"I've never really applied to a job in a traditional sense since graduating," said Nathan Rothstein '06. Cofounder of Project Repat, Rothstein uses his entrepreneurial skills to find creative solutions to world problems. Rothstein, who admits to embracing failure and change in every endeavor, seeks to make a difference one step—or rather—one t-shirt at a time.
Rothstein noted that he wasn't always the greatest student. But, he says, his professors in CHC gave him a lot of positive reinforcement. "What I learned at UMass was how to be resourceful...to go out and find opportunities that interested me." During his senior year on campus, Rothstein participated in an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Gulf Coast, helping to rebuild the area after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. "I was struck by how little had been done seven months later, and wanted to return to help." Rothstein later joined AmeriCorps and worked in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. To restart the citywide planning process, Rothstein developed a networking organization that connected young professionals with opportunities in the city. He encouraged students and residents to participate in social initiatives for rebuilding the city.
After leaving New Orleans, Rothstein returned to Massachusetts to study business administration with a non-profit focus, building on his experience in social enterprise organizations. There, he met Ross Lohr in their only semester together at Brandeis University. Lohr had been in Kenya running a non-profit education group. "When you travel there, you see all the t-shirts that get donated [from the U.S.] to Goodwill, and then wind up overseas in these large outdoor markets," said Rothstein of Lohr's experience. Lohr noticed thousands of American t-shirts from the 1980s and 90s going unused, and thought they may garner interest with the vintage fashion market.
Project Repat was the brainchild of Rothstein and Lohr. Initially, the project was an upcycling venture, taking these old t-shirts and repurposing them in the United States as tote bags and scarves. But when Rothstein and Lohr reached out to customers, they didn't want tote bags and scarves. Instead, customers asked if the duo could make t-shirt quilts. "We said no. Then we heard that question again, and again, and finally we tried it out. Apparently there was a pent-up demand for an affordable t-shirt blanket, especially because people save them as memories now." They offered a Groupon promotion in 2012, and within a week had sold 2,000 t-shirt quilts. "I tell this story," said Rothstein, "because so much of entrepreneurship is starting in one place, and letting customers guide you to figuring out a product that actually has market fit. Anybody can come up with the basic idea, but we have continued to be in business and grow because we have listened to customers, and executed well enough to succeed."
Rather than 'repatriating' t-shirts back to the United States, Project Repat works within the country with customers’ t-shirts. More importantly, the business works with production partners in cities like Fall River, Massachusetts, to bring textile jobs back to former leading textile cities. "These are parts of the country that have been decimated by globalization and the search for cheap labor outside of the country," said Rothstein. Working with these factories, Project Repat has helped local businesses expand, hire more employees, and create steady jobs within the area.
While Rothstein's business is thriving, he is always looking for new ventures to make his work an instrument of social innovation. “I believe that all entrepreneurs should think about their environmental and economic impact, and how to build a business where the “good” is integrated into the business.” Rothstein has an active Medium account where he blogs about his learning experiences as an entrepreneur and making Project Repat into a customer-friendly company. "Entrepreneurship is messy and difficult, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. We all learn so much from reading other people's experiences, and I try to think about what I would like to know about the subject, or what I wish I knew six months ago." Rothstein acknowledges “we were rejected a lot by investors early on, but persevered.” He hopes that the story of Project Repat will inspire more people to create businesses that support local manufacturing and recycled products.
In reviewing his career so far, Rothstein notes that the path after graduation is unpredictable. "The way we work is so different now, and there are fewer traditional jobs out there, so you constantly have to be entrepreneurial in almost any sector." Rothstein encourages students to be prepared, take on a wide range of opportunities, and embrace failure. "So much of your post-CHC life is about how well can you bounce back from challenges. Try a lot of different jobs in new places, and try to meet as many people as possible."
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