Ballston Spa

Outlook 2021: Ballston Spa woman using hand-drawn designs to help battle hunger in her community

Betsy Seplowitz works on some of her mandala drawings.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Betsy Seplowitz works on some of her mandala drawings.

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

Betsy Seplowitz of Ballston Spa has never taken an art class. She has no experience in manufacturing. What she does have is a burning desire to help alleviate hunger in children.

That was part of the impetus for launching Nourish Designs in November 2019, the heart of which is her hand-drawn mandala designs.

“I started five or six years ago drawing patterns, just kind of doodling,” she said. “I started drawing mandalas and it clicked for me. It was something I loved doing and it’s like a meditation for me.”

Seplowitz posted one of her drawings on social media and got rave reviews from friends, and the encouragement to do “something” with the drawings.

Several years ago, Seplowitz volunteered to help out with the launch of the backpack program at Milton Terrace Elementary School in Ballston Spa where her children were students. The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York launched the program 13 years ago, seeking to fill the gap in food supply that came on the weekends when children were not in school. While there were free breakfasts and lunches during the school day, there was nothing on the weekend. Each week, volunteers for the backpack program pack backpacks full of nutritious and easy-to-prepare foods, and schools discreetly distribute them to students on Friday afternoons. The backpack program opened Seplowitz’s eyes to a huge need right in her own community.

While her business was still in the idea stage, Seplowitz consulted with the Regional Food Bank. “As she started up this new business venture, she wanted to partner with an organization that she felt strongly helped the community,” said Betsy Dickson, director of children’s programs at the Regional Food Bank. Dickson said Seplowitz expressed that she had seen the difference the backpack program made in her own community and that she wanted to have the proceeds from her business serve a higher cause.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Seplowitz draws her mandalas, then they are screen-printed or embroidered onto various items. Her mandalas go mostly on apparel for men, women and children, but she also has other products, including a water bottle, coffee cups, masks, tea towels and aprons. She is always on the lookout for other products on which to imprint her artwork; a dog bandana may be in the works soon.

Any products she uses, however, Seplowitz tests herself. “I’m picky about what we use,” she said. “Everything’s been washed and touched. I wanted a really high-quality product for the water bottle. And the T-shirts — I want it to be the first shirt you reach for.”

Spreading the word

Seplowitz had planned to sell her products at in-person events such as craft and artisan fairs, but COVID-19 changed that. When the pandemic hit, Seplowitz knew she had to alter her original plan. “I knew there was a need greater than ever before for everyone,” Seplowitz said. While she had been fulfilling some orders through her website, now was the time to shift the majority of her business to that model. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to make this an e-commerce business and not rely on meeting in person,’ ” Seplowitz said.

She started with social media and word-of-mouth marketing.

“I used any way I could come up with to get my word out,” she said. These efforts resulted in an invitation to join a small online marketplace, something she had never done before. She watched what others in the marketplace were doing and learned some techniques for selling her products. She recruited people to host online social media group parties and started a newsletter. “I got more and more people following me, and it’s just kind of taken off with this grassroots marketing,” she said.

While most of her designs are general ones, last summer she designed a custom logo for her daughter’s school. The school put them on T-shirts and sweatshirts, and sold them as a fundraiser. The other three elementary schools in the Ballston Spa Central School District followed suit based on the success of Milton Terrace’s efforts. Now the idea has spread to other schools in New York as well as some businesses, such as Berle Farm in Hoosick Falls. Seplowitz is also working on a mandala for Ballston Spa’s business district.

“I would love to do more of that for sure,” she said. “People have such great pride in their hometowns, and it’s a way to support that and benefit the community.”

Community impact

Seplowitz makes clear that Nourish Designs is a for-profit business, but she also emphasizes that a portion of each sale will be donated to fight hunger. The Regional Food Bank receives contributions from other nonprofit community groups such as churches and community organizations, Dickson said, but not necessarily from a lot of businesses. “I would have to say that this is a very unique partnership,” she said of Seplowitz’s donations. “Quarterly, she just sends us a donation to support the backpack program.”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Seplowitz notes that many companies give generously to different organizations, for example, donating a flat rate out of their profits. “I always think that’s hard because you don’t know what their profit is,” she said. For that reason, under each item on her website she lists the number of meals that will be provided through that purchase. “I wanted every purchase to have a really transparent impact,” Seplowitz said. “For example, a $29 T-shirt provides 12 meals for children. People know exactly what impact their purchase makes. We haven’t turned a profit yet, but when you make a purchase with Nourish, you know that whatever happens with my bottom line, that specific amount is going for meals.”

In addition to feeding children, Seplowitz seeks to support other local and small businesses with the products she purchases to imprint her designs. “We all know that there’s a great benefit to supporting local vendors,” she said, noting that three of her vendors are local, so she knows that she is supporting at least three families.

From the start, Seplowitz’s long-term goal was not to be limited to customers in her own community. “I wanted to become a larger brand that was recognized in the Northeast, if not nationally,” she said. “In a way, COVID hurried that up.” In the coming year, she plans to expand her customer base and product offerings in order to increase the number of meals she can provide for children. In just over a year in business, Nourish Designs has provided 26,000 meals. “I would be thrilled to double that in 2021,” she said.

For Seplowitz, without a cause, there would not be a business.

“I absolutely love the drawing, and to think of the impact for kids who may not otherwise have had meals over the weekend and to know that they are getting them because of what we’re doing with Nourish, that’s the driving force of them all,” she said. “If I was just drawing mandalas and selling T-shirts, I don’t think that would’ve fulfilled me. But to know that there are kids who might have been hungry but aren’t because of what we’re doing with Nourish is amazing. That’s definitely what drives the business. Otherwise, I would just draw mandalas by myself.”

At a glance

Nourish Designs: For information, call 518-885-1358, visit www.nourishdesigns.com, @nourishdesignsstudio on Instagram, or visit Nourish Design’s Facebook page.

Backpack stats: Currently, the Regional Food Bank’s backpack program serves 156 students each week in the Ballston Spa Central School District. Overall, the program works with 252 schools in 22 New York counties, providing food for 7,000 children each week. In the 2019 to 2020 school year, that totaled 2.3 million meals. “The need is tremendous all over the country,” Seplowitz said. “There’s not a community in the nation that couldn’t benefit from programs that support kids.”

A family affair: Seplowitz has help with photography and inventory management from her husband, Eric, a fine art photographer. He also shares his Ballston Spa studio space with her now that she founded Nourish Designs. Her sister, Brenda Shih, a graphic designer in Oregon, also helps.

Getting the word out about hunger: Even if people do not purchase her products, Seplowitz hopes Nourish Designs will create an awareness of the “need for fighting hunger among kids” and the needs of children in people’s own communities.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Categories: Business, News, Outlook 2021, Saratoga County

Leave a Reply