At this point, taking your work on the road and traveling the world is not a new concept. We all know, as we sit at desks in aggressively air conditioned offices, that somewhere in Bali, hordes of digital nomads are working remotely so they can fund their world travels. Adrienne and Andrew McDermott are taking their digital nomad lives a few steps further.
They’ve been traveling and supporting themselves through digital marketing work since 2014. But about 10 months into their nomadic lifestyle, they realized they couldn’t ignore the abject poverty they encountered constantly around the world. That’s when they decided to start The Robe Lives, a nonprofit fashion company that solely benefits African communities in need.
Their business model is simple: They sell robes to customers around the world and 100 percent of their profits benefit The Cup Foundation. The Cup is a Kenya-based NGO working to bring menstrual cups to young girls in 15 impoverished neighborhoods around Nairobi. The execution of their business model, however, is far from simple. First of all, finding the perfect NGO to work with wasn’t easy.
“We swung and missed with a few NGOs who appeared to be doing good on the surface, but weren’t as honest as we expected,” Adrienne told Travel + Leisure. “The idea to partner with The Cup occurred while having dinner at our friends’ home, The African Heritage House, in Nairobi, Kenya.”
Starting a nonprofit completely transformed the McDermotts’ nomadic routine. They’ve always worked on Eastern Standard Time, no matter what time zone they’re living in. And they migrate every few weeks or few months, depending on their destination. But with this new business, they now dedicate eight to nine months of their year to traveling, and then spend three to four months producing garments for The Robe Lives in Tanzania.
“From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., we’re on the streets in East Africa purchasing textiles or in our tailor’s workshop, then working on our computers from 4 p.m. to midnight,” Adrienne explained.
The Cup is hoping to expand to other African countries that Adrienne and Andrew have spent time in, which is one more reason they are excited about their partnership. The Cup has been around since 2015, and in their first two and a half years, they’ve brought menstrual cups to more than 10,000 girls between the ages of 11 and 16. Because of The Cup, the girls miss fewer school days per month and have increased focus.
For some business owners, migrating to different countries around the world would hinder their professional growth. But the McDermotts have found that having a global network and social media following has helped their business enormously.
“About 35 percent of robe sales are outside of the U.S., many of which are to people we’ve met abroad or who follow our personal Instagram accounts, and we just wouldn’t have that if we weren’t on the road,” Adrienne said. “Each robe sold represents one life impacted, so we think that the nomadic lifestyle plays a major role in the amount of good we can do.”
When the McDermotts started traveling more than three years ago, they didn’t have much of a plan. Andrew, with seven years of digital marketing experience, had a few clients he could work remotely for. Now his few clients have grown into a small advertising agency. Two and a half years ago he teamed up with a business associate, and they now have a team of people working with them around the world.
Adrienne was hoping travel would give her a fresh career start. She was on a self-proclaimed “cliché journey” to find a new career path she’d be passionate about.
“It never really happened like [I thought], instead I just started making a garment that I wanted for myself, and kept on meeting strangers in new places and about a dozen coincidences later, it was staring me in the face,” she said.
The fashion niche that The Robe Lives fits into excites Adrienne, but not nearly as much as starting a conversation about menstruation in poverty does. She and Andrew want to encourage discussions around this issue, because not having resources to manage their periods can really hold women back.
“I don’t think this is a conversation that should be held by women alone, so I was thrilled and really proud to have Andrew on board to start this brand together,” Adrienne added.
Overall, does starting a nonprofit business impact their travel schedule? Yes, it definitely takes away some of the freedom they enjoyed in their first few years of traveling. But spending three months a year in Tanzania working 12 hour days is hardly a sacrifice, especially when they see the positive impact on the young women they’re helping. It’s a give and take, and sometimes even Adrienne and Andrew can’t believe they’re running a nonprofit while booking flights to Tokyo and Mallorca.
“I mean, launching a 100-percent remote fashion line sounds ludicrous every time I think about it,” Adrienne said.