Eric Malette: I AM VT STRONG!

NT: First, can you give us a little background about yourself? Where are you from? Where did your grow up?
EM: I grew up in Brandon. I’ve always been a Vermont boy. Realistically, my story isn’t really that exciting. I grew up in Brandon and I made it all 17 miles south to Rutland.
NT: And that was after high school?
EM: Yes, after high school. I graduated in 03’
NT: How did you come across the “I Am Vermont Strong” idea? Where did it come from? What did it take to actually commit to it?
EM: So, I can’t take full credit; I can at best take half credit. Liz Tomsuden, who is a Rutland High graduate and then a graduate of Endicott, she was the actual creator of the image.
I tell you that to tell you this: the night of the storm we had luckily escaped most of the immediate harm. We were sitting on the sofa and we we’re looking around the internet and seeing all of these negative images being blasted out into the blogosphere; all these sort of ugly images of Vermont falling apart and death and destruction, literally death and destruction.
We are both extreme cheerleaders for the state and our area, and we both said, jeez, this is not what we want for Vermont; this isn’t who we are as a people; we’re suffering in the immediate sense, but that’s not who we are as a people; and, well, it’s okay to recognize that we are going through some turmoil right now, but we certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s going to define us. So, I said, why don’t we create something that says we’re in this together and we’re going to get through this together.
Really the only medium we saw as being a possibility was Facebook. So, Liz and I, we sat down and started crafting an image that eventually became the “I Am Vermont Strong” image. Really, we crafted the image with just the intention of changing our profile pictures. We thought, maybe it’d be fun if some people have the urge to join and, again, sort of grasp hands and show the world, hey, we’re in this together and we’re going to get through it together. That really is as far as we thought it would go.
The next morning our Facebook walls were seas of green: everybody had changed their Facebook pictures over. It wasn’t until probably noon the following day when I received and email from an absolute stranger, someone I couldn’t even find a connection to, who said, hey, I love what your doing, if you put that on a T-shirt, I would buy it. It would be a great way to support local charities.
I thought, well, that’s very sweet of her, but I wasn’t sure that that was the direction that this was going. There was some good energy behind it, but I didn’t think it was going to go that far. Then the requests really started pouring in. A few days after Irene we created the logo and within 48 hours we had over 2,000 fans; we’re up to about 16,000 now. So, we said, we’ve really made it clear that we are committed to our community, so to not bring this forward, if it does have an extended lifespan, would be counter-intuitive and counterproductive to what it was that initially made us do this.
So, I told Liz if I can build an E-store in less than an hour we can move forward with this. I thought I had given myself a pretty good buffer because I consider myself as savvy as the next twenty-something year old; I mean, I grew up with a computer, but I don’t consider myself a wizard. In about 10 minutes, a big button was lit up in the middle of my screen that said click here to launch your E-store and I’m sitting there going “really?” So, I called Liz at her desk and I said go online and see if you can buy a T-shirt; and yea, it worked, and the rest is history. 
NT: How did you guys get the actual image on a shirt?
EM: Well, you known, to use the term team effort would be a complete understatement. Liz and I both have the good fortune of forging enough local contacts in the area that we knew who to reach out to to crank out the physical product; we reached out to a couple of my friends, the Napolitanos at Awesome Graphics in Rutland. I ran by them what we were doing—and they certainly are community cheerleaders as well—and I said is this something you will help us out with and they said “yea, absolutely.” At that point, we thought, hey, we’ll sell a hundred of these T-shirts and we’ll raise a couple grand; it will be great.
They were on board, they could print them locally, and they could keep the costs low enough so that enough of the sales price still went to charity. So, they jumped on board, but they’re not really T-shirt printers; they print one at a time, or half a dozen for somebody’s team building exercise or something; it’s not a mass producing warehouse. They are certainly good at a lot of things, but mass T-shirt printing, I wouldn’t call it their specialty.
When we hit about order number 500 that was when I said, you know, maybe it’s time we outsource this a little bit. There’s another printer in town, Initial Ideas, and that sort of is their specialty. They mass-produce T-shirts; they can do hundreds an hour. I reached out to them and they said yea, we’d love to be a part of this and they said we’ve heard of you, which was really so odd to hear at different stages of this whole process. So, we reached out to Initial Ideas and they printed the first 4,000 or so. 
And then we ended up reaching out to a company called Selfless Tee and they are a pretty amazing outfit. They sort of have a similar story to us. They started this T-shirt movement—I forget the slogan—but it was to raise money for mosquito nets for African countries; that was one of their projects and I’m pretty sure they are now supporting themselves and a small staff by producing T-shirts for causes like ours. What really gave me the great feeling about them was that they reached out to us, which I really loved. They are good business people; they’re astute; they liked us for all of the right reasons; they didn’t look at us and say wow, here’s a chance to make some money. These are a couple of guys that come from the Northeast—they get it. They know what a community feels like; they understand the dynamics that go on in a small town.
Again, we’ve worked with people who have the same passion as we do for this and they just bring a different tool to the table. So, that all speaks to what this movement is and what it will become. And obviously there’s the license plate initiative…
NT: Yea, I was going to ask you about that. How did that happen? I know the Governor got on board.
EM: Yea, we were vetted by a couple of large Vermont manufacturers and I don’t want to say we turned them down, but we were uncomfortable with the idea of becoming too commercialized with the product; we were very proud of the sort of grass roots effort that went into it; the idea of completely commercializing it at the early stages of it made Liz and I a little uncomfortable—very uncomfortable actually—enough so that we actually turned down a couple of pretty high profile offers.
Then the state came knocking on our door—I’d say it was mid January—and at first we struggled a little bit because it was really giving up the baby; handing off your baby to somebody else and we hadn’t really come to grips with it, at that point. We met with Cathy Murphy who is the Chief Marketing Officer for the State of Vermont and again, she said all the right things and she meant it. There’s always the fear that when you start working with the state that you’re going to alienate some people: people that are, quote, unquote, not fans of the man, and we recognized that early on, but we thought to let that minority get in the way of what we had invested thousands of hours into just didn’t make sense. So we did: we gave the state permission and they’ve been great to work with.
There are no secrets that there have been some hiccups. There has been some very public media scrutiny of a couple of things that Governor Shumlin has said about the campaign. But, again, I think everybody’s heart is in the right place and we are all learning at the same pace; we are all learning how this works together and to me that was what this campaign was about: it was about everyday people trying to help other everyday people and some of them happened to be governors and legislatures and stuff like that. So, any growing pains we’ve experienced, specifically growing pains we’ve been through with the state, I don’t think that it was specifically anybody’s fault; we were all learning together and we are all human beings and yea, hiccups happen.
Obviously, the license plates have done nothing but further the initiative. It is something that is quickly being branded with the Vermont mindset. Something that we thought originally had a life span of 3-4 weeks has proven to be a long-term trend. I don’t think that it’s going anywhere soon.
NT: Wow, yea, that is quite the story.
EM: Yea, and that’s actually the nutshell, believe it or not, there were many smaller things in between. Just the biggest thing to stress: for me, it was the sense of reality that we got. It all started out small: first, it was that a newspaper wanted to interview us, and then VPR called—and we were like, oh, wow, this is getting more serious—then the governor’s office called. So, yea, it’s been pretty incredible and I think throughout the whole thing, and it’s so cliché and I don’t think of myself as a cliché person, but it’s so amazing what a couple of people can do, especially in this state. There is something in the mindset of Vermonters that we want others to succeed.
NT: And it’s amazing the role that technology played. I can’t imagine some of these things happening without some of the resources that you were tapping into.
EM: Oh, are you kidding me? Absolutely. If you think about it, on Facebook combined we have 2,000 friends; with that 6-degrees of separation thing, within 48 to 72 hours, you can be in front of 100,000 people—one-sixth the population of Vermont. Yea, there’s no other way to do that without the means of something like Facebook.
NT: Did you foresee the fundraiser reaching this proportion? I’m guessing the answer to that is no.
EM: No, no, not at all. I remember the first time we went to the farmers’ market. We were trying our best to not be location specific; we wanted to make sure it was a state wide initiative; and we both work full time jobs, so the idea of driving around the state selling T-shirts out of our cars wasn’t an option. We had the Rutland Farmers’ Market at our disposal, so we printed 100 T-shirts and said oh, this will be fun, we’ll go down there and maybe sell half of them. That was the following Saturday, so maybe a week later. We get down there and there are literally 150 people looking at us. We hung the banner up and people started mobbing us and I said, take the banner down, take the banner down. We literally didn’t last 30 minutes. We had to turn away well over 100 people saying, we’re sorry, we don’t have them.
NT: So it was basically how fast you could get rid of them?
EM: Yea, hand over fist. I would have somebody come up to me and say, hey, do you have a medium, and I’d say, no, I only have 3 extra larges left—you know, 3 XXXL—and they’d be like, okay fine, I’ll take it. It’s not even about the T-shirt at that point—that was the funny part. You’re making a donation to a worthy cause and oh, by the way, your going to get a T-shirt for it. So, to answer your question: we did not see it growing to this extent and frankly, the fact that I’m still talking about it 10 months later, to me, is absolutely insane. I didn’t think I would be talking about this last December. I thought hey, yea, a nice cute couple from Vermont raised a couple thousand dollars for the Vermont food bank. Yea, that’s great, that’s fantastic, that’s what Vermont is all about. We didn’t think of it becoming what it has.
NT: Yea, I think what made this so special is that it was homegrown, so you don’t have people questioning your integrity. Which is so important here and I think people jump on that.
EM: Yea, I mean to say that there wasn’t any questioning of our integrity would probably be a stretch. There certainly was some in the beginning and I tell you, that was hard to take. That was very hard to take. I remember the first time Liz and I got some negative feedback that sort of attacked us as human beings and we said, oh my god; and again, not to pat ourselves on the back, but it was the Vermont thing. We weren’t going to let the minority bring us down when five thousand people are telling you that what you’re doing is a good thing.
Everybody said yea, we believe that what your doing is right. As Vermonters, I tend to believe that you are always innocent until proven guilty; if what you’re doing is a good thing, they are going to help you out. We have met some amazing people along the way that we will probably know for a very long time.
NT: So Eric, are you guys still raising money now?
EM: Well, of course, the sale of license plates, yes. A store in Middlebury that I was at the other day, they have a waiting list of 45 people who are waiting for them; it’s just a matter of how quickly they can crank the things out; how quickly they can stamp them. So yea, things are certainly still ticking along, and honestly, I couldn’t think of a more organic way to advertise. I mean, you have thousands of these things driving at your car every day; a reminder, you know. It’s the no billboard state but boy, right now we probably have thousands of license plates out there everyday that are increasing the brand awareness and increasing sales.
All of our apparel right now is still with Selfless Tee. We are not with the stores; it is something that we would very much like to get into. But I repeat, Liz and I both have very full time jobs and the idea of getting these into brick and mortar stores is a little daunting at this point. I’m not sure even where to do that.
But we run two-week campaigns with Selfless Tee. So what happens is we will announce on our Facebook page that there is another campaign running and people have 14 days to get to the Selfless Tee web site, place their order and then at the conclusion of the two weeks the T-shirts are printed and then sold. So we run a campaign so we are not producing T-shirts that we don’t want and again that to me is about waste. I don’t want to be sitting on thousands of unsold, unused, unwanted T-shirt. So, to be a little bit eco-friendly we run two-week campaigns; we get the orders so we only produce the number of T-shirts that we need.
NT: That’s a good idea
EM: From a fiscal point of view it makes a lot more sense but from an ecological point of view, it is even smarter, you know, I don’t want to produce waste.
NT: Okay, so this next question is how does the “I Am Vermont Strong” mantra that you guys crafted reflect your relationship with the state?
EM: Well, it’s funny: I think I define “I Am Vermont Strong” as much as “I Am Vermont Strong” defines me. I’ve made a commitment to the state. We’ve made a commitment not to leave. We’re here, and that has been a very important part of who I am as a person. I listen to so many of my friends and their mantra is I need to get the hell out of here. My mantra has been, if you want your community to be better you must do something to make it better. It drives me nuts: these small towns and small cities were good enough to raise us, and we talk about how proud we are to be from Vermont and to have grown up in Vermont, but damn it, so many of us get in our cars and drive away looking for the greener grass. I firmly believe that the greener grass is here is Vermont and I am not going anywhere looking for it.
NT: Right. So what are some of the things that you enjoy doing in Vermont?
I’m a big kayaker and there is not a better state to kayak in; and it sounds sort of cheesy, but just the people: I love the people of Vermont. I travel quite a bit for how I make a living and the biggest thing that always strikes me is that Vermonters like waving. I’ll be like in North Carolina and you pass a couple of joggers on some back road and give them the Vermont wave. Just kind of to say I see you, I’m not going to hit you, good for being out on a run—they don’t wave back. I don’t know, that’s not a specific state, maybe they do wave back in North Carolina, but I love the Vermont wave. Everywhere you go people are just inviting and I love that about Vermont. So I do all I can to spend time outside; I think that’s important; it’s our biggest resource.  Besides the people, the outdoors is our biggest resource.    
NT: And you’re at the Paramount Theatre right? That’s what you do for work?
EM: I am yea. It’s great. I am the programming director, so I arrange the talent that appears on the stage. I’m a talent buyer.
NT: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to stay at the theatre? You’re clearly going to stay in the state.
EM: Yep, I have no intentions of leaving. I love Rutland—I think it is that wonderful little diamond in the rough. I think we can see the diamond; we haven’t really quite got to it yet or know how big that diamond is; I want to be a part of finding out how big that diamond is. I think that there is a lot more to it than what we can already see; I want to be a part of that; in small ways, big ways, I want to be a part of that; not just complaining, but offering ways to make it better; putting work into it. So yea, I plan on staying in Rutland, on working here at the theatre. I have a small production company and I produce about 30 live events in New England and New York every year, separate from the theatre. So that’s kind of cool; so I get to see other places. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to come down on other states or other communities. But it’s certainly nice, after a long 800 or 1000 mile road trip from other theatres that I’ve produced in to come back home.
NT: Can you speak to the importance of volunteering in Vermont?
EM: Most importantly, first, is the cheese factor to this. With volunteering, you may not get paid cash, but what I’ve learned through this entire process, specifically the Vermont Strong campaign, is that you do get paid: you get paid thank you’s, you get paid with your community’s approval of what it is your doing; what volunteering does to you as a person is something that a paycheck can never do.
Like I’ve said, I’ve met people through this campaign that do things that are a 100 times more difficult than what Liz and I have done, and they do it for free as well. What I’ve gotten through this campaign is nothing that money can buy. In high school you’re told about that community service stuff and yea, I groaned too, I was like c’mon, really, I have to go do this. Man oh man you just don’t appreciate it enough because once you get comfortable with who you are as a human being and you find your niche in the world and like what you do, volunteering isn’t a daunting task. When you realize that it’s making where you live a better place; that you’re not doing it because you have some requirement to fulfill; that your doing it because you want to do it.
Quirky questions:
One of your favorite places in Vermont?
Chittenden dam, Chittenden reservoir. Any dirt road.
Do you have a favorite play?
I respect what the Vermont symphony orchestra does. Outdoor summer series. Concerts on the green.
Favorite band or song right now?
Mumford and sons. Billy Joel
Favorite thing to do in your free time?
Kayaking, driving.
Favorite restaurant.
“Roots” restaurant in Rutland. Serving all locally sourced food.
By Neel Tandan