by Anu Teodorescu | photos courtesy of Seghen Aklilu
The chances of going to a corporate event and walking away empty-handed are slim. More often than not, you’ll walk away with some sort of trinket branded with a company logo on it — a pen, a stress ball, a drawstring backpack — only to have it float around your home and take up space until the next spring cleaning frenzy.
What if, instead of receiving that pen, you got a hand-poured soy candle? What if, instead of that stress ball, you got a handmade ceramic mug? What if, instead of a goodie bag full of cheap knick-knacks, you were gifted a bag full of functional, authentic and locally-sourced items?
Pack Elephant is a concept that works to do just that. The company, created in 2018 by New England natives, Winsome Kirton and Seghen Aklilu, connects high-volume corporate buyers with artisans to elevate the artistic potential in a community and add a local touch to corporate gifting.
Kirton and Aklilu met as pre-freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to work in advertising and big-box retail respectively. The pair created Pack Elephant after traveling extensively together and noting a lack of easy access to unique and authentic crafts in the places they visited.
“Yelp and other review sites are typically better for restaurant locations and experiences, but they don’t really speak to physical products, or where to buy souvenirs,” Kirton said. “So we launched with that idea in mind.”
After opening a pop-up shop at the Downtown Market to gauge interest, they realized they needed to shift their focus; instead of creating a travel service that promoted locally-made products, they tapped into the corporate gifting industry, filling a gap few knew existed.
The corporate gifting industry in the U.S. ranges from $115-$140 billion. Pair this with the fact that only 12% of artisans sell their work successfully, and a massive disparity emerges.
“It’s true,” Kirton said. “Many of us have worked for a company or at least have gone to a corporate event where you get a gift or some sort of swag, which is a waste of everyone’s time and a waste of their money — a waste of that $125 billion. What if we could take that $125 billion and use it to create a more democratized success for artisans?”
They call it hyper-local shopping: shopping for products that are made within an hour’s drive of a city’s center.
“It’s giving enterprises the ability to think really small and think about the footprint they’re leaving in the communities they’re serving,” Aklilu explained. “It’s a win-win, not just for the artisans, but for the
businesses that are looking for ways to use their dollars more impactfully.”
The “packs” — which feature everything from blueberry jam with ginger to hand-painted coasters to margarita bath scrubs — include a flip card with information about and photos of the makers. Each item is hand-selected by Kirton and Aklilu with specific criteria in mind: in addition to being made within an hour’s drive of a city’s center, they must have an authentic style; be made with quality and sustainability in mind, and have a story. While makers do need to meet growing demand, the founders are more than happy to facilitate the growth of local artists. In fact, this mission is intrinsic to their company’s name.
“Elephants are herd animals. They’re truly communal in the sense that no elephant leaves a member of their pack behind,” Aklilu said, referring to small businesses that are often overlooked.
“Elephant packs are led by matriarchs,” Kirton added. “As a woman-owned company that’s really about uplifting hyper-local communities and artistic communities, it just felt really appropriate.”
Though Pack Elephant is only available in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Austin, Texas, the duo sees huge potential for their brainchild.
“Our goal is to be in every city in the U.S. [and] make this concept of hyper-local shopping convenient for enterprises everywhere,” Kirton said.