Thirty years ago, Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup stopped selling clogs out of the back of their car at Chester County horse shows and moved into their own building to create Dansko, their comfort shoe company. In the decades since, sales of their trademark bulbous clogs — no stranger to derision from fashion-savvy contingents — have grown West Grove-based Dansko into a multimillion-dollar business.
Dansko’s ascent was meteoric, claiming a spot among Crocs and Birkenstocks, the tier of sensible shoes deemed so unfashionable they were oddly charming. The company, which gives employees ownership interest (essentially rendering them stockholders), earned acclaim from industry professionals for its business model and was touted as a modern, ethically run organization nestled in a sphere with Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Newman’s Own.
Cabot and Kjellerup, of Kennett Square, retired from the company last January to focus on a new venture whose business model they hope will be as ethically significant: regenerative farming in Belize.
Nine months ago, the couple began to buy 27,000 acres of land in Silk Grass, a tropical village surrounded by the world’s first and largest jaguar preserve, robust fishing activity, and abundant wildlife in the southeastern region of the Central American nation.
Cabot, speaking by phone from Belize, described close to 3,000 acres of their formerly farmed property in Silk Grass as being under “serious degraded status" that urgently needed to be rehabilitated through agroforestry and permaculture. The remaining 24,000 acres is rainforest that she said will be set aside in a preserve.
Cabot and Kjellerup, who named their business Silkgrass Farms, have rehired around 100 Belizians to staff and oversee the farm and fruit-processing plant that already existed on the property. It had fallen into neglect, as had its avocado, citrus, coconut, mango, pineapple, and vanilla crops. Elsewhere on the farm, the couple owns nurseries that grow mahogany, yemeri — a type of tropical hardwood — passionfruit, and cacao.
“The citrus was old and dying, and the coconut was at varying stages of productivity,” said Cabot, 65. “The pineapple was gone and the avocado was gone. It had been neglected for 18 years.”
She and Kjellerup — the latter trained as a farmer in Denmark — are looking to experiment with biochar, a charcoal-like substance produced by burning natural waste (which researchers suspect could mitigate some climate change), and worms to break down organic matter. Those measures, Cabot says, could cultivate healthy fruit groves and allow workers to process and sell oil from the coconuts.
“What if the [business] model could be that the farm was income-generating, providing jobs with dignity and purpose that could start putting capital back into the local community?” said the Harvard-educated Cabot, who serves on the boards of Pennsylvania-Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital, and board service for Longwood Gardens. Peter is on the Board of Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County.
“It’s sort of like reversing the extraction economy that had been imposed on this country for a long, long time," she said, referring to the period of British colonization in Belize during the 19th century.
At Silk Grass, she and husband Kjellerup (pronounced “keller-up”), 74, want to in part implement the charity-based business model of Newman’s Own, the Connecticut-based food company launched in 1982 by late actor Paul Newman and novelist and editor A.E. Hotchner (now 99 years old). The company, which as of 2019 has reportedly donated $550 million to organizations around the world, donates all of its profits via its charitable Newman’s Own Foundation, after accounting for business expenses.
From the Newman’s Own model, “you set up guardrails for how the business should operate and what the mission values are, and you set that up in perpetuity,” Cabot said. “We also want to give every opportunity to the business to continue on long after we’re gone.”
Worm composting and tropical fruit, Cabot acknowledges, is quite the departure from clogs. Yet the Silk Grass business model, she said, is inspired by what she called Dansko’s practice of including its employees as de facto stakeholders.
More broadly, it follows in the trend of a growing cohort of for-profit companies that push for social equality, environmental well-being, transparency to the public, legal accountability, and high-quality jobs. Such businesses are often categorized B Corps, a certification aimed at balancing profit and purpose that companies like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Allagash Brewing have sought. B Corp is one of several initiatives under the auspices of Berwyn-based B Lab.
Dansko had been a certified B Corp for about 10 years, until it disagreed with a change in the latter’s legal policy in January 2018 and stopped being a member. In Belize, Cabot and Kjellerup say they want to certify Silkgrass Holdings as a B Corp, the first one there.
“For me, this is tapping into the entrepreneurial skill set we had when we started Dansko, and I’m way more comfortable and energized at this stage of enterprise building" than she was at Dansko, Cabot said. She has removed herself from Dansko’s day-to-day operations but remains chairwoman of the company’s board of directors, with Kjellerup as director. “Dansko is so far along and in the hands of high-skilled and capable people. It’s at a different set of skills than what we had when we started.”
From their new home in Central America, Cabot and Kjellerup are far from the chefs, restaurant servers, nurses, teachers, and doctors in the U.S. who plod around in Dansko’s thick, utilitarian, wood-bottomed footwear and extol the virtues of such an orthopedically sound shoe.
And the shoe itself has been embraced by a new, unlikely breed of customer: The “most stylish and constitutionally avant-garde” women in New York City have increasingly taken to sporting Danskos, according to the New York Times Style Magazine in 2017. It was, perhaps, a smoke signal that this shoe could be onto something in the wave of “normcore,” the trend of donning unembellished — and at times unfashionable — dress.
Designers once declared the shoe “ugly-chic,” then included them in their stylebooks. Clog Instagrammer Lauren Mechling called it footwear “with no politics,” a “stupidly comfortable place of bad good taste.” Two-thousand-eighteen, the internet declared, was “the year of the clog.”
By most accounts, Dansko, centered in southern Chester County in a squat LEED-certified building where a recycled rain waterfall hydrates a wall of plants, had become a haven for sensible shoe evangelists. (“There is no delicate arch, no pointed toe,” Mechling said, “just leather and wood and practicality.”)
And for the most part, Cabot and Jim Fox, the company’s current chief executive, have little to say about Dansko’s journey in the world of high fashion. They just call it comfortable footwear. Even its name is humble: “dan," or “Danish," and “sko,” or shoe.
She felt it was time to move on.