With so many apps on the market for food delivery, making a lunch seems like a lost art. However, packing your own food can keep food costs down, not to mention calories. For those who like to leave the house in style, finding a nice lunch bag might have seemed impossible. Not anymore.

T|W Tote is the modern lunch bag making waves in offices and even picnics. With its vegan leather design, the bag has garnered attention as a spacious and stylish upgrade from the boring lunch box we all know. We sat down with co-founder Sherika Wynter to discuss the unique T|W Tote bags, growing a black-owned business through relationships, and what’s next for the brand.

The T|W Tote name combines the last initials of both you and co-designer Shallon Thomas. How did you two meet and come up with T|W Tote?

We share a religious background so as children, we would see each other at events but never spoke. It wasn’t until I moved to the DC area that a friend of mine “introduced” me to Shallon. She felt, “he’s good people to know.” I’m not a people person but hey… what’s the worst that could happen? The rest is history. Shallon, however, may have a different account of the story!

So both of you are from the West Indies! How did your island background inspire your decision to become an entrepreneur?

Our parents instilled qualities centered around independence and excellence. When you see where they’ve come from and what they have accomplished, you can’t help but be motivated. Our parents provided the same takeaways: do better than we did and never settle for anything less than greatness.

Ideally, who is the T|W Tote made for? 
Our primary audience is the professional male between the ages of 25 and 45. As we continue to grow the tote’s brand, we realize our secondary audience is really the professional individual. Both men and women see themselves with our lunch tote.

How did you come up with the T|W Tote design?
The initial design was all Shallon. He had a serious need and decided to investigate what is out there. Once he realized nothing on the market met his needs, he brought the idea to me and we started to sketch. From there, we searched for someone who could either manufacture the idea or provide us with a sample that we can reverse engineer. After about a year of product design and manufacturing, we launched the T|W lunch tote in December 2018.

This tote can fit way more than a sandwich. Just how big is it? Tell us about the compartments it has.

The lunch tote is 10.0″h x 9.4″w x 5.5″d. It has 2 insulated compartments that can hold hot or cold items. You can separate items by temperature, by meal… it’s really your choice. It will keep items cold for up to 16 hours and items hot for up to 8 hours. 

Is my T|W Tote suitable for the outdoors, like a picnic or festival?
Your lunch tote is suitable for all temperatures. Before launch, the tote underwent over six months of testing; outdoors, in the rain, in a hot car. We know our audience is active and we did not want our tote to be restrictive.

Would you consider making smaller versions in the future, so perhaps parents could match with their kids?

Funny you ask. We are currently working on a smaller tote for those who’d like to get one of their young loved one (for example: daddy & me, big brother & little brother) or our women who want a smaller lunch tote to throw into their larger tote. 

What obstacles did you encounter in the pursuit of making T|W Tote?

Design and Manufacturing. We really wanted a high quality, vegan leather. Sadly, it is not the easiest material to source and there are a limited amount of manufacturers specializing in using it. In addition, one of our founders has a type A personality. Nothing short of perfection is accepted. 

In recent years, even more HBCU students are becoming designers. What advice would you give these new designers to start their businesses?
Design to solve root problems, not symptoms. Most users can only verbalize the symptoms they are experiencing. Make sure you understand your market through continuous interaction, usability testing and feedback loops. Users cannot predict the future but they do know what they don’t want. Don’t let your selfish desire to start a business dictate what you produce. 

Did HBCUs play a role in your design process, business, or customer base? How?
Yes many of our supporters used their HBCU network to spread the word about our product. The result was happy customers we personally would never have reached on our own. Shallon finds that the HBCU community is very supportive of black-owned businesses that focus on quality.

Why do you think a product like T|W Tote didn’t exist before?
Honestly, we aren’t sure. But, have you ever seen a great product and be like, “Why didn’t I think about this?” We’ve gotten that response a few times with both our products, T|W tote and The Slip Guard. We just dare to try! 

Designs for T|W Tote are classy single shades. Do you see patterns becoming a part of the design in the future? 

We are trying to push the boundaries of style so we are open to meeting the needs of our clients. Seeing the T|W lunch tote’s parent is a Research and Development company (R&D), we are always touching base with our clientele and target audience to get the feedback needed to dictate the next offerings and their designs. 

Why is it so important to be a black-owned business in America? Also, share why it’s important to support black-owned businesses?

As a culture, we lead culture, rhythm and style. For a long time, non- POC saw the opportunity for financial gain where we were comfortable as mere consumers. As a black-owned business, it is important to recognize our opportunity to change the narrative. We are proud of the fact that we support other small minority businesses and partner with numerous black entrepreneurs.  

Where do you see this T|W Tote headed in the next 5 years?

This is always a hard question to answer, right? Ideally, we would love to see a full line of totes, not just for lunch and meal prepping, but totes that address the needs of males as they progress in life. But, it’s really going to depend on the market. Businesses last because they are able to listen and respond to their market. So we will say: in the next 5 years, T|W tote will continue to meet the needs of our professional male audience.

What’s next for the Thomas&Wynter company?

Thomas & Wynter R&D is growing, quickly, into a product and services company. We will continue to grow our 2 product lines: The Slip Guard and T|W Tote. We will also be solidifying our consulting and professional services arm. We will continue to help minority and under-represented businesses get started and grow. We will move into federal contracts. We will continue to seek out minority partnerships to execute our products and services offerings. 

Where can we follow you on social media?

If you’re on Instagram, you can find the T|W lunch tote at @twtote. If you’re interested in what the founders are doing in their spare time, Sherika is @yingyangflex and Shallon is @sha_turbo.