It started with a skirt in Uganda.
While on an undergraduate engineering service trip to East Africa, Virginia Tech alumni Jack DuFour and Alley Heffern first came across the beautiful fabrics of the region, which led to a complete change of their careers and the birth of Taaluma Totes.
Heffern, a class of 2013 civil engineering graduate, said she first requested a skirt made out of the fabric as a souvenir. This led DuFour, a class of 2012 mechanical engineering graduate, to give the seamstress a Jansport backpack, hoping she could replicate it with the same material.
“At first (the backpack) started as a souvenir, but then we thought other people might like this and that maybe we can do something beneficial,” Heffern said.
Instead of pursuing careers in engineering, the graduates quit their jobs and developed Taaluma Totes, a company in which 40 percent of each purchase benefits international fabric trades, jobs in the U.S. and microloans abroad.
Taaluma is the Swahili word for culture, a valuable concept to both of the young entrepreneurs.
“Being able to connect people in the U.S. with all these other countries is really one thing I love about the company and spreading awareness of people overseas,” Heffern said.
Each backpack is unique with its own eclectic patterns and, as such, is only available for a limited time. The fabric is imported from one of four countries — Indonesia, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya. After researching independently, DuFour and Heffern order fabric from a variety of international sellers from these countries.
“It’s pretty wild how you can find random connections,” DuFour said. “There are so many international students at Tech, and it’s a great place that we’ve started with.”
Next, the totes are custom-made in the U.S. by skilled seamstresses who work alongside disabled workers, providing them with jobs despite the manufacturing business’ shift overseas.
The side pocket and inside flap of the backpacks are made of reused burlap coffee sacks from a local coffee roaster in Floyd, Va.
“Reusing the coffee sacks makes each bag a one-of-a-kind, as no two pockets or flaps end up with the same design or writing on them,” DuFour said.
Lastly, a percentage of each purchase is sent back to the small business owners in the country from which the fabric was ordered in the form of a microloan.
Microloans are small investments that can lend money to small business owners, allowing them to expand their company, support their families and create more job opportunities in their communities.
“It’s usually adults who do these microloans, but we’re excited to get students involved as well,” Heffern said.
DuFour and Heffern encourage students who are interested in the company’s cause to take ownership of Taaluma Totes on their campus.
While they are based in the Blacksburg area, the company is seeking to expand.
“We’re still working on spreading the word and starting a student ambassador program for Taaluma Totes on (college) campuses,” Heffern said.
The ambassador program is the duo’s newest idea to expand Taaluma Totes nation-wide. The job of an ambassador is to promote the company and get other students on board.
“We encourage anyone who’s interested to sign up via the application link on our website,” DuFour said. “The biggest thing students can do to help is tell people about (the backpacks) and wear them.”
With their goal stated in the company’s slogan, Heffern and DuFour hope to enable backpack wearers to “Carry a Country” while sporting the bags.
Taaluma Totes is more than just a career for co-founders Heffern and DuFour.
“It’s been this awesome realization that we can put something together that satisfies our passions and call it our lifestyle, because we feel good about what we’re doing,” DuFour said. “If this doesn’t take off, we still will come out with way more than we lost.”