If you live in an apartment in Blacksburg, VA maybe you saw our friends on "Shark Tank" this past Friday night.
Two Virginia Tech engineering graduates who run a backpack business that sends a fraction of each sale’s proceeds to developing countries are aiming for big investor bucks.
Friday night’s showing of the ABC reality series “Shark Tank” featured couple and Taaluma Totes founders Jack DuFour and Alley Heffern, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Taaluma Totes sells colorful backpacks made from traditional fabrics of developing countries. Twenty percent of the $65 paid for each backpack is turned into a microloan that is given to some farmers and small business owners in whichever country the item’s fabric comes from.
The company also works with a central Virginia manufacturer that employs people with disabilities to produce the backpacks.
“We’ve spent the last two years building this community one ‘toter’ at a time, which allowed us to really get to know our customers and build personal relationships with them,” DuFour said in an email. “That’s something we’ll never sacrifice, but now that the community has such a solid foundation, all rallied behind a common goal, it’s ready to grow.
“And this is a huge opportunity to do just that.”
As expected, DuFour couldn’t give details on the kind of investment the business is looking for.
“Shark Tank” is known for showing entrepreneurs attempting to pitch their business or products to a panel of tycoons. Among the investors is Dallas Mavericks owner and entertainment magnate Mark Cuban.
Recalling when he and Heffern first applied to the show, DuFour said they were each surprised when they got the call.
“We sent our application in on a whim over a year ago and expected it to disappear into a black hole of applicants,” DuFour said. “We had pretty much forgotten about the application, moved to Thailand and continued building the business.”
Then one night, DuFour said, Heffern, who had tried going to bed early, came “running down the stairs shouting at me.”
DuFour said Heffern received a midnight phone call from the show’s casting team, which requested a full video application from the couple. DuFour said he and Heffern then took to the streets of Thailand to film the clip.
“I like to think being in such a unique place helped our video grab attention and really convey what we were all about,” DuFour said.
DuFour said he and Heffern got the final call back when they were in Laos searching for local fabric there.
In a small town with barely any Internet, the two scrambled between cafes, fabric markets and printing shops to fill out the contracts.
“Once on set, the executive producer told us he remembered our audition video,” DuFour said. “He said they gave us the green light because of our ‘youthful energy’ and he encouraged us to show that to the sharks.”
DuFour and Heffern, who are currently in Indonesia, spend most of their time now traveling in other countries forming connections and finding more fabrics.
But on Friday, people involved with Blacksburg’s entrepreneurial community hosted a “Shark Tank” party at the Top of the Stairs bar and restaurant on College Avenue.
Mitchell said Taaluma Totes’ story is another example of the “entrepreneurial spirit” coming out of Virginia Tech. Mitchell said DuFour and Heffern received a great deal of support from that community when they put together and launched their business.
“A lot of people around the entrepreneurial community are doing everything they can to enable students like Jack and Alley to be successful,” Mitchell said. “A lot of companies are coming out of the undergraduate population now, and they’re doing some great things.
“This environment now enables that level of taking a chance.”
Among the places Taaluma Totes went through was NuSpark, a still relatively new free workspace that allows existing and hopeful entrepreneurs to come in and develop their ideas.
The backpack business also benefited from a free Facebook campaign that Blacksburg-based marketing firm Heyo launched for it last year.
Nathan Latka, founder and CEO of Heyo and a figure in the local entrepreneurial community, said he met DuFour in late 2012 after inviting the Taaluma Totes’ co-founder to a nighttime event where hopeful entrepreneurs meet and play football.
“They’re a great example of what Blacksburg has to offer the world in entrepreneurship,” Latka said. “Entrepreneurs in Blacksburg are tight.”