Cooper Schwartz’s parents took him on volunteer outings as a child, hoping to instill a sense of compassion and altruism in him. But they never could have imagined that volunteerism would become such a big part of his identity that it would lead him to start his own business to help others.
Today, at the age of 17, Cooper is the founder and CEO of Hedgehog Beanies, a not-for-profit business that sells stylish winter headwear and donates all proceeds to provide winter clothing to those who are unhoused. For each beanie or hat sold through his website, Cooper donates a beanie, a pair of socks and gloves to a person without safe and consistent housing. The remaining proceeds are donated to shelters and organizations helping the unhoused find stable housing, including homeless veterans.
The inspiration for Hedgehog Beanies came to Cooper as he volunteered with his family at local soup kitchens and clothing drives from fourth to eighth grade while he lived in Connecticut.
“Once or twice a month, I passed out warm clothing and food on the New Haven Green where there’s a high [unhoused] population,” Cooper said. “After meeting all these people and hearing their stories, I wanted to do something bigger.”
So, in May of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic made conditions even more dire for the unhoused population, Cooper started Hedgehog Beanies, funded by the money he saved up working as a youth hockey referee and a start-up loan provided by his dad, with a set of terms for payback.
“It was a mess at the start because of how COVID disrupted the supply chain,” Cooper said. “Everything was delayed and out of stock. But I had a few manufacturers for the beanies, and the initial rounds were a lot of sample testing, probably close to 100 different types of hats. I worked with the companies to establish 12 or 15 hats. Then it was just a matter of keeping relationships with manufacturers and getting the hats on time so that I could sell them on my website.”
While Ian Schwartz helped Cooper kick off the business with a few legal issues and basic business fundamentals, he credits his son for doing the heavy lifting.
“He learned most of this himself in terms of how to set up a business, how to do marketing,” Ian said. “He really connected with a lot of people – store owners, people in the community – who really latched onto what he was trying to do.”
Since sending out its first beanie in November 2020, Hedgehog Beanies has been a massive success, donating more than 16,000 hats, socks and gloves to dozens of shelters and organizations across New England, Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota – states with life-threatening winter conditions. Sometimes Cooper hands them out directly to people experiencing homelessness.
“You can just see that they’re truly grateful for it and it’s stuff that they really need,” Cooper said. “Some people have not been given anything in quite a while, so I think they were very appreciative that I was there.”
Cooper, who moved to Elm Grove, Wisconsin, last August, is now a rising high school senior. Outside of running Hedgehog Beanies, he likes rock-climbing and playing his guitar. And while his young age could’ve caused him to be intimidated when dealing with business owners and adult customers, he didn’t let that hold him back.
“You can be the little guy and still be able to do great things,” Cooper said.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Cooper? Find local volunteer opportunities.