(Editor’s note: This story on School of Entrepreneurship master’s students Quinn Vandenberg and Jonathon Button appeared in the Tulsa World on Dec. 25, 2014).
Story by Sonya Colberg
Entrepreneurs and best friends Quinn Vandenberg and Jonathon Button recall the exact moment they knew they would never turn back.
It was the afternoon Naomi’s big brown eyes lit up when she picked out her brand-new, pink-and-blue school notebook.
And she danced.
Sunlight beamed in on Naomi’s little black shoes clattering in the alley near her impoverished Nicaraguan elementary school. She held the notebook close as she danced on that imaginary stage lined by ramshackle buildings awash in jubilant purple and blue.
And Vandenberg cried.
“We knew we had to go wherever we had to go to make sure children who need school supplies would get them,” Vandenberg said with a catch in her voice.
“Ever since,” said Button, her boyfriend and Life Out of the Box co-founder, “we’ve been trying to share that special moment.”
The couple created their Stillwater-based business to do just that.
Life Out of the Box travels the world, sells handmade bracelets and other goods for $10 to $45 online, then hand-delivers purchased school supplies and nutrition packets to children in poor countries.
The colorful bracelets are handcrafted by artisans in other countries and imprinted with a number. Customers, like the woman whose purchase paid for Naomi’s notebook, may type that number into the company website — lifeoutofthebox.com — to see a picture and short bio of the child they are helping.
Not exactly paradise
It all began about two years ago when they were 25-year-old California entrepreneurs seeking adventure and the chance to give back.
“We quit our jobs and bought one-way tickets to Nicaragua,” Vandenberg said.
“It was a crazy moment,” Button said.
The business model emerged as they visited squalid schools in poor Nicaraguan villages in 2012.
Many schools had no running water or electricity. Often, wells yawned open without covers. School bathrooms frequently had no doors.
Working with nonprofits, they found those organizations used limited funds to address such big needs. School supplies remained the aching problem Life Out of the Box wanted to solve.
But several months into their adventure, Vandenberg was bitten by a mosquito, sparking the “bone-crushing,” often-fatal dengue fever.
The couple sped down dirt roads to the packed, ragtag emergency room, where doctors saved the pale blonde in the crowd of dark-haired villagers with random jungle diseases and crying babes-in-arm.
Bad border experience
Vandenberg’s recuperation took a month. But her brush with death compelled the couple to push on with their business dream.
They set up arrangements with artisans and soon began selling Life Out of the Box bracelets online.
Life Out of the Box expanded northward into Guatemala a year later. In November 2013, the couple packed their treasured bracelets and caught a shuttle van to Mexico to visit more artisans and schools. With video camera in hand, Vandenberg’s sisters joined them.
The little group got off at the border, but the van sped away with duffle bags containing their entire inventory of bracelets.
“Our heart and soul was in those bags,” Button said.
Button jumped in a taxi that sped 90 mph after the shuttle. A policeman stopped the taxi, but the driver quickly explained what happened.
“Just go!” the policeman said.
But Button returned empty-handed to the three crying sisters.
Then they remembered they had captured the shuttle identification on video. Button raced off again.
But when he returned, he slowly, sadly got out of the taxi.
And Vandenberg cried.
So did her sisters.
Vandenberg checked the taxi’s backseat. She shrieked and jumped into Button’s arms when she realized he just couldn’t resist a little prank. The bracelets were safe.
Today, Life Out of the Box, aspiring to help 10,000 students across the globe by the end of 2015, is one of 25 student businesses with office space in the Spears School of Business’s Student Startup Central at Oklahoma State University.
Button, who recently graduated from OSU’s Master in Entrepreneurship program, and Vandenberg, who is wrapping up her master’s degree, work daily alongside six interns, including Tulsa residents Lindsey Willis and Becca Thompson.
“We’re so impressed with the entrepreneurial ecosystem there in Tulsa,” Button said.
When Life Out of the Box graduates from the OSU business incubator, the cofounders said they may move the business to Tulsa.
Meanwhile, they haven’t seen Naomi since that touchstone moment two years ago. Yet the child who received the first Life Out of the Box school supplies and danced for joy in a crumbling alley remains forever on their minds.
“It goes much further than selling a bracelet,” Button said. “We hope to inspire and motivate other people to live their life outside the box.”
“We want them,” Vandenberg added, “to find their own Naomi.”