Emily Núñez Cavness grew up in a strong family, where she was no stranger to the realities of military life. Years later, she has not only followed in their footsteps, but she’s fearlessly blazing her own trail as well. As a former United States Army officer and the co-founder and CEO of her own company, Sword & Plough, Emily proves that a woman’s place is not only in the military, but in the boardroom as well. Read on to learn about her unique childhood, her passion for veterans and their families, and her favorite ways to unwind (Hint: Even badasses like to go antiquing!).
Name: Emily Núñez Cavness
Location: Denver, CO
Current Title/Company: Co-founder and CEO of Sword & Plough
Education: B.A in International Studies
You’ve grown up around the military. How did your early experiences shape your desire to join the military yourself?
I was inspired to serve in the Army after seeing the impactful military careers of my Dad, uncle and cousin. Our dad, Colonel (ret.) Joe Núñez served in the Army for thirty years. During his service, he commanded at the company and battalion levels, taught Political Science at West Point, deployed to Haiti for Operations Restore and Uphold Democracy, and also taught in the Department of National Security & Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. Additionally, our uncle, Colonel (ret.) Ken Cameron, served in the Marine Corps and went on to become a NASA astronaut who piloted three missions to space.
Military families are as diverse as the American population from which they come from.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about military families? What is a common misconception about the American military, and how do you hope to change it?
Military families are as diverse as the American population from which they come from. They’re also some of the strongest and most resilient families. A military family might have one or more service members with those service members potentially deploying at the same time. A military spouse can be a man or woman and his or her position as the spouse can be just as challenging as that of a soldier.
One misconception that sometimes exists about the American military is that everyone who served was in the infantry. There so many different occupational specialties within each military branch and each lends itself to distinct skills that could be applied to a civilian job. At Sword & Plough, we try to change this misconception by sharing background information about the veterans involved in our company and the unique skills they have, many of which first developed during their military service.
While serving on active duty, you managed to co-found and develop a successful company, Sword & Plough. Tell us about the mission of Sword & Plough and why it speaks to you and your passions.
From the beginning, Sword & Plough has been about more than just creating bags. We’ve always been excited to create high-quality products, but our hope was that those products could be used as a platform to promote change. More than anything, Sword & Plough strives to create positive social impact at every stage of its business model through its quadruple bottom line. This enables us to accomplish our mission to empower veteran employment, reduce waste, and strengthen civil-military understanding. I’m so passionate about this mission because, through Sword & Plough, Betsy and I are able to give back to and support the community that we grew up in and that I served in.
Our customers are constantly telling us how they are stopped and asked about their bag. Those conversations are opportunities to talk about the veteran employment and durable materials that are incorporated into each bag.
Sword & Plough supports veteran employment at every stage of our business from design to manufacturing to fulfillment and even many of the models on our site. Since launching in 2013, we have supported 65 veteran jobs through our own company and manufacturing partners. Another key part of the Sword & Plough mission is to reduce waste. By incorporating repurposed military surplus materials into our designs, we are able to significantly reduce our environmental impact as a fashion brand. We also manufacture exclusively in the U.S., which reduces our carbon emissions. To date, we have repurposed over 35,000 pounds of military surplus.
Our team knows that veterans are highly skilled technical professionals and proven leaders that are empowering assets to civilian communities and companies. Through our social media and public speaking opportunities, we share this fact in various ways at every opportunity. Our customers are constantly telling us how they are stopped and asked “where did you get that bag?” Or “what is that bag made out of?” Those conversations are opportunities to bridge the divide and increase understanding between civilian and military communities.
Since launching we have made it a priority to donate 10% of our profits to veteran non-profit organizations that align with our social mission such as Got Your 6 and Team Red, White, & Blue. We’ve also donated more than $27,000 of in-kind Sword & Plough products. This has allowed us to work with over 65 veteran non-profit organizations in the areas of employment, education, health, housing, and leadership.
Sword & Plough repurposes military surplus and military-grade materials into bags and accessories. These materials might otherwise be thrown out, burned, or end up in a landfill if it can’t be reused. Why is it important to recycle such materials?
Since launching in 2013, we have sourced and upcycled more than 35,000 pounds of military surplus, with all of our products being made in America. By repurposing textiles, we do our part to reduce the huge quantities of water, energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and emissions involved in manufacturing new textiles. We also employ environmental manufacturing processes such as 100% domestic sourcing of all fabrics and leather in order to reduce fuel consumption and emissions during transport. Reducing waste and demonstrating sustainable environmental practices as both a business and consumer is important in order to ensure we do our part to protect the earth’s resources and conduct business responsibly.
What skills were necessary to start a new company at a young age? What lessons did you learn in the process? Also, how did your military experience help you in the business world?
Passion was the most important characteristic necessary to start a new company, followed very closely by determination. If Betsy and I weren’t so passionate about helping solve social challenges such as veteran unemployment, the civil-military divide, and unnecessary waste and hadn’t had such a strong interest in fashion growing up, we never would have sustained the energy to carry out the idea for Sword & Plough. Additionally, there were several times when sheer determination was key. We could have given up when our first leather supplier went bankrupt or I found out I was deploying to Afghanistan, but we knew we believed in Sword & Plough’s mission 150% and had to make it a reality. That passion, drive, and determination enabled us to succeed.
We could have given up when our first leather supplier went bankrupt or I found out I was deploying to Afghanistan, but we believed in our mission and had to make it a reality.
Additionally, we have received so much support from our family, professors, mentors, friends, and advisors along our journey. We’ve also found that building an experienced board of advisors and knowing when to ask for assistance can be very helpful, especially for new companies.
I also learned several leadership lessons in the Army that have helped me at Sword & Plough. For example, when I was training as one of the first 100 women to try out for the U.S. Army’s Ranger Training Assessment Course, I learned a lot from the Special Forces master sergeants in my unit that helped me prepare for the physical challenges of the program. In particular, I learned about the tremendous positive impact that occurs to an individual and team when one commits to a goal in the face of adversity and doubt. After continually showing our dedication to our physical training goals, people who at first questioned the idea of female Rangers became some of our strongest supporters. The lessons learned while trying out for Ranger School have helped me immensely at Sword & Plough. The overarching principle of staying committed, confident, and focused on our goals no matter what has definitely stemmed in part from my military service.
When I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, one of my jobs was to serve as our unit’s Public Affairs Officer and to interview our unit’s Afghan National Army partners. In preparation for an interview, I purchased a scarf from the local market and wore it instead of my helmet as a sign of respect for the local culture. It was immediately received well, generated interest, and served as a great icebreaker. The lesson I learned from that experience and others is that situations are often uncertain, but you can improve your chances of fostering relationships by putting in a little extra effort, showing respect for those around you, and bringing a positive attitude.
Tell us about the name Sword & Plough.
Our name, Sword & Plough, comes from the biblical phrase “to turn swords into ploughshares,” which means to take military technologies and materials and apply them to a peaceful civilian purpose. As Betsy and I were trying to think of a name for the idea, a mentor at the Dell Social Innovation Lab reminded us of that phrase, and immediately, we knew “Sword & Plough” was it!
You co-founded Sword & Plough with your sister Betsy. What’s it like to work with an immediate family member full-time? How do you the two of you work together?
It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to create, launch, and run a business with Betsy! I feel so fortunate to be able to spend a lot of quality time together as co-founders as well as sisters. We’re a very strong team because we know each other incredibly well, trust each other, and our strengths complement each other well. I know we’re both very grateful for the opportunity to build our dream company, products, and jobs together!
You can improve your chances of fostering relationships by putting in a little extra effort, showing respect for those around you, and bringing a positive attitude.
Your company is outspoken about the importance of Veterans and their influence in our society, so many of your employees are Veterans. Why is this a passion of yours, and why did you choose to implement this at your company?
This is such a passion of mine because I grew up in a military family, served in the Army, and am keenly aware of the incredible leadership and technical skills that Veterans bring to civilian communities. This is a group of people who have proven themselves under stressful environments and want to continue serving their local and national communities when they return home. I and the Sword & Plough team confidently know and want to share with others that Veterans are strong assets to civilian communities and the workforce. At Sword & Plough, we’ve met such talented Veterans who have brought unique skill sets to our brand, from designers to sewers to manufacturer owners to jewelry makers, even our fulfillment center is Veteran-owned. We know how skilled and dedicated Veterans are and we want to set the example and communicate to others that Veterans are hard-working, creative leaders who want to continue to serve their communities.
What’s your greatest hope for the future of Sword & Plough? Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?
Our greatest hope for Sword & Plough is that we become a strong American heritage brand, a leader in the field of social entrepreneurship, and a well-known household name. In five years, I see myself leading the company along with my co-founder and sister Betsy and the brand having grown our current social impact metrics by 10x.
What’s your personal favorite item from the Sword & Plough collection? Can we expect to see new styles in the near future? And where can we buy it all? (Seriously — we want it all.)
My personal favorite is our Signature Tote, which was the first product ever I designed during my off-duty time as a Second Lieutenant. I also really love our Wool Crossbody and new jewelry line made out of repurposed .50 caliber brass shell casings. You can find all of our products here.
You and your company were featured on the Today show and on Good Morning America. Do you ever get starstruck? What does it mean for you personally to see your amazing company receiving such widespread recognition?
Betsy and I definitely get starstruck (for example, when we got to meet President Obama at The White House, Gayle King at the Forbes Women’s Summit, and Sheryl Sandberg at the Pentagon!). We actually have a little celebratory dance that we do together when we get really excited and have those “oh pinch me, is this really happening!?” moments. We’re for so thankful for every person that supports Sword & Plough, whether that’s a customer who purchases a product, a TV show that invites us to share our story and mission with their audience, or an organization that asks us to speak at an event. No matter what, we always stay focused on our mission and the positive social impact that each of these opportunities allows our company to create.
We’ve gotta be honest — you are one badass boss lady. But even inspirations such as yourself need a little down time — what’s your favorite way to unwind? What’s your best advice to someone feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities and expectations?
My favorite way to unwind after a crazy day is to go for a walk in a nearby park with my husband Cully, cook dinner together, or workout at the gym together. I also love to go to farmers’ markets and antique shops on the weekend. My best advice to someone who is feeling overwhelmed is to try to just focus on the top three priorities that need to be completed first vs. looking at a huge and potentially overwhelming to-do list. Once you get those three tasks done, move on to the next most time sensitive tasks on the list.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Well… when I was 23, I got engaged, Sword & Plough launched on Kickstarter, and one month after that, I deployed to Afghanistan. Looking back, I’d tell myself “be present and enjoy every moment.” With so many things happening, even now, I think it’s always best to focus on and appreciate what’s currently happening.
Emily Nunez Cavness is The Everygirl…
Push-ups, pull-ups, and running
Denver’s local Little Man Ice Cream
Your iPhone camera roll is full of….
Sword & Plough photos and my sister’s pug puppy @muchachothepug
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
It would have to be three: my sister, my mom, and my badass 96-year-old grandmother. They inspire me so much and we always have so much fun when we’re together.