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Alumni Spotlight on Tom Stewart '05: Kickstarting a Career in the Great Outdoors

“Anything can be done, the question is just how you do it,” says Shipley alumnus Tom Stewart ’05, co-founder of the rapidly expanding sunglass and outdoor lifestyle start-up Sunski, and something of an authority on getting things done.
Born out of Stewart and his business partner Michael Charley’s post-graduate wanderings, Sunski was founded in 2012 as a last-ditch effort by the pair to develop a product that could combine slick design with their love of the great outdoors.
Unlike the duo’s initial design venture—in home-wares with a product called the Salsabol—Sunski tapped into Stewart and Charley’s personal sensibilities, as well as their ambition to maintain a solid work-life balance and a deep-seeded drive for excellence.
“I don’t like to do things just because other people are doing them,” says Stewart, who accredits his Shipley experience with nurturing the independent streak and longstanding demand for excellence from himself that has seen him evolve into a successful entrepreneur.

Laying Roots of Success

Stewart’s legitimate success with Sunski hardly happened overnight, though, and the origins of his sharp shades’ company has roots in Stewart’s Shipley experience.
A South Philadelphia native, Stewart began his schooling at St. Peter’s School in Center City before transferring to Shipley in ninth grade to complete his grade-school education.
Ultimately, Stewart wholeheartedly embraced Shipley, but at the start of his freshman year he felt a little like an outsider. “My classmates were foreign to me on so many levels,” he says, in part due to his new-kid status, and partly due to his standing as a beneficiary of Shipley’s financial aid program, “which I was definitely aware of as a student from day one,” says Stewart.
But that foreign feeling did not last very long, thanks to an outpouring of support from multiple sources at the School, including teachers, peers, and policies—like the freedom to visit the music studio whenever he wanted.

Finding His Place

Already a talented drummer, it was his time behind a drum set during school hours that helped ease him into his niche at Shipley. “To be able to have access to drums during the school day was a really big deal to me,” says Stewart. “The individualism I found through the drums was the nexus for a lot of the good experiences I had while I was at Shipley.”
Throughout his tenure, Stewart spent a lot of time in both the music and visual art departments at Shipley. “The wonderful Mr. Roland was a truly incredible teacher,” recalls Stewart, “He, along with Mrs. Wagner and Mr. Baris in the art department, and Mr. Coleman in the French wing, are at the top of my list of some of my favorites. I had so many great teachers at Shipley.”

Expecting Excellence

Anchored by his artistic talent, Stewart acclimated to Shipley’s academic culture through a support system of not only its teachers, but also through friendships with like-minded peers, all of which, Stewart says, were intellectually driven. “I was immediately made aware that there was another level I could achieve when I came to Shipley,” he says. “That turned out to be a way of sending me on a path towards demanding excellence of myself, which I still try and do.”
In addition to music and academic studies, though, Stewart also had the chance to focus on the visual arts at Shipley. “I took studio art all the way through to the AP level, which was an essential part of my Shipley education because I went on to study architecture at Columbia after I graduated from Shipley,” he says.

Designing a Future

After his well-rounded experience at Shipley, studying architecture at Columbia University in New York seemed a natural evolution for Stewart, who knew he wanted to work with the physical world and was drawn to the nature of the design work. “I knew I wanted to be designing something—at that point I had no idea what, but I really wanted to be designing,” he says.
Fortunately, the architecture program at Columbia engaged students at a multidisciplinary level, giving Stewart the chance to explore many facets of designing. “The program wasn’t focused on just cranking out architects after graduation,” says Stewart, who was interested in pursuing design work outside of the traditional realm of an architecture firm from the get-go.
From his first taste of the architectural career trajectory, Stewart knew that path wasn’t exactly for him. “I was always interested in being my own boss and running my life on my own schedule,” says Stewart.

Reaching Out

After graduation, Stewart took advantage of an opportunity to work at a university in Switzerland, where he ultimately had a fantastic experience. “Eventually, most every weekend I was taking a train somewhere else and walking through nature for two or three days and staying in mountain huts. So it was a really awesome trip,” he says—but initially the recent graduate knew no one and spent a lot of time alone.
Stewart found empathy online in his college classmate Michael Charley, who was similarly isolated. Charley, who would eventually become Stewart’s business partner at Sunski, could not find work, and though Stewart loved the atmosphere in Zurich, he didn’t know a soul. The combination proved to be a fortuitous formula for business development. “We ended up commiserating online and decided to go into business together during that period,” says Stewart.

Partnering in Business

Both somewhat adrift, the new partners sought a direction. “We were looking for anything to do,” says Stewart, so he and Charley settled on producing a ceramic salsa bowl—the Salsabol—which Stewart had conceptualized while still in school at Shipley.
After developing the design, the duo dove right in and sent the Salsabol into production. But, while the Salsabol was still being manufactured, Stewart struck out for the sunshine of Australia on a surfing trip. “It was on that surf trip,” Stewart explains, “that I found the vintage sunglasses that ultimately would become the inspiration for our Sunski Kickstarter project three years later.”
Developing Salsabol was a deep-end learning experience, but after more than two years in business Stewart and Charley realized their product wasn’t resonating. “We looked at our bank accounts and said we had about three months working together before we had to apply for jobs. Let’s do one last hurrah,” says Stewart.

Taking One Last Chance

That last hurrah? Stewart and Charley took a chance on developing a better pair of sunglasses to suit their active outdoor lifestyle with affordable frames based on the vintage pair Stewart had scooped up in Australia. To fund the project, Stewart and Charley took their Sunski shade revival concept to crowdfunding site Kickstarter, and the project ended up raising more than $150,000, making Sunski the third-largest fundraising project on the site for fashion products at the time.
Now, rather than developing products aimed at an unfamiliar demographic (two twenty-somethings were not equipped to market to the domestic-focused set) Stewart and Charley are building a brand that not only demonstrates a passion for a great product, but also reflects the core values of its founders, one of which is to get outside and thoroughly enjoy the natural world with a keen eye towards maintaining a solid work-life balance.

Adapting to Mother Nature’s Schedule

A long-time outdoors enthusiast, Stewart has grown to love all kinds of outdoor activities, from surfing in the ocean to skiing in the mountains. But, “all of those pursuits are nature dependent, you’re on nature’s schedule,” says Stewart. “When the waves are good, it might be three o’clock in the afternoon, and you would probably be at work—and that stinks! I was not super comfortable with that concept.”
To Stewart, the adaptation to Mother Nature’s schedule is not merely about catching the best waves, it’s about embracing the lifestyle he’s selling. “When we switched our business to one that focused on being outside and celebrated being in the sun, everything started to click because our business life was in harmony with our outdoor passions,” he says. “Suddenly, genuine messaging was coming out because it’s grounded in reality.”
That authentic messaging alongside a hip product has proven to be a great success, and Sunski has sold 75,000 pairs of sunglasses by the end of only its second year in business—an impressive feat. “It’s really fun because it allows us to champion the everyday person who loves being outside, but also has an eye for style. And that’s a really fun person to build a company around,” says Stewart.
Now, looking back on a year-long wholesale cycle, the team is looking to plan out and manage their time moving forward. “We need to grow into ourselves now,” says Stewart. “A big part of what inspires me is to find a way to keep living that balanced life, and living that life while the business grows.”
The challenge of finding that balance isn’t daunting to Stewart, either. “That drive, that demand for excellence from yourself, I think Shipley definitely nurtured from the very beginning,” he says.
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.