Ellen Gustafson ’02 Helps To Feed the World
By Helaine Olen
When Ellen Gustafson ’02 graduated, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She’d studied foreign policy but she also loved musical theater and had taken classes at Juilliard while at Columbia. Probably the last thing she expected to be was an entrepreneur.
Six years later, Gustafson is the director of the Feed Projects, a firm she founded in 2006 with model/social activist Lauren Bush. The company manufactures and markets fashion products with a twist: A portion of the money raised from the sale of each of the items goes to feed children in school for the academic year.
Feed’s debut product — an organic cotton and burlap carryall designed by Bush to resemble the sacks of grain given out to children in the Third World by relief agencies — was a surprise fashion hit last year. It was even dubbed an “It bag” by The Guardian.
“I never imagined I would be a businesswoman when I graduated from Columbia,” Gustafson says. “I thought big, bad business was the last thing I would do.”
Gustafson says she can barely recall a time when she did not want to attend Columbia. Her grandmother, Agnes Nevin ’72 SW, always talked fondly about her years at Columbia. “Her beautiful Columbia degree was hanging on her wall, and I always used to ask about it,” Gustafson recalls. “By the time I was 5, it was the only school I wanted to go to.” When the time came to apply to college, the Berwyn, Pa., resident applied to Columbia as an early decision candidate. “It was literally the only application I filled out,” she says with a laugh.
Gustafson says the Core classes in art and music are among her favorite academic memories. But it was the American foreign policy seminar she signed up for in her senior year that changed her life. On the first day of class, Gustafson told lecturer Gideon Rose — also the managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs — that she would love the opportunity to work with his organization. Rose took Gustafson up on her offer, helping to arrange an internship at the Council on Foreign Relations’ communications department. Gustafson stayed on after college, working for a time as a research associate with the group.
Gustafson remembers her time at CFR as “one of the most interesting years of my life,” but she wanted to experiment with other careers. She tried music and then TV news, but neither was the right fit. In early 2006, Gustafson saw a job posting on Idealist.org for a communications specialist for the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), and she leapt at the opportunity. That’s where she met Bush, an internationally known model (and the niece of President George W. Bush) who has been an honorary spokesperson for the program since 2004. The two quickly became friends, and Bush shared with Gustafson an idea she had to market an organic tote bag to raise money to help eliminate world hunger.
“It was Ellen who realized we needed to start our own company to do this,” says Bush. “I definitely feel her energy and go-getter attitude helped Feed come to fruition. Ellen is a great partner, and I am lucky to have her working with me.”
The Feed bag went on sale on April 1, 2007, on Amazon.com and quickly rose to No. 1 on the apparel sales list, where it remained for several months. The tote also is carried at various stores in Europe, including Harrods. Twenty dollars from each sale is donated to WFP. Gustafson believes her group is responsible for making sure at least 38,000 school children have been fed through the program’s school meal initiative.
Feed teamed up with Whole Foods to release a new bag, which went on sale May 1. The natural foods behemoth plans to sell the latest version of the Feed tote for $29.95, with $10 from each sale going to feed a Rwandan child one meal a day for 100 days. Whole Foods has placed an initial order for 400,000 of the cotton and burlap carryalls — meaning that if all goes according to plan, Feed will raise $4 million for WFP from this one item.
In fact, Feed has been so successful that Gustafson and Bush are now in the process of setting up their own nonprofit foundation, with the hopes that they can donate their proceeds to other worthy causes and programs. But despite her hectic schedule, which includes traveling everywhere from Africa to Asia to the World Economic Forum in Davos on behalf of Feed, Gustafson remains intimately involved with Columbia. She co-chaired her fifth reunion’s planning committee and was on the host committee for the Second Annual Young Alumni Fund Spring Benefit, held in April. Gustafson also continues with voice lessons, saying: “I still love to sing, but now I sing at all my Columbia friends’ weddings.”