Bow ties are formal. Quirky. Maybe even fussy.
But to Nathan Ledesma (BBA ’09), Austin Morris (BBA ’10), Mike Sullivan (BS ’08), and Derek Varona (BA ’07, MSA ’08), there’s more to bow ties than meets the eye. The four friends, all different class years, met through the Sigma Pi fraternity at Loyola. After graduation, Ledesma, Morris, and Varona went to work for Deloitte in Chicago. Sullivan enrolled in law school at John Marshall. Morris and Ledesma started wearing bow ties at work on Fridays, on a whim.
“I thought, I’m going to be a tax accountant. I have to do something cool,” says Morris. “So I started wearing a bow tie.”
Meanwhile, the four Loyola grads had been looking for a way to get involved in community service. “We volunteered through the fraternity in college, and we’d all gone to Catholic high school,” says Morris. “We all had the common desire to do something like that after college.”
Wondering if there was a way to align their fashion statement—that is, bow ties— with their itch to get involved, they turned to the only place one might find such a seemingly improbable marriage: the Internet. That’s where they first stumbled across BowTie Cause, an organization started by former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones that produces bow ties to promote awareness of a variety of causes. Ledesma sent an e-mail indicating that he and his friends were interested in learning more and getting involved.
Meanwhile, Sullivan did his own research. “I had been talking with Nathan about this, so I looked it up, and I found that they had only done one or two ties,” he says. “It turned out that their first bow tie was for juvenile diabetes research—which my sister has. I thought, ‘This is amazing. And a very strange coincidence.’”
Sullivan contacted one of the coordinators of the juvenile diabetes research foundation gala in Cincinnati, at which Dhani Jones had introduced the bow tie. The coordinator sent some of the bow ties to Sullivan, and the four friends wore them to the Chicago juvenile diabetes gala. They then posted pictures of themselves at the event on Twitter. That got the attention of Chad Williamson, the CEO of BowTie Cause who started the organization with Jones.
“It was sort of crazy the way it started,” says Williamson. “I saw this Tweet of a picture of all of them at the Chicago Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala wearing the bow tie we’d done for Cincinnati. I thought, ‘Who are these guys that care this much about their cause?’ And it turns out it was the same guys that had just e-mailed me.”
Williamson asked the guys to put together a proposal about what they could offer.
“We said, ‘We want to bring your organization to Chicago, using skills we’ve learned at Deloitte and leveraging networks with Loyola,’” says Varona. Williamson was impressed.
Although the foursome started by attending galas, Tweeting photos, and helping to build the image of the organization, they have come to play a larger role in the BowTie Cause. Whereas Williamson’s background is in social work, the business acumen of Morris, Varona, Ledesma, and Sullivan has helped the organization to expand. They manage partnerships with other organizations that are interested in a bow tie, from pricing models to design, timing, shipping, and packaging.
So far, BowTie Cause has 62 partners and has produced 46 bow ties, for causes from leukemia and lymphoma to Cincinnati Public Radio to Immaculate Conception School in Chicago. In 2011, they sold about 7,000 bow ties. In January of 2012 alone, they sold 2,300.
“It’s unbelievable to look at the traction we’re starting to get,” says Morris. “Not only from partners who want to design a bow tie, but I get easily five or six e-mails per day from individuals who want to buy a bow tie because they have a personal connection to a cause. It’s neat to see it blooming like that.”
The four are careful to point out that wearing the bow tie is not an empty gesture, and not just a way to express vague support for a cause. The ties are designed with fairly abstract patterns, and pointedly don’t include logos or names of organizations.
“We want people to ask questions,” says Sullivan. “That’s the real value—not as a fundraising tool, but as a reason to tell the story.”
“We don’t put bow ties on and then not talk about it,” says Morris.
As rewarding as the four find their involvement in BowTie Cause, they admit that it’s time-consuming.
“We’re accountants at Deloitte and a law student,” says Ledesma. “We put in time before work, after work, or during lunch. Our Saturday might be spent at an event or planning.”
“Although it can be done,” says Morris. “Nathan [who is training for a marathon] has been known to bust a move Saturday night and then get up Sunday morning and run 18 miles.”
“I run Saturday or Sunday, and sometimes I don’t know if I’m sore from dancing all night or training,” Ledesma agrees.
Every Tuesday morning, they have a 7 a.m. conference call, each of them plugging in from wherever they are in the country to hash out what’s going on the rest of the week. Varona recently transferred to a Deloitte office in Miami, so he is helping to get BowTie Cause off the ground there.
“It’s about being organized, and then being more organized,” says Sullivan.
It’s also about constant communication.
“We share docs back and forth so we can edit while we’re talking, from wherever we are,” says Morris. “Plus, we know each other really well, so I’m comfortable calling Derek, saying ‘Find out this answer,’ and then hanging up. We don’t need to talk any more than that, and he’ll send me an e-mail. It’s helpful to be able to communicate that efficiently.”
From its casual origins, the cause has grown to become an integrated part of the foursome’s professional and personal lives.
“We had lunch over the summer and said, if we’re going to get serious, we need to be able to push each other and not be afraid to call each other out if something’s done incorrectly,” says Ledesma. “We had to figure out how to say so without hurting anyone’s feelings. We’re friends first, and business associates after that. That’s sometimes a tough line to cross. At the end of the day, we want to look out for each other, but we all understand what this means to us.”
In other words, it’s not worth doing if they don’t do it right.
“If we’re not organized, detailed and able to communicate, then we are not effective, and our partner’s stories never get told. And if our partner’s stories aren’t getting told, there’s no reason for doing this,” says Morris.
They four do see themselves benefiting on a personal level as well. They’re gaining valuable organizational experience as well as expanding their networks and their resumes. They all express genuine delight at being able to help their wide variety of partners bring visibility to their causes. And they get to do it in style.