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Entrepreneur Q&A: BENNISON

June 12, 2018

Call it kismet: a woman with a passion for global health meets the founder of a Burundi health clinic at a book party in New York City. They get to talking. She learns the clinic most needs footed pajamas. It turns out babies in Burundi – as in many resource-scarce areas – aren’t making it through the night because they don’t have something as simple as footed pajamas to help them regulate their body temperatures.

The woman, a mother of three, offers to clean out her own drawers and donate to the cause anything her own children have outgrown. On a hunch, she reaches out to a handful of friends with a call for similar donations. The response is overwhelming, and within three days, she has collected approximately 300 sets of pajamas – new and gently worn – which she sends with that clinic founder back to Burundi.

This is Sarah Machiels Bennison’s story. She is the founder of BENNISON, a children’s pajama company that uses a portion of sales to collect and donate footed pajamas to children in need all over the world.

About that first donation – before there was a BENNISON company – Bennison tells us: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a testament to the fact that everyone wants to do something, but it often feels too intangible – you don’t know what to do.’”

Two weeks later, Bennison received pictures of Burundian children wearing the donated footed pajamas. She shared those photos with the mothers who had donated so much. Soon, Bennison was known as “the pajama lady,” collecting pajamas to send on, on a regular basis.

Setting Up Shop

It was this inspiration to provide others with a tangible way to give that led Bennison to officially set up shop. Her vision was to “expand this movement, starting cycles of giving.” The company would use children’s pajamas to connect business with giving, ultimately supporting global health, maternal care, and infant wellness causes.

Next, Bennison needed to produce pajamas to sell. She headed to Peru, where she would employ mothers and grandmothers to make the pajamas from Pima cotton.

Why Peru? Two reasons: (1) Pima cotton – an ultra-soft, high-quality version of the textile – is readily available there, and (2) as Bennison puts it, “the cycle of giving started with employing these mothers and grandmothers in Peru,” whose income would contribute to their communities’ economic cycle.

BENNISON was in business by 2013, and its founder was learning on her feet: “the infant sleepwear industry is highly regulated,” she tells us. There were fits and starts as Bennison worked on ensuring her product remained luxurious and good-looking, while meeting rules for a snug-fitting and flame-retardant pajama. The plus side? Baby pajamas are season-less by nature, alleviating surplus inventory concerns other clothing-focused start-ups often face.

Game-changing Decisions

Bennison soon had potentially game-changing decisions to make. When she entered into talks with a well-established charitable company, she faced significant barriers to growing at the scale required to join that company’s marketplace. She turned the opportunity down, in favor of growing BENNISON at a less risky pace, making donations – and a positive impact – on her terms. She tells us: “The giving has been exciting for me.”

In 2016, another exciting opportunity presented itself when Bennison met an advertising executive passionate about the work she was doing. He offered to work with her to update her logo and make a big public relations push. One day, two young designers approached Bennison with a new idea: wrap each donated pajama set in packaging made of soap. They would call it “Baby Care Wear.”

Bennison tells us: “the idea behind Baby Care Wear was to combat life-threatening issues like infant hygiene” alongside the warmth each set of pajamas would provide. That meant BENNISON was now helping to keep children in need healthy, warm, and clean long-term. Each sheet of soap paper is perforated. To do an entire load of laundry, recipients simply tear off a small square and add water. The award-winning packaging was first shipped to recipients in Liberia, where aides taught them how to use it.

BENNISON continues to make donations wrapped in Baby Care Wear around the world. That includes donations to some of the poorest areas of New York, where mothers struggle to ensure their newborns’ health.

Refreshing Outlook

So what does this teacher by training think of the future of helping your fellow person in need? Bennison tells us:

“What I’ve seen is that once an opportunity is presented, kids are eager to participate and to engage fully. They yearn for a sense of purpose, ways to understand other people, and opportunities to get out into the world to learn.”

With that refreshing outlook, we asked Bennison one last question: “to what do you attribute your success to date?” She says:

The act of putting one’s child to bed is a tender moment for mothers. There is something very powerful about the association of that feeling, the connection of mothers across time, place, and geographic boundaries, that has resonated with so many different kinds of people. When people donate pajamas to me, they often include notes about why they’re giving. There have been countless touching, moving stories. That helped BENNISON take off well beyond what I could have imagined.”