Sarah Bennison Machiels
Conversation with Sarah Bennison Machiels, Founder, Bennison™
Footed Pajamas Save Lives
December 13, 2017
1. What is your business?
My business is called Bennison™ and it is a children’s sleepwear company that is a hybrid for-profit/not-for-profit company. With each sale of our Bennison Pima cotton pajamas, we donate a portion toward collecting and giving pajamas to children in need all over the world. We use a similar model to Toms Shoes with its One for One® mandate, but with a twist. Because baby pajamas are only worn for a few months they’re perfect items for recycling. We’re actually able to give much more than one for one because most of the pajamas we receive are gently worn. The cool thing about pajamas is they don’t go out of style, and they are year-round.
In the developing world, infant mortality is a big issue, and one of the simplest ways to prevent the deaths of babies who don’t have access to incubators is to provide them with footed pajamas. The footed pajamas act like a personal incubator and can actually help babies regulate their own body temperature. In many places in the world, mothers are encouraged to keep their babies on their own bodies, skin to skin contact, during the day. But at night, mothers often are not physically attached to their babies because of safety concerns.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
The idea came from a 2013 learning and fundraising trip to Village Health Works, a health clinic in Burundi. Some of the most prevalent health issues were maternal mortality, women dying in childbirth, and infant mortality. I learned through that volunteer work that babies were dying at night due to complications related to temperature regulation. This was a prevalent issue in global health, especially in rural areas in developing countries where the population doesn’t have access to incubators or electricity to run incubators. What touched me was that temperature regulation in babies can be solved very simply through footed pajamas.
I learned that doctors would come in the morning and babies would have died at night. (It is important to note that there is a relationship between malnutrition, premature babies, and infant mortality, so temperature regulation issue is almost always in conjunction with other health issues.) What I took away from my experience was that here was a global health issue that had a very simple solution. It just so happened that when I first learned about this issue my three kids were transitioning from babies to children, and I actually had just cleaned out my kids’ drawers. I had tons of unused footed pajamas. So when returned home all I could think about was, “What can I do to make a difference?”
I sent an email to about 15 friends and the subject heading said, “Did you know that footed pajamas can help save a baby’s life?” I asked my friends to please clean out their kids’ drawers of too small pajamas and bring them to our nursery school. Then I would give them to a team of doctors that was going to Burundi the following week. The email went around our nursery school, women went out and bought pajamas and they cleaned out their drawers and gave. Within two or three days I had about 300 pairs of pajamas.
I compiled the donation in my bedroom, and I remember standing there thinking this is such a testament to the fact that everyone wants to do something, but people just don’t always know what to do. I packed the pajamas up, and I brought them to the en route doctor who brought them on the plane. Two weeks later the doctors in Burundi sent photos showing kids wearing the pajamas at this rural clinic. Just a few weeks before they had been on babies in New York.
I saw the emotional response to this idea and felt that there was something universal about motherhood and about relating to a global health issue through the lens of something as simple and as tangible as baby pajamas. I think that the idea resonated with people because putting one’s children to bed is such an intimate act and these memories are among the most tender moments of motherhood.
So the pajamas became for me a vehicle to connect mothers in two totally different parts of the world. From the beginning, the pajamas were just a symbol, and essentially for the first few years I was just collecting and sending pajamas in order to raise funds for an operating room at the clinic where I volunteered. My hope was over time to scale the company so that pajamas could be the avenue for funding programs in global health or buying incubators for clinics.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
I think that I saw that the idea was something that resonated with a lot of people in a lot of different contexts. My efforts started getting some attention, in a grassroots way from local moms, and then Bennison was featured in a small piece in Redbook magazine. Eventually, people started sending me pajamas from all over the country, and I was getting hundreds of pairs of pajamas every week.
When people donated pajamas they usually included a note about why they were giving. For example, I remember at one point two sisters sent me pajamas because they had just lost their mother and in her honor, they wanted to do something meaningful for someone else. They had learned about Bennison, collected pajamas and sent them to me. So there were stories like that over and over and over again. The simple act of giving pajamas as part of a solution to a big problem resonated with people.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
For me, selling is the hardest part of this endeavor. That’s the part that I’ve never felt like I really know, and my heart wasn’t in it. I definitely learned a lot over the years on the business side.
With children’s pajamas in the U.S., at scale, a manufacturing company either needs to use anti-inflammatory materials or have the pajamas be “snug fit.” The idea with “snug fit” pajamas is that oxygen can’t flow as easily in the pajamas should the child catch on fire. So you have to be careful about how you manufacture the pajamas. And to have anti-inflammatory qualities, you really can’t use (or I haven’t yet figured out how to use) high-quality fabrics like the Pima cotton that we use in Bennison. I realized that I just ran into a bunch of logistical issues if I wanted to get any bigger.
5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
My sister is actually the reason I decided to try this. When Kate and I were on spring break together, she and I would take long walks and talk about the different ideas. So from the beginning she really helped me start it, we had matching skill sets, and she was the business person with an MBA and tons of marketing expertise. She was a huge help to me and getting everything started.
I also spoke to my husband Alec, who has an MBA, about the concept. Really those are the main people I relied on. For the rest, I was doing it on my own, and I’ve never had any overhead or an assistant. My old babysitter helped me with the website, and everything is just out of my house.
6. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
Over the course of all this, an international advertising agency called Gyro became interested in what I was doing because they had an interest in humanitarian work. The CEO of the agency was on the board of the International Rescue Committee for many years and had traveled with George Rupp who was the then president of the IRC.
So long story short, Gyro got interested in my brand and spent time working on it pro-bono to improve the business side of Bennison. Because of my weakness in selling, their help was incredibly valuable. They helped me in terms of branding, they came up with my logo and they had the agency’s chief creative officer thinking about Bennison’s problems. One of the big things Gyro did was invent soap packaging to accompany the pajama donation. The packaging looks like wax paper, almost transparent, and it has our logo on it. But the packaging actually is perforated, and each piece can be torn off turn into soap when put in contact with water. So you have a chic packaging that is effectively laundry soap. Each sheet has 16 squares and each square can clean a load of laundry.
The idea behind adding a useful packaging was that we can solve two problems at once: you can keep your baby warm and clean. Hygiene and temperature regulation are two of the biggest threats to newborn health. Gyro ended up winning a D&AD Pencil, which celebrates the best in design and advertising, for the soap packaging. So that obviously helped to elevate the brand and put it on people’s radar.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
The extent of the giving has been great, and at this point, we’ve given about 4,500 pairs. That makes me proud. The business still continues, we sell online, I send out the orders from my house and people still send pajamas.
8. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
The pajamas are made in Peru at a small manufacturing site that employs mothers and grandmothers. The woman who owns this little manufacturing plant started giving pajamas after I told her about Bennison’s donation model. She has her own take on it, and she started making very durable fleece pajamas, and she brings them to remote areas in the Andes. That’s pretty cool.
9. Have there ever been moments when you regretted what you started or had to abandon part of the plan?
For a while, I was in conversations with Toms about featuring a line of Bennison pajamas in their Marketplace section where the company highlights small businesses. They asked for a press kit and a line of pajama designs. I actually started working on a line of different pajamas, but I never really had or sought out the capital to commit to retail or adding a lot more complexity. Ultimately I decided not to create the line for Tom’s. My focus and passion were always on the giving and educating piece.
10. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
I’m really glad that I had an idea and actually tried it because it is so easy to talk yourself out of trying ideas, especially if it’s a little bit outside of your comfort zone. I had no real training or background in starting a business or in global health, so I was just learning as I was going. I would tell people that if they have an opportunity to try something, just give it a shot and see how it goes.
Conversation date: November 20, 2017