the world … but what about in a year, two years?’ ” Meanwhile, Singh has found a possible spot: a narrow rowhouse, formerly home to a clairvoyant, on O Street. The one-way cobblestoned avenue runs through a neighborhood of expensive brick townhomes right up to the main entrance of Georgetown University. There is no place to put the totally separate, sealed-off kitchen the health department will require if any food or beverage preparation is to be done on-site.
Tony Wang, an entrepreneur who opened San Diego’s first cat café last January, has a business with two separate entrances—the one on the right is for buying food and drinks, and the one on the left leads to the room where people can mingle with cats if they either have purchased something or pay $5. Creating two side-by-side entrances and a third door for the entryway to the café required construction, meaning much more time and money, but it was essential if he wanted to make a profit by having a high volume of people buying coffee. Wang advises Singh to do the same.
She decides instead that she will use the space she found as-is and have drinks and food delivered from a coffee shop across the street so there’s no food preparation on-site. Singh won’t make as much money on the refreshments but she’ll be charging a per-hour fee to enter. The neighborhood advisory commission gives its approval, as does the city’s zoning board. “What a unique situation here,” says zoning chairman Lloyd Jordan, smiling. “Interesting as heck.”
Now Singh can open. She signs a lease and late one afternoon in June she’s decorating with her brother, Chetan, who has just finished his junior year studying economics at Maryland. Cardboard boxes and half-assembled furniture lie scattered across the floor. The décor is playful and inexpensive—mid-century feline courtesy of Ikea: floor cushions and shelves for cats to climb on and scratching posts in unusual shapes. “We have five cats at home so this will be pretty much a bigger version of home,” Chetan says.
On social media, Singh is unfailingly upbeat, posting pictures of a seemingly endless party with cats. An article in The Washington Post describes her as “so bubbly, and effusive, and huggy you could almost mistake her for a dog person.” In actual life, she is attending to many details. And worried. How will the cats get along with one another? With the customers? (Everyone who enters will sign an agreement to waive liability if an animal scratches or bites them.)
Singh gives the first cats to arrive several days to get used to the café and one another before hosting the first of several pre-opening parties for her supporters. Each cat has been chosen by Lauren Lipsey, director of rehoming for the Washington Humane Society, as friendly toward people and other cats. But each animal is going from being alone in a shelter cage to suddenly being in a fluid social environment. “This is definitely an experiment,” Lipsey says. In the week before opening, tensions build as more cats come in. Because the café is not yet operating, there are only a few people to play with and pet a growing number of attention-hungry cats, who move with the humans through the building in a needy herd, demanding affection.
The day before the opening, Lipsey comes with the last cats, reluctantly bringing their number to 24, just what Singh asked for but nine more than Lipsey recommends. She advises Singh to divide up the cats, placing some on the first floor and some on the second (and reminds Singh that she can always take cats back to the shelter). There is hissing and growling on the stairs as animals attempt to pass each other. One cat is hiding in the basement under a sink. Another claims the far corner of the second floor bathroom. Still another wants all the people to herself and has to be put in a small room in the basement for time-outs when she gets too belligerent with the other cats.
Despite the various personalities involved, Singh opens Crumbs & Whiskers on a Saturday in June. Just seven months after she floated the idea, the café is inundated with curious cat lovers—Singh allows up to 37 people at a time. Visitors pay $10 to spend one hour inside the crowded café. During the first days, they all must have reservations (a New York City cat café that opened six months earlier is still booked weeks in advance). After passing through a gate designed to keep cats inside, they spread out in search of the animals, snapping photos of the cats and each other, settling down on floor cushions to stroke a cat or try to lure one over with a toy, feeling privileged just to be there. For most, it’s an excursion—their first time in such a place. Singh's Spotify list is playing. Passersby on O Street stop and stare through the windows. And café visitors bond with cats. Jacob Marks and Victoria Wolfe especially. The couple meet a tuxedo whom they name Ollie (for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes). Wolfe is trying to play with another cat when Ollie pushes his way in. “He’s very rambunctious,” Marks says. Two days later Ollie becomes the first adoption.
The months that give birth to Crumbs & Whiskers see the emergence of other humane businesses as well. In D.C., Markette Sheppard, a TV journalist, launches a website that sells cruelty-free organic cosmetics—the kind she’s had to hunt around to find—all in one place. It’s an outgrowth of her concern for animals and her own health: Shortly before she turned 30, Sheppard developed fibroids. After talking to a nutritionist, she realized her diet might have caused them. So she started eating more plant-based meals and then began to think about the makeup she put on her skin. Following her son’s birth in November 2013, Sheppard began looking for work she could do from home. That’s when she decided to create an online business, MessengerBeauty.com. Unexpectedly, after the website goes live in February, Sheppard is offered the job of hosting a new morning show, “Great Day Washington,” on WUSA 9. It debuts right after Labor Day. On the air, she wears products available on the Messenger Beauty site.
Every weekday between 5 and 5:30 a.m., Sheppard rises and starts applying the products she sells on her website. Around 7 a.m., she arrives at the station and finishes her makeup—eyelashes, lipstick and lip gloss—before going in front of the camera to host her show. She’s at the station until 3 p.m., heads home, spends time with her family, puts her son to bed by 8:30 p.m. and uses the remaining hour and a half of her day on her self-funded business, checking the inventory of nearly 100 products and updating the Facebook page. Around 10 p.m., she washes off her makeup with the face cleanser she sells and goes to bed. “It’s really a balancing act,” she says. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”
Sheppard’s not making any money yet, but she’s had dozens of repeat customers and the reward of knowing she’s reducing animal suffering with every sale.
During one of the show’s opening weeks, she gets a compliment from a guest—the man who does first lady Michelle Obama’s makeup. “They’re loving the products, and I’m reaching out and saying, ‘Did you know this is cruelty-free?’ I kind of feel like an evangelist.”
In Brooklyn, Marina Benedetto is looking to change a little bit of the American diet with a plant-based hot dog. She hopes Yeah Dawg will get people eating vegan by virtue of being “familiar, comfortable junk food.” Benedetto learned to cook growing up in New Jersey as the only vegan in her family, forced to figure out ways to make plant-based meals for herself. When she was laid off from the street kids shelter where she worked as a chef and then counselor and advocate, she used the time and unemployment compensation to take a course in creating a business plan. Then she invented a recipe for plant-based, gluten-free hot dogs and invested $2,000 of her own money in a tent, table and cooler, using her credit card to buy a 1998 Jeep Cherokee for transporting the food and equipment. She started Yeah Dawg as a pop-up “cart” in the New York City area. The Jeep broke down constantly but social media gained her a following. “It’s good to work for yourself,” she says. “The passion you follow can vibrate and resonate through what you make because you’re true to yourself.”
A part-time employee helps her make hot dogs Tuesdays and Wednesday nights. Mondays, Benedetto vacuum seals them in packs of four. Benedetto’s sister helps her sell the hot dogs Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In 2015, a Kickstarter campaign brought Yeah Dawg more than $26,000 and she was able to buy a reliable vehicle.
She can’t afford a sausage machine, though. She rolls the hot dogs by hand. Maximum number per day: 500. If she had a machine, which can cost around $100,000, she could produce 10,000 a day and sell them to chains such as Whole Foods. “I want to be in America’s homes for grilling,” she says. “Now I’m just like bootstrapping it. Every single bit goes right back in.”
October finds Benedetto in D.C. at VegFest, trying to quickly turn out hot dogs on a not-very-hot electric grill, as around 40 people wait in line. Benedetto wipes sweat off her forehead and sends a friend for another grill. She’s tired, having woken up at 3 a.m. to drive down from New York. The people in line wait, expectant. Most have never heard of Yeah Dawg. When they finally make it to the counter, even before they bite into the hot dogs, they marvel at what goes on top: guacamole, pickled pineapple, homemade caraway seed sauerkraut, red cabbage, coconut “bacon,” pickled onions, crushed potato chips. Customers ask where they can find Yeah Dawg. “Right now this is all there is,” Benedetto says. “We’re hoping to be in stores.”
By September, Crumbs & Whiskers has had 33 adoptions. It’s appeared on a list of D.C.’s hottest restaurants and started offering yoga classes. Singh’s mother supports the venture now (though her father, aware that only about half of small businesses are still around five years after their founding, remains doubtful).
During the café’s short life, Singh has made a lot of adjustments. Perhaps the most important: dropping the maximum number of people down to 20 and the number of cats to closer to 20 (while putting purple collars on the more intense animals). The cats are now brought two to four at a time by Lost Dog and Cat Rescue in Northern Virginia, a Washington Humane Society placement partner. The café is calmer. Cats wrestle with each other, jump for toys, climb shelves, sleep in baskets and occupy chairs, showing their bellies as though they want to be petted.
It's definitely a labor of love.”
- Markette Sheppard, Messenger Beauty founder
Singh’s facing another crisis of sorts, though, brought on by a salmonella outbreak at an unrelated D.C. restaurant. Soon after opening, when food and drink orders from across the street took too long to deliver to customers, Singh experimented with bringing in coffee, tea and pastries from off-site and offering them to all who paid the cover charge, now $15. However, the D.C. health department, in a heightened state of vigilance, orders Singh to stop. While she figures out what to do next, Crumbs & Whiskers’ refreshments are bring-your-own. Most customers don’t seem to care. They carry in stuff from a nearby 7-Eleven.
Shortly after 7 p.m. one Saturday, Singh and her brother go home, leaving her “baby” in the hands of two employees. For all the complications, the café is on track toward eventually breaking even and—maybe, just maybe—turning a profit. A year ago Singh was poring over spreadsheets with the financial information for other people’s businesses. Now she is running her own. She looks exhausted, in the manner of a new parent. She says she is working “as many hours as I am breathing.” She has a bandage on her thumb, where a “notorious” purple-collared cat scratched her.
But she says she is glad she made this choice. She has just turned 25. “I would have never imagined that this would be my life today,” she says. “This is way more fun—way more stressful, but way more fun.”
And way more meaningful. Thanks to Singh, more than 30 cats have moved from the shelter to adoptive homes, and a new idea is taking root. It’s a small step toward a future where more people can earn their livings by helping animals.