Small Business & Startups

Entrepreneurs open doors for other startups

Pack Elephant allows artisans to sell and market their products to different businesses.

August 16, 2019
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Pack Elephant
Pack Elephant can make baskets featuring a variety of products from different artisans, all of whom are located in or near Grand Rapids. Courtesy Winsome Kirton

Two entrepreneurs are looking to make an impact in the arts community.

Winsome Kirton and Seghen Aklilu are co-founders of Pack Elephant, a business to business gifting platform that allows for artisans and entrepreneurs to sell and market their products to different businesses. The company was started in 2018 with a presence in Grand Rapids and Austin, Texas, where Aklilu is located.

Between the two locations, Kirton said they are working with 55 artisans — 38 in Grand Rapids and 17 in Texas.

The artists, craftsmen and manufacturers create and make cutting boards, towels, cotton bags, painted cups and glasses, bath soaks, candles, balms, chocolate bars and coffee blends, among other things. Most of the products are made out of local and sustainable materials. All the items are made within an hour of Grand Rapids.

“Right now, (we) are a hybrid model where some of the things are on consignment,” Kirton said. “Some of the things are actually wholesale and resold through us, but on specialty projects, where we are getting things customized, we are just the platform. We are facilitating orders and getting them back to the (contact) so that the artisans are managing the process.”

Some of the organizations Pack Elephant has worked with are Experience Grand Rapids, Rockford Construction and OST, which allows artisans to customize items such as crafting their logos, names and other inscriptions.

Kirton said they have fulfilled orders as large as 250 gift baskets. 

After recently moving to Grand Rapids, Kirton said she started getting involved with the community by joining different organizations such as Local First and going to BNI Breakfasts to become acquainted with the business side of Grand Rapids.

“Grand Rapids first and foremost is a really welcoming market to small businesses and startups,” she said. “The startup culture here is unparalleled for such a small city that comes with a lot of resources that we were able to leverage, like Start Garden. What we were picking up was this trend of people wanting to be a little bit more intentional and conscientious about their purchases and where those products are coming from, in general. You see it from the explosions of farmers markets and people really embracing farm to table. This trend of knowing who makes your stuff, knowing where it comes from, supporting the community has gotten stronger and stronger.”

Kirton and Aklilu presented their idea for Pack Elephant at one of Start Gardens’ 5x5 Pitch Night competitions, which allows five finalists the opportunity to explain their ideas and the winner is awarded $5,000. Pack Elephant won the prize in June 2018.

The company also entered the Start Garden 100, and after hundreds of idea submissions, Kirton and Aklilu were a part of the 100 businesses that were selected. As a result, they won $1,000 to help grow their business.

They will be a part of 100 businesses that will be making a presentation to a group of judges on Aug. 27 Demo Day. The judges will then select a minimum of 10 startups to back.

If Kirton and Aklilu make the cut, they will be presented with an additional $20,000 to continue to grow their business.

“If we win that $20,000, we plan on growing and growing our business,” Kirton said. “I quit my job in November to focus on this business, so I am hell-bent on making this work, and it is working. Now, it is just making sure we are being smart and strategic with our goal … by building a better web platform so that our customers can go in and pack their own combinations, add their own customizations so that it can all run smoothly.

“We want to be in every city everywhere, we want to expand into Detroit, Traverse City and in Texas. After Austin is swamped, we want to expand to Houston, San Antonio and, eventually, leaving our home states and going around the world.”

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