Graduating student makes his mark

It’s been quite a journey for Bath student James Boon as he prepares to say goodbye to the university.

James Boon with one of his Elephant Branded bags

The postgraduate, who receives his degree on Tuesday 2 July at Bath Abbey, not only leaves with a Masters in Architecture but also as the successful boss of a business that has seen him crowned one of Google’s Zeitgeist Young Minds.

The 24-year-old entrepreneur, who studied for his first degree at the University of Nottingham, set up Elephant Branded in 2012 and runs it with his friend and fellow student Tim Mendelssohn, who graduated last year. The company supplies bags and related products made from recycled cement sacks by a co-operative which now employs 75 women in Cambodia. For each product sold, the company donates a school bag and kit to a child in third world countries. James set up the company after travelling in Africa and Asia where he was shocked by the lack of basic school equipment.

In between studying for his Masters, the 24-year-old has also pressed the flesh with US President Bill Clinton and UN leader Kofi Annan, built a network of reps selling his products in universities up and down the country, seen his company named in the top 25 start-ups in the UK and supplied Google with delegate bags for one of its conferences.

He’s also appeared on BBC3’s Be Your Own Boss and now supplies the distinctively branded wallets and bags to High Street behemoth John Lewis, as well as selling online.

His idea for Elephant Branded really got off the ground during a semester spent in Hong Kong in his first year at Bath. And he has built the business in between lectures and writing essays for his postgraduate degree.

James with his branded products

“It was a bit crazy at times having this dual life. I remember being in the pitch for John Lewis thinking I’ve got an essay that needs to be handed in when I finish this. And it was strange sometimes to be sitting in lectures while getting messages from the women in Cambodia telling me about their trip to the Apple store to try out the tablet bags and getting chased out of the shop by the security guard. But technology has really made the world a much smaller place and now the business is largely automated so we really can run it from our smartphones.

“My lecturers have always been really open and supportive and understood when I needed to take time off to go and pitch. And the Enterprise Unit really is one of the jewels in the University. Through being part of SETSquared we really benefited being able to meet fellow student entrepreneurs. They helped with ideas and networks because they were going through the same experiences as Tim and I. That was incredibly useful.

“It is a bit scary to think there are 75 women in Cambodia who rely on us – it’s a huge responsibility. But equally I think it’s part of maturing at university to realise there’s more to the world than just yourself. So I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved and that those women now have choices and opportunities they didn’t have before.

“I’d say to any student that they can do it too. It’s a great time to try things out while you’re at university because you don’t have a mortgage or a family and there is that support network around you. So I think university is the time to take some risks – and get as much advice and support that you can while you’re there.”

Despite two degrees in Architecture James doesn’t think there’s a career there for him. “I liked studying architecture. It shows you how to think holistically because it’s a balance between art and science and has given me a very rounded education and view of the world.

“But what now? I’m going back to Hong Kong where there are some other opportunities I’m looking into. Life is for living and now’s the time to go a bit crazy because London and England will always be here so there’s time to come back to that more traditional path in life. I don’t know quite what the future holds but Bath has given me a good grounding and made me much more confident. I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t studied here.”

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