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Q+A: Public – Supply

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for one DUMBO-based business, a simple notebook may be the most powerful tool of all. At Public – Supply, which designs unique, high-quality notebooks and office supplies, 25% of all profits are donated to fund creative arts in public schools around the world. We sat down with Brian Smith, co-founder of Public – Supply, to learn more.

Tell us a little bit about Public – Supply and how you got started. How do all things start? At a bar over drinks. It was basically a group of friends and we had this two-pronged idea that was to make an object that was beautiful and useful, and to give back to a community that was given to us when we were growing up. So we paired the two and were like, well, what if we use notebooks? Notebooks are how we communicated all through grad school, it’s how we communicate to ourselves, they become these personal milestones for you.

The second part was to do something with the proceeds: to give to students who aren’t as fortunate as we were. In my public high school we had four symphonies. I was very fortunate to have a well-funded arts program, but unfortunately a lot of people aren’t that lucky. Teachers are struggling to make ends meet and they end up spending five-hundred dollars out of their pocket to buy things like paper, crayons, markers, and microphones. We’re doing what we can. We can’t donate three million dollars at a time, but what we can do is, through the donation, bring an awareness to something that needs attention.

How do you connect your notebooks to public school classrooms?
Our mission as it is now is that we give 25% of our profits to public school programs in high-need areas that are doing work in the creative arts. We’ve purchased iPads, MakerBots, cellos, xylophones, thousands of pounds of paper, markers, things like that. We use a non-profit called Donors Choose that we love because it’s very transparent. The teacher writes a creative brief about what she needs and why and casts it out to the world, and then the world gives back. We love seeing the enthusiasm from the teachers and from the students. We also just love that you’re able to follow every dollar. The teachers sends us photos and thank you cards, that aspect is really rewarding.

How has Public – Supply grown since you first started? We began by working with schools in New York because we’re based in New York, but obviously the need doesn’t stop there: there are tons of other programs that are struggling. We were doing partnerships with other companies like Shinola in Detroit and Facebook in Palo Alto and when we started doing these collaborations, we started looking at schools and programs in those areas that could benefit from more supplies. It just sort of expanded from there. We did a collaboration with some Dutch artists who do work in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro so we have a line of notebooks where 100% of the proceeds go to fund community and career workshops in high poverty areas of Rio.

Do you have any advice for social justice-minded entrepreneurs?
It depends on what their forte is – if they’re activists or if they’re makers. For us, we thought it was important, in order to make the biggest impact, that we have a great product that we could stand behind and that stood for something. Whether that product is an actual physical thing or if it’s an event or a program or theory or mindset, our feeling is that it has to be of its best possible nature. Public – Supply could be really boring notebooks and have the same mission, but for the mission to have an impact, the back end and the front end both have to be strong.

>What brought you to DUMBO?
We felt that our previous location lacked a community and like-minded people, the creative folk. We saw an office space down here and we came down to visit and there were so many people. It seems like most of the streets are more like a pedestrian zone, everyone is just walking around, and you run into people you know. It makes for a really inspiring ecosystem that you can plug into. We’ve found ourselves collaborating with people or just going over and talking to someone like, “oh you have a woodshop? I need a woodshop,” so it’s great in that aspect.

To purchase a Public – Supply notebook and support public arts education, click here.