When Ben Kander pitches his company, he doesn’t talk about the sleek, sustainable water bottles that are becoming so popular these days. He talks about his mother, Ellen Weiss Kander, who died in 2012 after a 13-month battle with liver cancer.
Ben has modeled Welly — a reference to Ellen Weiss Kander’s nickname, Elly — on his mother’s ethos, and hopes to get all the business details right, down to the portion of each bottle’s sale proceeds that go to the nonprofit Charity: Water.
His mom, an attorney, was well-known in town and highly regarded for her passion to make positive change, most notably her founding of Steeltown Entertainment.
Welly recently donated $10,000 to build a clean water well in Malawi. Kander talks about the move in terms of empowering women in the developing world.
“Daughters and mothers are the ones who walk four and five hours a day [in Malawi] to get dirty water,” Kander says. “When the community gets a well, that’s who benefits most. Donating $10,000 as a startup is not easy but the fulfillment comes knowing how proud my mom would be.”
Kander started his water bottle business with a Kickstarter campaign five years ago, but Welly didn’t experience its first full year of sales until 2018. His mission? To stop depending on single-use plastic bottles and replace them with something both sustainable and stylish.
He recently moved the company from New York to Pittsburgh. With a staff of six, plus two summer interns, Welly runs an administrative office and warehouse in North Point Breeze. Kander says the company expects to pass $1 million in sales for its products, which are made overseas, in 2020.
The bottles are sealed with two walls of stainless steel and a layer of bamboo, which provides further insulation to keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot. They come in a plethora of sizes, colors and designs, some of which can be custom-engraved here in Pittsburgh.
Though Kander loves the bottles, and initially designed them for “people like me,” he says more than two-thirds of Welly users are women, those who want to keep their coffee hot at work and their water cold at the gym.
“It’s for the woman who sees these products as a reflection of herself, stylish but also concerned about the environment,” he notes.
His mom would be proud. Squirrel Hill resident Sue Berman Kress, a practicing clinical child psychologist and parenting coach, knew Ellen Weiss Kander socially for years. The two grew closer when they both participated in a leadership program through the Wexner Foundation about 13 years ago.
“I think her effectiveness came from her authenticity,” Kress says. “She didn’t take on a project she didn’t believe in. And she was a very engaging personality. She could get you just as excited as she was about her vision … That’s very powerful.”
Kress cites Ellen Weiss Kander’s work forming Steeltown Entertainment — which seeks, through education and production tax credits, among other means, to keep budding arts talent in Pittsburgh — as one of her most enduring contributions to the region.
“That’s what Ben’s company comes from — ‘I believe I can make a change and, if I believe I can make change, I can,’” Kress says. “Not just that … but, ‘Here’s the hard work that needs to get done.’”
Some of that driving work ethic is pushing Kander forward.
His company is working on a prototype Welly model with LED lights in its cap. Through a Welly app, users could control the color and time intervals of the lights to indicate when they should drink, Kander says. “We’re really just starting to integrate technology with the goal of keeping people hydrated.”
The company is also giving back to Pittsburgh. It recently joined companies such as Coffee Tree Roasters and Nancy B’s Bakery to donate customized care packages to UPMC doctors and nurses. Welly included its 24-ounce tumblers, one of its bigger models.
And Ben is employing his younger brother and is giving his younger sister a seasonal internship at Welly, says his dad, Gregg Kander, who was married to Ellen for 25 years. “The fact that the three of them will be under one roof this summer? She’d be beaming.”