We’re very happy to bring you the story of Omar Itani, founder of second-hand clothes collector and distributor FabricAID. Berytech coached him and his team during two months to get them ready for the largest global competition for social startups, Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC).
And guess what? It worked!
FabricAID won first place at the finals last April 2018 in Milan, beating more than 550 startups from 60 countries.
Here is the story of its founder.
“I still can’t believe we won”, says Omar Itani, 22. “GSVC is the World Cup for Social Enterprises, no one was expecting us to win, there were 550 startups from 60 countries, we were among the youngest teams, from the smallest country, I still haven’t finished my B.A. in Engineering, yet we won !”
When he was a kid, Omar Itani was not particularly good in school. “I knew how to have fun, but that was it, “ he remembers. It all changed when he was 16, when his school participated in the INJAZ competition: Omar and his friends were charged with collecting trash and recycling it. “I finally had the opportunity to prove myself, to prove that I can make something work. And to this day nothing makes me happier than getting things done and creating impact.”
Fast forward to December 2016: Omar decides to donate clothes to underprivileged people. He writes a post on Facebook asking for people’s contribution: “ I collected 200 kgs of clothes, it was overwhelming! I went to local NGOs to ask them how to proceed, and I realized that many NGOs didn’t have the means to process the clothes they collected, as they need to clean them, sort them and distribute them, and that requires a specific infrastructure. Which is why in Lebanon, less than 5 % of clothes are being collected. Yet 2.5 million people can’t afford first-hand clothes.”
Omar started researching the market, applying to competitions, testing his ideas, going to thrift stores, talking to NGOs, trying to understand the problem. All this while studying and working full time for a youth organization.
“I discovered with my research that there was an entire second-hand clothing industry in Lebanon that nobody knows about. I discovered that most marginalized communities don’t knock on the door of NGOs to get their clothes but they go to these thrift shops. I discovered that the best way to distribute clothes was to put a small price tag on each item, so that people will not take more than what they need, and they will feel dignified as they are getting what they are paying for.”
In July 2017, Omar teamed up with Hussam Hanouni (tech), 18, and Lynn Abi Aad (design) to apply to the Elevate by AltCity acceleration program for social enterprises : “Elevate taught us all the fundamentals of business: financial modeling, go-to-market strategy, sales.. They helped us partner with UNICEF, and we got U.S. $20,000. With the money, we set up a warehouse in Wardaniyyeh (10 minutes away from Saida), and we started recruiting staff. By beginning of January 2017, we were fully operational.“
FabricAID went on to win more competitions and grants and accelerations programs: “We pitched in 19 competitions, and won $130,000 dollars. But to this day, the pitch I gave at GSVC was the best pitch I’ve ever given. And it’s thanks to Berytech, who’s the regional partner of GSVC and who coached us during two months prior to the competition. They made us research the judges, survey our competitors, refine our pitch and practice it literally hundreds of time.”
Joanna Abi Abdallah, Business Support and Development Manager at Berytech, coached Omar and mentored him before he went to the finals: “ I was impressed by his energy, for such a young man, he knows how to listen and accept feedback and act upon it. And he takes the time to show his appreciation and gratitude, which is a rare quality these days.”
Today, FabricAID employs 20 people. The company collects clothes mainly from NGOs, as well as from institutions and from their own bins. The bulk (85 %) are being sold in the second-hand market. Some 3 % of the clothes are being upcycled by ESMOD students and a tailoring facility in Bekaa. As for the remaining 12 % , well FabricAID will use the $40,000 they won at GSVC to open a sub-facility next to their warehouse for a project of furniture upcycling: “We will shred the clothes into very small particles and we will use them to stuff old couches, pillows and mattresses collected and revamped by an orphanage in Saida“, explains Omar.
The company is currently in the process of raising money :”It will be one of the biggest investment in social enterprises in the country”, says the founder. “ We need it to expand our facility because we cannot handle the demand anymore.”
All in all, it took Omar Itani a bit more than a year to prove that he can make things work. He also proved to the whole ecosystem that social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship with a cause, can work in Lebanon: “It’s very simple: we saw a problem, and we worked super hard to solve it. It’s very obvious that any change in this country is not going to come from the government. You can either shy away and complain, or get fed up and leave the country. Both attitudes won’t solve anything. I want to stay in this country for the rest of my life and try to solve as many problems as I can.”