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‘Shark Tank’ Bets Big on Senior Living Residents

How do you tug the heartstrings of the iron-willed business tycoons on ABC’s entrepreneur competition show “Shark Tank”? Turns out a senior living knitting group will do the trick.

Ten years ago, designer Sarah Oliver began knitting handbags as gifts for friends and family, but when demand for her product took off, she enlisted the help of The Redwoods Retirement Community, a nonprofit independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing campus in Mill Valley, California, to keep up with production. Dubbed The Purlettes + Two (the two representing the male members), the group receives knitting assignments from Oliver on a weekly basis while playing an active role in her business, Sarah Oliver Handbags.

“When I first came, it was the fun of seeing a small business grow,” Ellie Leva, a four-year member of The Purlettes + Two, tells Senior Housing News. “And then I suddenly realized that I was really needed, and I hadn’t been needed for quite a few years. It makes you feel alive.”

Most recently, Oliver appeared on “Shark Tank,” a television program offering budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their ideas to five business moguls, who decide whether to invest in the idea at hand. Given the grassroots nature of Sarah Oliver Handbags, Oliver proved an ideal contestant—but the involvement of The Redwoods and The Purlettess + One (as the group then was known) provided a significant edge.

The business, in turn, has been positive for The Redwoods and its residents.

“Some of the things that we really stress here are about living a very full life and having people be as independent as they can be, and having them use their brains, use their bodies,” The Redwoods CEO Barbara Solomon tells Senior Housing News. “This program fits right into it, because knitting hits so many of those things. I think for the residents, it’s been fantastic, and for us, it’s exactly what we’re here to do.”

The ‘Shark Tank’ Experience

Over the years, Oliver says there have been times when she had to cut back on handbag production due to a lack of sales.

“The knitters are very dependent on the work, which is really hard,” Oliver says. “They want to keep the group going, but if I don’t have the cash flow, then it gets tricky at certain points of the year.”

Still, “Shark Tank” had never been something she considered pursuing on her own, she says, until one of the show’s producers approached her in June. At the time, marketing money was nearly nonexistent, and extra capital to travel to trade shows was very limited.

“The company needed a boost, and we needed sales,” Oliver says. “We’re very bootstrapped, and we thought this would be one way to get the word out to the whole country.”

12314050_1076168839090025_1915333217403692913_nOn Dec. 4, the episode in which Oliver presented her business model before the five tycoons aired. She sought $250,000 for 20% equity in her company, and after some deliberation and back-and-forth, she scored $250,000 from tycoons Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Kevin O’Leary for 30% equity.

“It was intense,” she says. “It’s something that I don’t think in my professional career I will ever experience again.”

Now that the show has aired, Oliver says there’s an “extensive due diligence period” in which the investors crunch numbers, delve into personal data and explore tax returns. Further details on the investment and how it will eventually pan out, however, can’t be divulged, she says. During the episode, Herjavec, Greiner and O’Leary also mentioned scaling up the business and adding more Purlettes to boost production.

Mutual Benefits

For Oliver, the endeavor has always gone beyond the business itself, which is why the company was set up originally as a benefit corporation in California, and why she includes a card inside each handbag with a quote from the knitter who made that particular piece.

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And while the investment through “Shark Tank” might enable the company to spread its business model to other industries and expand, Oliver says an uptick in sales might also allow the opportunity to give back.

“My goal is more than just the bags,” she says. “We as a company try to highlight more than just what [the seniors] are doing for the company, more than just the knitting.”

Thus far, the concept has positively impacted both the community and the residents themselves, Solomon says.

“I think participating in a business is key to being able to still participate in the world and give back in some way,” she says.

Oliver meets with The Purlettes + Two once a week, starting each meeting by going over what new stores are carrying the handbags, how different fundraising events went and how sales have been. The members contribute their ideas on what stores or events Sarah Oliver Handbags should consider, and from there, Oliver collects what they’ve knit, hands out new assignments for the week ahead and makes sure all participants have been paid for their work—an example on the show being $17 for one small crossbody bag.

About a year ago, Oliver even set up an additional knitting circle at The Sequoias San Francisco, a continuing care retirement community of Northern California Presbyterian Homes and Services, which has proven to be “a well-attended group that thoroughly enjoys the endeavor and loves the ‘pocket money’ and the socialization that comes from it,” says Candiece Milford, lead director of marketing.

“Our mission is to engage seniors in the workforce,” Oliver says. “It’s been a work in progress for these last 10 years, but we’re really excited about the future given the exposure from ‘Shark Tank.’”

For the residents at The Redwoods, involvement in The Purlettes + Two has been more than enough.

“What would we do if we weren’t knitting?” Leva says.

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

Photographs from Sarah Oliver Handbags