Interview with Hannah Davis: CEO/Founder of BANGS Shoes

Over the past year we have tried to develop profiles of students at Darden who have pursued unique opportunities in economic development. With this post we expand on that scope by launching our first profile of an entrepreneur outside Darden.
Hannah Davis, founder of BANGS Shoes visited Darden this past November, and we followed up with her for an interview to go deeper in her experience as a social entrepreneur. You can check out a video of Hannah speaking at Darden here.


Hannah Davis
Social Entreprenur

Hannah, in 2009 you traveled to Jiangsu Province in Eastern China to teach English. There, you discovered a shoe commonly used by Chinese workers and farmers and struck upon the idea of a new type of shoe that focuses on global good.

The name BANGS derives from the Chinese character for the word help, which is spelled B-A-N-G.

Those who have watched your video or heard you speak at Darden learned about the moment that inspired the creation of BANGS. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from then to now? How did you go about making that moment of inspiration real?

Well, the journey is still in motion, so it's a bit hard to define the events that made BANGS happen. However, going back to the very early days of BANGS, I felt like I had a whole bunch of ideas, but making them into a reality seemed very difficult. One of the biggest early challenges was establishing an international supply chain and finding a manufacturing partner. There is so much competition in the manufacturing space, it’s not easy to find someone who can make low quantities for low prices. Another huge hurdle was setting up a BANGS college engagement program to help us connect with our target demographic.
However, coming back to the question of making BANGS real, the main thing that has aided in the development of BANGS was finding people whose passion and work ethic match my own who I really enjoy working with. A lot of these relationships have come out of random conversations and meetings I had. I feel like most good business happens as a result of sitting down with a compassionate, open-minded, humane person. Actually, the story of our first investor is about just such a conversation.
I met George, who was our first investor and current partner, while I was bar-tending. We had a conversation about BANGS, and he really liked the idea of an entire brand created around investing in the nonprofit space. After a couple of months, he decided to invest and has been a huge part of why BANGS is where it is today. Our 2nd partner, Peter, joined us a few weeks ago. When we met, we just connected. He clicked with the culture George and I worked to cultivate, saw the potential growth in BANGS and wanted to be a part of it. I have worked with Peter unofficially for a couple of months, but just a few days ago offered him a partnership. The biggest, most important thing is he understands the mission and intentions of the company.
It has been these sorts of partnerships that have been the building blocks for BANGS.

Creating a business that makes shoes in China, ships to the US and sells online around the country sounds really complicated. Can you share about some of the challenges that surprised you along the way? Were there any moments you were tempted to give up and how did you move past them?

As I mentioned earlier, getting the Chinese manufacturers to commit to making shoes for an unknown brand was very difficult; however, giving back exists in every culture. So people were very receptive to the idea of BANGS. Even in the business world, humanity and a sense of connectedness transcend things like culture and language. The funniest part was seeing a Chinese reaction to the shoes. The design of the shoes is that of a blue-collar working shoe, and my students couldn't understand why someone in America would want to buy it for fashion purposes .

BANGS is absolutely centered on a social mission to improve lives. How did you go about incorporating that social mission into the business? Were there any natural complementarities you found, or any points where money and mission diverged?

This is really tough question. The social mission vs the business is the battle of every social entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, you're using business as a tool to affect positive social development, but the balance between the two is very, very fine and you just have to find it for yourself.
And it’s not like you find the balance one day and then you just have it. You have to keep searching and balancing every single day. It took me a really long time to come to grips with this dynamic. It was a tough realization that the social model of BANGS cannot have the impact I envision unless the business model is insanely successful.
However, making the shift is critical. You can’t just talk about it. You have to actually do it, which means you're putting energy into working on BOTH the business and the social side. I have to work on this balance literally every single daily, but it's becoming easier. There is an internal battle in terms of where do I put my time and energy, because in the end there is only one of me.
I'm so lucky to have partners who I see eye to eye with on this as well. I've been working with George for a year and we have never had an argument. We may not agree 100% all the time, but we always talk through everything. The important thing for us is to focus on the end goal and keep prioritizing. We'll talk about all the options available and we won't make a decision until everyone is in agreement and bought in.

BANGS is partnered with six amazing non-profits that impact the world in remarkable but different ways. Can you talk about your process for finding and selecting these partners? Do you have any advice for a social entrepreneur looking to find partners in their enterprise?

In finding partners to help us fulfill our social mission, we looked for 3 big things. BANGS's core mission is to invest in sustainable development, and the non-profit partners are the key vehicles for that.
The first criterion was to find partners who share a common vision for sustainable change. Sustainable means that the change we are creating is systemic and not dependent on aid flows. Initially, I simply went on Google to figure out what options were out there but very quickly found myself flooded with organizations engaged in development. Finding those that seemed to genuinely focus on sustainable change was the first critical filter.
The second criterion was finding partners that we could consider mutually beneficial. This meant that they had to be of comparable size to us, and that has held true to most of our partnerships. It meant that our success was relevant and meaningful to the non-profit, and also that our culture was more compatible.
Lastly, I needed to be able to pick up the phone and call these partners whenever I needed to. It always comes back to people and I want to work with people who are easy and fun to talk to. We feed off each other's energy and move forward together, and that means being able to talk with each other freely.
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to build partnerships is to get on the phone. BANGS is a virtual company, which allows us to keep overhead low and focus on having a lean budget. We rely on technology to help us avoid big unnecessary expenses.
However, connectivity can be lost over email, so where possible its best to call people or sit down with them. If you can get someone on the phone or in person, you are so much more effective. The human connection is a big part of forming strong partnerships. So, put simply, target the people you want to meet and find a way to get in front of them.

Being an entrepreneur sounds like a pretty crazy life. How do you stay sane and focused? As the curator of BANGS long-term vision, how do you keep perspective in the midst of the day-to-day?

In the short term..
  • Exercise! Yoga is my savior and it keeps me (relatively) sane.
  • Also, having an amazingly focused team helps. It's impossible to do it alone. George and Peter are huge resources and they help me maintain focus.
In the longer term..
  • My team is my source of sanity. They challenge me on my decisions and help me with doubts.
  • Peter and George do a really good job of helping maintain our vision. Peter in particular helps me keep perspective by helping write down our goals and working backwards. Together, George, Peter, and I break down these bigger goals to daily tasks, and that helps to make sure we have are honest to our long term vision.

What question do you get most often that you wished people stopped asking? What do you wish people asked more often?

I don't think there are any questions I wish people stopped asking. I think it's always good to be getting questions. However, I do find that I usually get the same series of questions, and I've gotten used to anticipating them.
One of the ones I get asked the most is how is BANGS different from TOMS? I think it’s important that people ask the question, so I don't mind responding to it. I think the main difference is that TOMS's mission is to provide shoes. That is the theory behind the one-to-one model.
However, we believe that shoes may not be a comprehensive answer and our goal is to meet the real development challenges people face. BANGS is about partners that will meet the actual needs of the communities we serve. Part of that means providing tools that help people pull themselves out of poverty. The goal is to have a long-term impact and not a quick fix.
I think if we can get that story out, the need for the long-term impact, then that is the best question we can answer.

Thank you for your time Hannah! We are excited for where you and BANGS go in the future, and do look forward to hosting you at Darden in the future.

If you are interested in learning more about BANGS you can check out their

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Articles about BANGS:
BANGS shoes founder Hannah Davis mixes fashion, humanitarianism -
Not 'If' but 'When': Interview with BANGS Shoes' Hannah Davis - Yahoo Voices
BANGS Shoes: Mixing Fashion with a Social Cause - Valley PSU

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