When Dave Spandorfer helped recruit Mike Burnstein to the Washington University in St. Louis track team, he didn’t realize he was recruiting his future business partner. On the way to Outdoor Track & Field Nationals one year, the two friends realized they wanted to leverage the enthusiasm they felt around them about their sport into something that made a difference.
The result was Janji, a socially conscious running clothing company dedicated to fighting the global food and water crisis. MSNBC spoke with Dave and Mike recently about the mission of their company.
How did you pick food and water specifically?
Mike: We originally knew that we wanted to make a difference through running, and food and water felt like a natural way that we could make a strong impact, just because it’s really the most fundamental problem out there that affects the most people, and also it’s very relatable for runners. There’s a strong connection there just with runners being more than any other person extremely conscious of what food and nutrition they put into their body, and their state of hydration. You cant run a 5K or a marathon if you’re not properly hydrated and well nourished. So we thought it was a really strong connection.
How did you pick the specific programs you help, and the different countries you send aid to?
Mike: Basically what we look for are organizations on the ground that use innovative solutions to help fight food and water crisis in that given country. And what I mean by innovative is they’re not just handing out food or water on a short-term basis, but they’re addressing the problem more systemically. They have sort of a more sustainable and long-term impact.
For example, our Haiti partner is called Meds & Food for Kids, and we think what they do is really cool, and especially impactful. They are affecting things in Haiti on multiple different levels. What they do is they create this lifesaving nutritional medicine, called “Medika Mamba” or peanut butter medicine and it is peanut butter infused with vitamins and milk and it’s very therapeutic food that can take a malnourished child and provide everything they need to make them healthy in just five weeks of treatment. It is affordable and easy to distribute.
There are a very high percentage of children in Haiti that are acutely malnourished. It goes beyond that though, because unlike many other organizations, Meds and Food for Kids they manufacture their nutritional medication in Haiti. They have a factory operated by Haitian people, so they are creating jobs and impact on that level. Lastly, the peanuts used in their product are local to Haiti and sourced by Haitian farmers. We generally look for organizations that have a multi-tiered impact.
What do you think distinguishes Janji from its competition?
Dave: Ultimately people buy Janji because they love it, and that comes down to – of course, the number one reason and why we started Janji in the first place – wanting to be part of something bigger.
And so many people who are doing the New York City Marathon are doing it for some kind of cause. And it didn’t really make sense to us why runners didn’t have a brand that let them give back whenever they were running.
What is your general giving model? What is the percentage of your revenue that you donate? How does it compare to other organizations that donate?
Mike: We are a for-profit company, but our mission really is to make a difference in the food and water world. For each piece of running material we sell, we donate $4 to corresponding partner organizations. Most of our business is done wholesale to running stores so it works out to be somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of revenue that gets donated. Another socially responsible company that people talk about is Patagonia, which donates frequently to environmental causes. They actually donate 1% of revenue, which is actually really impressive for a large for-profit company.
Tell me about your designs. Who comes up with them?
Mike: The inspiration for the designs is drawn from the different countries including the flag of the country and also cultural and geographic references to the country.
What is running to you? Why is it such an important part of your life that you’ve decided to make a career out of it?
Dave: It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about, because so many people do associate running with not only improving their life each day, it can very much become a thing that you have to do. Like an addiction, if you don’t do it you can become a little grumpy. But bigger than that when I run it’s a great way to escape from the world and escape from all the cellphones and all the glowing rectangles - you know, we spend all day staring at a screen.
I would say also being part of a community, a really great community, a community that cares –one thing that’s a motive with runners, and I think the charitable part really goes with it–there is this inherent respect for one another, and this inherent respect for being a part of this bigger community.