Business combines charity, Prairies

Promoting #prairieproud | New apparel line boosts Prairie image, contributes to worthy causes

Cole Thorpe wears his prairie pride on his chest, and he wants everyone else to do the same.

In mid-April, the 23-year-old Saskatoon-based entrepreneur launched Prairie Proud Apparel, a line of T-shirts and sweaters with a sheaf logo.

The shirts have already been spotted as far away as Italy, are sported by Prairie celebrities and are raising money for charities at the same time.

In an interview the day before he convocated from the Edwards School of Business, he said it was important to give back to communities and organizations that helped him while growing up in tiny Spy Hill, Sask. and during university.

“All of this comes back to the people and the organizations on the Prairies that have been nothing but good to me,” he said.

Thorpe has had a hand in already raising nearly $250,000 for the Child­ren’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan during university.

He co-captained the business school’s JDC West business competition win and last year he chaired a national mining competition for business schools. The competitions drove his interest in entrepreneurship.

“This is where I got the idea to look at the success of some of the other businesses in the apparel industry and giving back as a social cause,” he explained. “But it’s also part of my personal value set.”

In recent months he developed the concept and located suppliers.

He also secured a silent, private investor — a local farmer from back home — who loved the idea and was prepared to back the launch.

It’s been a little bit scary.

“It’s not a class assignment anymore,” Thorpe said. “You’ve got accountable stakeholders. I’ve got an investor I have to report to.”

But he also believed this was the right time to start his business rather than try an entry level business job.

So far, so good.

His second order has been submitted and he’s already diversifying the product line from T-shirts and bunnyhugs to hats and tank tops.

He developed new logos because he wants the business to truly reflect the Prairies.

New apparel features an oil derrick, and a buffalo design is in the works.

A Saskatoon company does the embroidery and silk screening, while an American company makes the clothing.

Thorpe said it’s important to him that his suppliers are responsible manufacturers who meet international requirements.

The cheapest supplier isn’t necessarily the best, he said, and when people buy his branded products they should get quality.

Social media has quickly spread word of the new venture.

Celebrities such as the band Doc Walker and singer Jess Moskaluke are wearing the gear and Thorpe is hoping to bring professional sports players from the Prairies on board.

“I’m running this out of my spare bedroom right now,” he said. “It’s definitely a grassroots start-up.”

As the company grows he hopes to move to a warehouse space but thinks a storefront won’t be an option in the near future. Instead he’s talking to retailers about carrying his products.

“Most retailers have said basically we don’t invest in anybody until they can prove themselves and that they have demand for their product,” Thorpe said.

Demand is strong and he believes the charity angle is a reason for that.

Thorpe secured an organization in each province: the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan, the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba.

He developed a contribution structure, called the organizations and they all said they would participate.

For each item up to $30, Prairie Proud Apparel donates $1 to the charity in the province from where the on-line order is placed.

Buyers from outside the Prairies have an option at the online checkout to select the organization they want their purchases to support.

“Approximately, it works out to just over five percent of sales,” Thorpe said.

He has used his contact base from university to spread the word on social media sites. His strategy was to get early adopters who would then help promote his product by posting photos of themselves and use the hashtag #prairieproud.

Because social media sites are powerful, he said he has a few friends who have already said they will help out if the company takes off suddenly and he’s unable to handle it by himself.

His investor has also said he’d invest further if the launch is a success.

“Every bit of cash I’ve got has gone back into the business,” Thorpe said.

Within the next couple of months he’ll know whether the business will ramp up or stall. Many are asking for children’s clothing, he said, and that would be a way to expand it further.

Visit Thorpe’s website here:

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