A proven entrepreneur with a vision for impact
Chuck Slaughter developed two passions early in life: travel and business.
He learned his first lessons in sales and distribution as a paper boy growing up in Connecticut. Later he fell in love with faraway lands and peoples while leading overseas bike trips during school breaks. These two passions have driven him ever since.
As an undergrad at Yale, Chuck earned his BA in Architecture. At college, he opened a bike repair business that generated little profit but ample lessons in start-up economics. After college he cast about for work that would unite his passions for travel and business, and he hoped, make the world a bit better off. He tried starting a company to produce documentary films about social issues – another start up that failed to lift off. Then, in 1987, he opened the New York Times and read an article that changed everything. The story was about Trickle Up (TUP), a pioneer of the microfinance movement. A visionary 20 years before Kiva, TUP kick-started micro-businesses around the world with $100 checks the founders wrote directly to poor entrepreneurs from their New York apartment. Deeply inspired, he put down the paper, picked up the phone, and asked TUP for a job. Two weeks later he became a program officer for TUP traveling throughout India, Nepal and Indonesia. On his travels he learned about the world-changing power of both micro-entrepreneurs like Trickle Up’s clients and social entrepreneurs like TUPs founders, Glen and Mille Leet.
At Glen’s encouragement, Chuck returned to Yale to earn his Masters in Public and Private Management. At graduate school, he tried again to combine his aspirations by developing a business plan for a direct mail catalog to sell handicrafts made by TUP entrepreneurs. This start-up never got started – as it became clear the scale it needed to succeed would outgrow the very small producers it aimed to help. After business school, Chuck took a brief turn as a management consultant, but kept daydreaming about business ideas that would unite his interests. In 1991, inspiration arrived. He was packing for a trip and struggling to find clothes that were travel-worthy. Necessity ever the mother of invention, this packing problem lead Chuck to launch TravelSmith – a direct mail catalog dedicated to the needs of serious travelers. Unlike his previous entrepreneurial false starts, TravelSmith took off. Using just $ 2.5 million in seed capital, the company grew by 150% a year for six straight years, reaching over $100 million in sales and two million loyal customers.
The company achieved top-of-industry profits but then suffered a near-death reversal when foreign travel came to a standstill after the 2001 attacks. After a strenuous two year turnaround, the company was back on top. Around the same time Chuck married fellow entrepreneur Molly West, and in 2003 they welcomed their first of three sons, Cooper. After 12 years building TravelSmith, Chuck became restless and began dreaming again, this time about business ideas with the potential for big social impact. In 2004, he sold TravelSmith with the intention of taking time to muse, and enjoy his new family.
The respite for reflection proved short. Just weeks after selling his company a friend at private equity firm Golden Gate Capital asked him to help turn around the bankrupt Spiegel catalog business. Chuck co-invested in that deal and then, as a part-time adviser and investor with Golden Gate, participated in the acquisition and turnaround of a half dozen more major consumer businesses with over $2 billion in sales.
During the same period, a good friend introduced Chuck to The Health Store/CFW Shops, a struggling system of franchised drug shops in Kenya. He joined the Health Store board, and then volunteered his turnaround skills to help put the organization on its feet. Chuck saw limitations in CFW’s storefront model. Unprofitable shop owners were idle for much of the day, waiting for sick people to walk in, and storefronts were not viable in rural areas. As a test he encouraged the shop owners to get out and knock on doors and visit schools. The experiment worked beautifully. Quickly he asked “What if we got rid of the stores altogether and used only mobile agents?” “Hold on” he thought, “Isn’t there a hugely successful business model that does just that – i.e. Avon?” He wondered if the power of Avon’s model of franchised door-to-door agents could lower costs, improve profits, and improve rural reach. He saw a mobile model could focus on keeping people healthy, rather than waiting to treat them when they got sick. Researching its history Chuck learned that Avon started in rural America in the 1880s when villages had poor access to quality goods and women had few money-earning opportunities, a lot like rural Africa today. And he learned that Avon grew to become a $10 billion business that thrives in over 100 countries. If Avon could reach this scale selling purely discretionary items, imagine the potential of this model to market things people desperately need.
Understanding that there is no better way to learn than from the inside, he ordered a starter kit and tried his hand as an “Avon lady.” What he lacked in lipstick sales he made up for in learning. He launched Living Goods in Uganda in 2007 stealing shamelessly from the Avon playbook. With Living Goods he envisions more than creating a high-impact social enterprise. He’s after a model with the potential for game-changing scale, that will improve the lives of millions by inspiring visionary global NGOs and businesses to build sustainable micro-franchises that bring life-changing products to families who need them most.
Chuck learned early and often that in all new endeavors that failure is a vital ingredient in success. It’s a lesson Living Goods uses every day, constantly trying new ideas where the price of failure is small but the payoff of success is life-changing for the poor.