Chris Welles Interview: Out of Africa a Second Act Found Him
Diana Landau | March 16, 2021
In this episode, Carl talks with Chris Welles, the Founder and President of American Rhino, a successful apparel and home goods brand. The company is so much more than t-shirts, canvas totes and hand-painted trays depicting zebras, however. Thanks to Chris and his vision for the business, which donates 10% of every sale back to Kenya, American Rhino is the new business model for a purpose-driven fashion business that supports Kenyan land and wildlife conservation, as well as the local communities.
Chris founded the company a little over four years ago. Yet the seeds of this new entrepreneurship began with a family trip to Africa on a safari in 2008. Chris was an executive recruiter at the time, living in Boston. He says the trip was transformative for him and his family. In 2010, Chris and his oldest son returned to Kenya, as they were invited to participate in the Rhino Charge, an annual off-road motorsport competition raising funds for rhino and wildlife conservation. As the only American team in the race, they were known as the “American Rhinos” and he outfitted the team with hats and t-shirts emblazoned with a red, white and blue rhino logo designed by his son.
So how does a vacation inspiration turn into a business? “We didn't do well but we had a blast,” Chris told us. He said they never had a chance at winning the competition but the requests for hats and tees with their logo kept coming. “We had no clue on how to make it (apparel) or market it or any of that stuff. That was part of the fun, figuring all that out.” Rather than having the items made in the Far East, they made a decision that their goods would benefit East Africa. “Early on we thought, let’s find a way to make our goods in the areas of the world that we are supporting.”
Chris started knocking on doors, looking for opportunities. “I asked a lot of questions.” Meeting initial resistance, he kept going back and eventually made agreements with African companies to produce their goods. Pre-COVID, the company had 4 seasonal stores, a retail store in Boston plus online sales and has done pretty well. They are poised for growth.
The most meaningful part of this journey for Chris was creating the American Rhino foundation to raise funds to protect the endangered species. When he first met the “Rhino Rangers”, they had little in the way of gear and supplies to protect the black rhinos in the Masai Mara Reserve from poachers. The foundation has given several grants for uniforms, camping gear, vehicles, etc.
FACT: 25% of all new companies are started by Baby Boomers.*
Carl asked Chris if he had advice for Boomer entrepreneurs. “It’s been a blast. It is certainly daunting. As Boomers we’ve all figured out how much money we have left and it’s a little scary investing your money in a startup. But it’s so rewarding."
"Make sure you are really enjoying it."
"It’s important to have some kind of mission behind it, not just making as much money as possible."
"There are so many reasons to say no. Find the one good reason to do it and go for it! "
Diana Landau is the Content Wrangler for Pickleball Media. After 15 years in corporate marketing, in 2012 she pivoted to write and wrangle content for Niche Media's weekly blog. She now manages the “I Used to Be Somebody” weekly blog.