CMC Entrepreneur’s T-Shirts Encourage People to ‘Wear the World’

If, as they say, a person is the sum-total of the principles they hold dear, then Jeff Steitz ’13 literally wears his principles on his sleeve. As CEO and founder of Serengetee (Wear the World), a T-shirt company that uses fabrics from 25 nations in its designs, Steitz says that half of all sales profits are donated back to the regions from which the fabrics cameeither in the form of direct donations, or investments in microfinance, infrastructure, or their local stock market.

Steitz, a triple major (economics-accounting-finance, and music-piano performance), began Serengetee by designing shirts at home with a younger brother. And since launching the brand, support has come in bundles from CMC, with hundreds of classmates friending Serengetee on Facebook, and professors offering guidance in business modeling.

Steitz says he’ll continue building Serengetee, and expanding its social mission, after graduation. “I am intent on finding a job that necessitates exploring and giving back to a series of different countries,” he says.

In between his daunting academic/budding business juggling act, Jeff found a few minutes to talk more about Serengetee and where he finds inspiration.

CMC: How long have you and your brother Max been designing T-shirts?
Jeff: We started about four years ago, during the last presidential election. Living in the heart of New York City, we saw an opportunity to take advantage of the extreme political fervor sweeping the nation. We created “Pugs for Obama” shirts that featured a picture of a pug and the saying on the front. We found that customers were eager to buy these shirts that tapped into two specific markets at the same time.

The success of this political shirt venture prompted the introduction of Serengetee, a social venture. The first pocket T-shirt prototypes were assembled about three years ago and slowly evolved to their current design today.

CMC: What got you started making them at home?
Jeff: We knew that people, especially young people, loved to wear a variety of clothing products: v-necks, crew-necks, tank tops, and racer-backs (female tank tops). We also knew that people loved to show off their individual styles. By creating a customizable clothing template where customers choose which style and color shirt they want, and then giving them the choice of over 75 unique fabrics to add to their shirt, we found that there is a Serengetee tee for everyone.

But the true inspiration for Serengetee came while I was abroad on University of Virginia’s “Semester at Sea” program, an experience that took me to 14 countries as we circumnavigated the globe on a ship. While in these African, Asian and Central American countries, I began searching marketplaces for vibrant fabrics. I found that each country had unique patterns and color combinations that gave each destination identity through fabrics.
It was then that I realized I could create a truly global apparel company; a venture thatthrough fabric pocket teescould connect the consumer with countries around the globe. To truly live up to our slogan, “Wear the World,” we knew that giving back to the regions where the fabrics were designed and produced would be a foundational principle.

CMC: How do you come up with the particular designswhere do you get inspiration?
Jeff: Serengetee receives all of its inspiration from countries around the world. In fact, we do not design any fabrics in-house. Instead, we search for unique fabric patterns that are made in fair working conditions abroad or domestically. Our fabric designers live all over the world, in cities and villages. We want to allow our customers the chance to truly “Wear the World.” A Serengetee tee features fabrics created in a specific country and assembled here in Los Angeles.

CMC: Tell us a bit about your family
Jeff: I have an extremely supportive family that I must thank for the early success of Serengetee. My parents are both entrepreneurs who have each started and run successful businesses in the New York metropolitan area. Clearly, their entrepreneurial spirit has rubbed off on my siblings and me. Both of my siblings, a younger brother and older sister, helped found Serengetee. There is also my aunt, Betsy Hipple, who is the head softball coach for the CMS Athenas. Her leadership has also been inspirational, particularly in the initial stages.

CMC: What do your fellow CMCers think about the business? Have they been active supporting it and/or do they buy your product?
Jeff: CMCers have been an integral part of Serengetee’s early success. In our first week, we received over 7,000 visitors to our Website and gained over 1,000 fans on Facebook, many of whom were CMC students. My entrepreneurial finance professor, Dr. Janet Smith, has also provided key advice on entrepreneurship and financial modeling. The support system at CMCstudents, administrators and professorshas helped kick-start Serengetee and has prepared us to scale our business and continue our growth story. We hope to make a statement at the upcoming Kravis Entrepreneurial Concept Plan competition, as a progressive social venture.

CMC: How did you find the time to start a business while balancing academics?
Jeff: It has not been an easy task. As a triple major working three jobs on campus, I have been extremely busy. Luckily, I have an amazing team of over 15 college students from around the country, as well as reps at over 75 different schools, to help promote and run the business. Madeline Busacca of CMC, Emmy Perez and Allie Jones of Scripps, Sean Yen of Pitzer, and Thomas Carey of Harvey Mudd are the key members of the team from Claremont.

I am a big believer that hard work pays off. Although it is a large time commitment, launching Serengetee has been a tremendously worthwhile learning experience and has helped me put courses like Corporate and Entrepreneurial Finance in the context of a true business climate. Forming business relationships and building a team has also been fun.

CMC: What’s the toughest thing about this type of business so far?
Jeff: Managing a team that spans the country and the globe can be extremely tough. Communication is beyond important at this stage and we have been fine-tuning our communication skills through the initial month of operations.

CMC: What is the most gratifying aspect (besides giving half the proceeds to charity) of your involvement with Serengetee?
Jeff: I am a huge promoter of young entrepreneurship. I personally believe that college-age entrepreneurs have a lot to offer, especially in this digital age. A lot of the time, championing an idea is simply about taking that first step.

Starting a successful business is extremely gratifying in itself because it is a product of who you are. Instead of working to further someone else’s dream, you are building something of your own; a body of work that you can truly be proud of.

For me, the ability to travel and find new fabrics, partner with progressive charities and build a global microfinance and infrastructure investment portfolio is the most rewarding part of starting Serengetee. I love working with people from all types of unique cultures and Serengetee gives me the opportunity to do this. I currently have trips planned to Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa coming up.

Above all, giving back to these regions is the sweetest part of Serengetee. Being able to tackle targeted issues in specific regions of the world and promoting a sustainable future for these countries through a combination of donations and investments is about as rewarding as it gets. I think our customers share this philanthropic attitude, which is why we give them the choice of which organization to donate to. And by giving back 50 percent of our profits as part of our “Half and Half” mission, the Serengetee team is confident that we can enact real change in all corners of our globe.

CMC: What’s your favorite dresser drawer tee that you own but didn’t design?
Jeff: That’s a tough one. I picked up a great tee in Beijing that features a series of Chinese symbols. Underneath there is the translation, I love Beijing more than ever. I just love that direct translation, and find that I have to wear the shirt at least once a week.