Carmin Black: How $200 and bullet casings launched Half United to fight hunger ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)

Carmin Black: How $200 and bullet casings launched Half United to fight hunger ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)
You can find previous episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast by clicking links inside this story. (Source: WECT)
You can find previous episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast by clicking links inside this story. (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Carmin Black spent the first part of her professional career telling stories. Carmin and her brother Christian then became the story, founding Half United and joining the worldwide fight against hunger. Now the siblings are contemplating a new chapter, where their efforts with Half United will take on a new look.

Carmin, the elder sibling by about five years, studied journalism at East Carolina University. Internships with ABC News in Washington, DC and with WECT-TV helped her land a job with the Wilmington station after graduation. But the work was not what she anticipated.

"It was a lot," Carmin says about the day-to-day workload of a television news reporter in a market like Wilmington. "When I was on Capitol Hill (as an intern) I had two photogs (videographers), and sometimes I even had a sound guy. I was in the Russel Rotunda speaking to then Secretary of State. I'm looking her in the face, and we had the lights, we had the camera guy, so of course I loved it. Then, I get here (Wilmington), day one, and they're like 'go cover a hermaphrodite cat in Hampstead'. I'm like 'are you frieking kidding me?' They're like 'take your camera with you (to shoot the video), and take your microphone'. I had just graduated college two weeks prior. I'm like 'what am I doing here, I'm really in over my head'."

She applied to Columbia School of Journalism, believing she needed to improve to continue in the industry. After completing the application process, Carmin spoke by phone to one of the counselors. That phone call changed the course of the budding reporter's life. She talks about it at 13:00 of the podcast.

"I went through the whole thing, took the exam, and got a call with one of the advisers," Carmin remembers. "She said to me 'we can tell you have experience, you did a really good job on your exam. It was well written, really, good.' I said 'thank you. Does this mean that I get in?' She said 'the only problem is, you don't want to be a journalist'."

That stunning realization forced Carmin to re-think her future. She ultimately landed an internship at Toms Shoes, where founder Blake Mycoskie had implemented a program to give a pair of shoes to an impoverished child for every pair the company sold. Carmin traveled the country, speaking to students about Toms and its mission. That became the genesis for Half United.

"I was becoming more and more excited about the idea of coming home to North Carolina and actually launching a similar concept and doing it with my brother (Christian), who was at the time trying to start a men's clothing company," Carmin said. "I said 'listen Christian, let's team up, we've been best friends since we were little kids, I've learned a lot at Toms, let's apply my knowledge with your skills in design, and let's give this a go'."

Established companies like Tom's were giving clothing, shoes, water and other essentials to the needy. The Blacks decided to fill a void by providing food, building the cost of providing seven meals to a needy child into every piece of merchandise. They started with a $200.00 loan from their parents and a bag of discarded bullet casings that became the symbol of their effort. Carmin talks about the birth of that idea at 5:30 of the podcast.

"Someone had donated a bag of recycled bullet casings to us," said Carmin. "They said 'we heard you wanted to do jewelry, brass is expensive, we heard you have no money. Melt this down, and use the brass to make charms or whatever you want'. We looked in the bag, and I said 'Christian, what do our customers do?', and he said, 'I don't know, they fight hunger'. I said 'exactly, they are hunger fighters. Let's take something that represents fighting, in a negative way at times, let's spin it on its head and let's turn it into something positive'." To this day, the co-founders still do not know who donated the casings.

Carmin says Hallelu in Wrightsville Beach was the first retail store to sell Half United jewelry. Interest in the company's hand-made pieces began to grow. The 'oh, wow!' moments started happening. Actors wore the necklaces on television shows. Musicians like the Avett Brothers wore them during concerts. T-shirt sales climbed. Listen at 7:30 of the podcast as Carmin talks about those growth moments.

Through arrangements with what Carmin calls "giving partners", Half United has provided meals to needy children in Cambodia, Haiti and Fiji. In the United States, sales also help provide meals to students in an all-girls charter school in Wilmington. Carmin and Christian have traveled overseas to see the need first-hand, including a trip to Haiti with Mycoskie as part of a Tom's Shoes program. That's at 18:45 of the podcast.

"The more I go, the more I understand the people, the more I understand the culture," she says of her trips to Haiti to meet people helped by the company's giving. "It's a weird understanding though. The more I go to Haiti I realize that if I was Haitian, and if I lived here, I would probably be living the same way these people live."

Nordstrom was the first major retail outlet to sell Half United merchandise. Carmin said that move brought the realization that Half United had to expand its' product line. It also led to getting an opportunity to launch new "Giving Back is the New Black" t-shirts, which she says have sold in the thousands so far. You can hear the story of how the young businesswoman from Wilmington pleaded for a chance to talk with a top Nordstrom buyer at 28:40 of the podcast.
In the eight years since Half United began, Carmin Black has received recognition from her community and her peers for Half United's business model and mission of giving. Wilma Magazine named her a "Woman to Watch in Business" in 2012. She was invited to be a panelist at the 2014 Business and Economic Summit in Washington, DC hosted by then-Rep. Mike McIntyre. In March of this year, Katie Ann Rosen Kitchens, the co-founder of FabFitFun product line, included Carmin in a group of female leaders she admires, saying they are "changing the game by creating and running truly fantastic brands". Carmin sloughs off the praise, shaking her head in disbelief.

"That's crazy," she says. "I just don't think you should ever think you've arrived."

Half United has helped provide nearly 700,000 meals to fight hunger since 2009. While she wouldn't go into specific detail, Carmin says some changes are on the way for the company in 2018, including the way you can donate or join the effort as a volunteer. She hinted that even a name change is a possibility. That's what we talked about toward the end of the podcast, as we looked to the future for the business that Carmin and Christian built with that $200 loan from Mom and Dad. A loan the children still haven't paid back.

"It's a running joke between my brother and I that we're not going to," Carmin says with a laugh. "We refuse. We're like 'you gave it to us. That was an investment and we're keeping it!"

I would bet Mom and Dad consider it the best investment they ever made.

You can listen to the entire interview with Carmin Black on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:

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