Dinner Partier Spotlight: Meet Ben Kander, Founder of WELLY Bottle

Everyone loves a good lightning-bolt moment: The sudden flash of insight that leads to the birth of an idea, and eventually, in the secret (or not-so-secret) imaginings of every hell-bent entrepreneur, to the next Apple, or Patagonia, or spork.

On Monday, Ben Kander launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first production run of the WELLY Bottle, a sleek new water bottle that’s both good for the consumer or user (your call), and good for the planet.

Maybe the story begins when Ben, armed with a degree in sustainable business, picked up Start Something That Matters. Or maybe when he learned about the toxic fumes generated by the manufacturing of most water bottles, or the fact that more than 80% of water bottles end up in landfills. Maybe it began while he was working in London, and found himself wishing for a water bottle that could fit in his backpocket. But really, it’s a story that begins with Cancer Be Glammed, and Steeltown Entertainment, and the 21 years Ben spent learning from his mom, Ellen (“Elly”) Kander.

Elly was a pillar of the Jewish and philanthropic communities of Pittsburgh. In 2009, she and a friend, Lisa, who had breast cancer, founded Cancer Be Glammed, to help women recover their self-esteem and feel stylish, amidst the debilitating effects of chemo and radiation treatments and constant onslaught of pity faces. Years earlier, she co-founded Steeltown Entertainment, a nonprofit responsible for bringing millions of dollars of revenue to Pittsburgh, by revitalizing the city’s film and television industry.

The oldest of three siblings, Ben was a senior in college when, in 2012, Elly was diagnosed with liver cancer. A lesion found years before was never checked, until it was too late. She died a year later, just after he graduated.

Shortly afterward, he moved to NYC and started working a standard 9-5 job. It was there that he began incubating the idea for WELLY.

Along the way, he discovered TDP. His fiance introduced him to a good friend of hers, Kevin, who co-hosted the first Dinner Party table in Brooklyn.

He was hesitant at first: He’d tried grief groups in the past, and always left the experience feeling worse than when he’d arrived. When he got to Kevin's, he found something very different. For the first hour so, they simply ate and hung out, as you would with any group of friends. By the time loss was mentioned, everyone was already comfortable with one another.

“I felt so at home,” he says. “My friends would always say, 'I'm here for you whenever you want to talk.' They can listen, but they can't really add. There, we were laughing, there was a lightness to it.”

“Every time I’ve left, I’ve felt a sigh of relief, like I removed this set of toxins. Yeah, we get emotional, yeah, we get sad, but every time afterward, I feel better and that's such a blessing.”

It’s that same ying and yang effect--the good, born of the bad--he says, that’s become a familiar part of starting a company, and everything that’s happened since his mom passed.

Early on, he cried every time he got in the shower. “I've learned that when something traumatic happens to you, you can't fight it. As kids, you numb yourself and you don't take it on, and a lot of times that comes back to you in a negative way.”

The sadness never goes away, he says. But today, he is, in equal measure, fueled by his mom’s legacy.

Inspired by his mom’s commitment to living well and giving back, Ben has built wellness and sustainability into every aspect of the WELLY bottle, from the bamboo and renewable resources that go into its production, to the filtration system, that purifies the water as you drink it using coconut shells. For every WELLY bottle sold, $1 will go to charity: water, supporting sustainable water projects around the world.

“I do it for her, and I do it with her,” says Ben. “When you have a tough decision to make, you hear this voice in your head telling you what you need to do, even if you don't want to do it. For me, that voice is my mom's, telling me everything she's taught me all my life.”

“Listen to that voice. Let it guide you,” he says. “And I think I have.”


Posted on May 8, 2015 and filed under Rituals.