One local entrepreneur hopes to fill some of the gaps in funding at Hamilton County Schools — with hats.
Last fall, Ty Conner and his wife, Olivia Conner, launched Hattanooga, an online hat company that aims to support local schools and teachers with microgrants.
The mission is achieved by donating $5 from every hat — or "hatt" — to a school cause.
"We want to make sure our hats weren't just going to help students and the schools, but to help the communities, too," Ty Conner said. "There are so many issues in schools you can focus on."
The decision to support Hamilton County Schools was inspired by Olivia Conner's experience as a Project Inspire resident at Ooltewah Middle School during the 2016-2017 school year.
Teachers in need of funding are encouraged to reach out to Ty Conner through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @hattsforheads. Visit hattanooga.com to view the company’s catalog and shop the collection.
The couple moved home to Chattanooga (Ty Conner grew up in the city) after completing graduate school in Colorado, and Olivia Conner was looking for a way to make a difference. Her experience as a Project Inspire resident was eye-opening.
"It was shocking in general to see how little money was available for things like field trips," Olivia Conner said. "My first year as a teacher, I spent a lot of my own money on supplies. And a lot of teachers, especially in math and science, are trying to get their kids to do hands-on things, but it comes at a cost."
Olivia Conner taught eighth-grade science at Ooltewah and now teaches chemistry at Red Bank High School.
"We saw the whole spectrum through her experience," Ty Conner said. "Seeing teachers asking for money for their classrooms, and she knew what it was like," he added.
Hattanooga aligns its mission with the work of Chattanooga 2.0, a community-led collaborative movement tackling education issues, as well as the Public Education Foundation, to which Project Inspire belongs.
So far, the Conners have sold about 200 hats. They come in a variety of styles, including snapbacks, trucker hats, traditional ball caps and beanies, and they range in price from $25-28, according to the company's website.
Before the holidays, the Conners were finally able to distribute their first donation. Ty Conner dropped off a $500 check at Ooltewah Middle School to help support the school's robotics club.
Olivia Conner knew Megan Oliver, who served as her clinical instructor while she was a Project Inspire resident, and witnessed firsthand how important robotics was to the school.
"Last year, we did an engagement night where all the parents came out to see the work we did and they fell in love with the robotics," Olivia Conner said.
When the couple saw Oliver post on Twitter asking for help funding a second robotics program so more students could participate, they felt the timing was perfect.
"I know that any money we give supporting programs like that will go a long way," Olivia Conner said.
Oliver said she'll be able to stretch the grant for several years.
"The money donated will go to help the students to purchase supplies or replace parts on the robots and to cover travel to competitions," Oliver said.
Oliver has taught at Ooltewah Middle for 10 years, but last year was the first the school ever had a robotics club. The club does not receive any funding from the school.
"Some teams charge their students a fee, but I don't do that because we are a Title I school," Oliver said. "Before this grant, all our supplies were bought with a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA], so we are a completely grant-funded program."
Ty Conner acknowledges grant proposals are often tedious and time-consuming, making them difficult for busy teachers who are strapped for funds. Hattanooga is currently operating mostly through word of mouth, but also by engaging with the community through social media.
The Conners plan to take Hattanooga to the streets this year, at the Chattanooga Market and by partnering with other organizations in town.
Olivia Conner also hopes Hattanooga will serve as an inspiration to other local businesses.
"Our goal is to represent this community — shop small, live small, give back to your community — but also to inspire other companies to give back," Olivia Conner said. "If we are a small company and we can give back to Chattanooga and Hamilton County, then they can, too."
Currently, Hattanooga is solely an online operation, as an e-commerce company. The couple, who both work full-time jobs and still devote 20 to 40 hours a week to Hattanooga, are still trying to figure out how to take the business to scale.
So far, Hattanooga has not had to deny any requests for aid, so they are open to the "realm of possibilities" in terms of programs or classrooms to support, Ty Conner said.
The Conners plan on limiting grants to $500 or less so they are able to support a variety of programs each year. They hope to have one day made an impact on every school in Hamilton County.
"It's been an adventure," Olivia Conner said. "I never thought I would have a hat company, and now we do."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.