After receiving her own “heartbreak in a box,” a Navy sailor founded an innovative service to easily send high quality care packages to deployed troops.
After receiving her own “heartbreak in a box,” a Navy sailor founded an innovative service to easily send high quality care packages to deployed troops.
About Troopster: Serving Those Who Serve Our Country
Serving and protecting others is one of the most noble and courageous callings in the world. Every hour of every day, our first responders and military members put their own lives on the line to assist and defend their fellow human beings.
We watched their bravery as police, firefighters, and healthcare workers ran toward danger to save lives at the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on 9/11. We were witness to their courage as tens of thousands of American troops deployed on missions to defeat terrorism and remove despots. These are incredible people dedicated to doing good for others and not thinking of themselves, but answering the call to help.
As we solemnly mark the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks and the conclusion of two decades of war, it’s important for us to recognize those who charge in to help when others are fleeing for safety. That includes the hundreds of thousands of active-duty U.S. personnel still serving combat deployments and peacekeeping missions around the world – and those who support them.
From Active Duty to Acts of Generosity
U.S. Navy veteran Chelsea Mandello is one of the people committed to encouraging and sustaining the men and women of our military. While serving aboard her seventh ship during an 11-month deployment, Chelsea was devastated to receive a care package that had been ruined by time and shipping damage. Seeing her shipmates similarly disappointed, she knew there had to be a better way.
Chelsea founded Troopster military care package service while still on active duty, reading how-to books during lunch breaks and using her leave to take Boots to Business classes. Since its inception, Troopster has sent more than 26,000 care packages to troops everywhere, from submarines under the ocean to lonely outposts in the desert to those newly arrived at boot camp.
Some of the things you’ll hear in this episode include:
- The story that epitomizes the heroism and selflessness displayed by the U.S. Armed Forces
- The advice Chelsea’s mom offered that persuaded her to launch Troopster
- The top five most-requested items in a care package (one is surprising!) and the unexpected customers who are buying them
- The insightful advice Chelsea would give to her younger self
I strongly encourage you to visit Troopster.org and say thank you to a service member by sending a care package. If you don’t know anyone serving in the military, the company maintains a list of troops without a support network who would be thrilled to receive your gift. It’s an easy and meaningful way to express your appreciation to those serving our country.
Chelsea Mandello Interview
FRANK BLAKE: First, welcome.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Thank you.
FRANK BLAKE: I’m going to start by thanking you for your service to the country and the Navy, correct?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Mm-hmm. Right.
FRANK BLAKE: I have a point of view that service to our country in the military is its own crazy good turn. And I heard you tell a story, I think it was actually on YouTube, about an event on a ship that just characterizes the selflessness and heroism of our service members. And maybe you share that story just as a starter before we get into Troopster?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So, that was a very interesting moment that happened because it really demonstrated the test that these individuals go through whenever they’re deployed, that anything can happen. This jet was about to take off. It was on board the USS Kearsarge, which is a littoral amphibious ship. And the jet’s about to take off when all of a sudden it catches fire and the pilot immediately has to eject. But the big thing is that there was ammunitions, there was a bomb on board that jet. Without hesitation, all of the sailors in recognizing that there’s a fire, they immediately jump into action. They go, they get the hoses, they get the things that they need to do. And they immediately respond. There was no consideration of getting away from the fire. They all promptly jumped straight into action.
And that moment was captured on tape. We recorded it, the MCs, the photojournalists, who were there documented that. But what was amazing was that they did everything that they were supposed to do correctly. I mean, within 20 seconds, they already had the fire extinguished. They had the bomb removed. They had the pilot out in safe distance from it. And it was just amazing reaction time.
FRANK BLAKE: To me, the impressive part of that story is not only the training element, but that what they are doing is running to danger and where every instinct is probably “I want to be as far away from that fire as possible,” you actually are running towards the fire. And this is a side note, but one of my favorite commercials from Home Depot was, so Home Depot prides itself on responding to natural emergencies, and we had a commercial that showed a Home Depot truck and it comes to a fork in the road and down one direction of the road is bright sunshine and down another direction of the road, it’s horrible weather and dark clouds. And the truck turns to the dark clouds. And your story of those folks rescuing that plane is exactly that story. It’s people doing good for others and not thinking of themselves, but being mindful of what their job is and what their job is to help others.
So, thank you for sharing that.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Absolutely.
FRANK BLAKE: What got you into the Navy and how long did you serve and where did you serve?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So I joined the Navy back in 2011, right out of college. I had just graduated with my degree in advertising and I decided that before I went into a corporate position and did that for the rest of my life, that I wanted to see the world. I’m from a military family. So I grew up hearing all of these great sea stories and I kind of wanted those for myself. So I joined the Navy as a photojournalist, as a Navy photographer and right off the bat, it was an amazing experience. I went to work for Navy Public Affairs. We are the eyes and ears for the military. So not just Navy branch, but we go out all around the world with the different branches and we document things that are happening around the world. Every deployment I was going to Malaysia or I was going in the field.
FRANK BLAKE: How many different deployments did you do?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So I was actually on 13 different deployments.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yes, I was on nine different ships, sometimes even foreign ships. So I worked across not just the United States Navy, but also different ally ships.
FRANK BLAKE: So when you’re on all your deployments, I assume that one of the things that happened was you were waiting to hear from the outside world and that’s one of the things that prompted Troopster?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yes, I was on my seventh ship and we were in the Mediterranean for anti-piracy operations. So the area that we were deployed in was unsafe territory. We were capturing pirates. And honestly, whenever you’re in the middle of something like that, life is far more challenging. You can’t communicate with home, you don’t receive mails often. And so by the time you do receive something like a care package or a letter, it is just Christmas at sea. I mean, it means so much to you. And so, we had been out there for about eight months and we hadn’t heard anything from home. We hadn’t been able to communicate back because of the job that we were doing, the nature of the mission. And we got word that we were finally receiving mail. And so this was just a jubilation on the ship.
And you have to imagine 3,000 sailors and Marines were just excited to finally get mail. And I remember, it’s an all hands movement. You have these giant helos who are bringing over just pallets and pallets and pallets of mail that has been collected and stored over the past four or five months. And so we’re all down there just getting and receiving these packages. And I remember I got this big box from my mom. Now, my mom is from rural Kentucky. So I know that it takes her an hour to get anywhere if she’s going to shop for stuff or even take a care pack to a post office. And I was so excited to get this box that I rushed it upstairs, I tore it open. I don’t even think I used scissors. I just went through it. But I immediately was heartbroken because everything in it had gone bad, the chocolates had melted and just everything crushed, broken.
And this was kind of my heartbreak in a box because it felt as though after all of the stress that we were going through, the things that we were doing, just constant work and pressure and then there was this. And something that I realized was that I was not the only person that this was happening to. A majority of the ship, which a day ago we had been so excited to get these care packs now we were all just in a state of depression because we were all throwing these things away. And I thought that there has to be a better way to get there. There has to be something online with Google and Amazon. There has to be a website that can help someone like my mom to send a care package. And I was surprised that in 2013, there wasn’t anything available.
FRANK BLAKE: How difficult is it to send a care package?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So, it’s very challenging because you have to use the postal service, which you have to fill out very specific customs forms. If you don’t fill the customs forms appropriately, then it’ll get sent around the fleet and not actually get to your service member. It can also be expensive if you’re sending bigger boxes. So, it’s a very difficult to even get it overseas.
FRANK BLAKE: So did you decide then and there, I’m going to do something to fix this, or did that sort of stick in the back of your head for a while before you decided to take it on?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Well, actually that day I was immediately impassioned to just try and find a solution. So I had stayed up trying to first find something online. And then when I couldn’t find anything, then next week, I used to have this old sketchbook and so I just started sketching out. What would this imaginary company look like? What would it do? How could we do this and make it better? And I just started toying around first with the idea of how could this company come to fruition. And at that time I had no business experience. I had not paid attention to my business classes when I was in my undergrad. I never thought that I would start a company. So it was just something where I started during lunch breaks, reading papers from the small business administration or how to for dummies books. And then over the course of two years, I slowly put this company together that turned out to be Troopster.
FRANK BLAKE: And when did you actually start it? When in effect did the virtual doors open?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So it’s actually, it’s kind of funny, but I actually launched it Thanksgiving day in 2015, because I had used all of my military leave to take Boots to Business classes. And to take all of these classes, to learn how to start a business. So I didn’t have any leave left to go home for Thanksgiving. And I remember I was on the phone with my mom and I told her, “I have everything. It’s ready, but it’s not perfect. And I’m really afraid to launch.” And she said, “Nothing will ever be perfect. And if you wait for that moment, it’ll never happen. So you might as well just go on ahead and launch now.” And I, and that’s what I did.
FRANK BLAKE: During this process, were there people encouraging you and saying, “Yeah, Chelsea, this is a great idea.” Or were most people saying, “What are you doing? Take your leave. Don’t be so obsessed with this.”
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yeah. I had a bit of both actually. You always are going to have those naysayers who say, “Well, you have no business experience. You have no formal background, so you should really just avoid this.” And then you have others who say, “Wow, that’s a really great idea. And if you believe in it, and if you work hard enough, you can do it.” So it’s just, how much do you believe in yourself and in the idea.
FRANK BLAKE: So you started Thanksgiving day of…
CHELSEA MANDELLO: 2015.
FRANK BLAKE: 2015. So we’re now almost six years later, not quite. How has it gone? How many packages have you sent? What are your big learnings from this?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Oh my gosh. I have learned so much. You have to consider that I launched out of my house while I was still serving in the military. So when I launched, I still had three years left on my Navy contract, which is what I wanted. I wanted to have a paycheck coming in while I started this startup. And at first, it was just something where I was running it out of my living room. I was running to Sam’s club, you know, box stores so that I could get products and I would stand a 24 hour watch, come home exhausted, and pack care packages.
FRANK BLAKE: And these orders came in virtually or people would… I mean, how were you getting the orders to do this?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yeah, so I had looked up e-commerce platforms and so I was receiving orders online, but I was also getting emails from service members, from military families, sometimes calls to place orders. And I was also talking to my customer base to make things better. So at first, instead of the pre-made kits that you have now, at first, I had just a wall of 300 products, and you could just pick a bunch of products and I would make the care pack for you. And I learned that I was having a lot of traffic, but not a lot of orders. So I started reaching out to the people who did place orders. And I started brainstorming with one of the military spouses who said, “You know what would be really great is if you just had pre-made kits, because right now it’s really daunting to go on your site.” And just getting feedback such as that, and not being afraid to reach out to the customers and asking them how I can be better, how Troopster could be better, really, really helped the site.
FRANK BLAKE: And so, out of curiosity, what did most service members want to receive? What are the things that when you open that package, you say, “Wow, this is great?”
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So, it’s funny, but there is kind of a top five favorites list. So beef jerky is one of them. Coffee is another, any kind of coffee, they’re happy with. Usually sweets. So if you can get Skittles, snacks, things like that. Hygiene products. So depending on where you are in the world, you might not have access to water. So baby wipes are very important, and then hot sauce. So…
FRANK BLAKE: Hot sauce. Really?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Oh yes, hot sauce.
FRANK BLAKE: I would not have predicted that. And what are the things that you might think folks want, but actually, eh, not so much.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Not a lot. Yeah. So oddly enough things like baked goods, it doesn’t travel well, by the time we get it, it’s just not great. Also, anything large. So sometimes we’ll get things like magazines or we’ll get something like a big ball or things like that. And we don’t have a lot of storage capacity. So when you’re deployed, no matter what your situation is, you are given very limited space to store things. And so you have to kind of consider that. So if you’re sending things that we really can’t use, or like picture frames or random things like that, we can’t use it. So we ended up having to give it away or throw it away.
FRANK BLAKE: So now you’re in your living room, packing these individual packs and at what point does it become obvious that, “Hey, this is actually working. And I can’t do it from my living room”?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: I remember getting this letter from the captain of the USS Eisenhower, which is a very large carrier ship for the US Navy. And they had 3,000 service members and someone had found my website and they had read my story and they wanted to know if I could send them care packages. And I remember looking at this letter thinking, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to send 3,000 care packages?” And at the time that was so daunting to me. So I reached out to community leaders to other businesses and within, I want to say it was six weeks, we put together our first Pack Event and we got care packages out to those troops.
FRANK BLAKE: So what’s a Pack Event?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Ah, yes. So, we have different variations of care packages. We have the personalized packs where a mom or a dad who has someone deployed, can order a personalized care package that our warehouse does all of the running around, packing, and shipping for. So those are personalized packs. It’s kind of like the Amazon of care packs. But then we also work with different communities around the nation, different businesses for volunteer events and we will hold a Pack Party where we’ll bring a thousand care packages with us. We bring all of the contents and we will pack care packages with the community, with volunteers.
FRANK BLAKE: Oh, what a terrific event, what a great way to show support for our service members.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: And it’s fun. Kids can come, they decorate the boxes. One event, we worked with a bunch of lawyers in San Diego and they made it very competitive. They started racing to see who could pack the most.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s terrific. And so, you get communities doing this, you get companies doing this.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Both.
FRANK BLAKE: Both. And is most of the product donated, or do you buy that? How does that work?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So, we work both with in-kind product donors. So we’ve actually worked with Colgate Palmolive, KIND, Black Rifle Coffee, Axe Razors. And so they will donate up to 6,000 to 10,000 products to us for these community events. But then we also work with distributors to purchase wholesale products if we don’t have those products for in-kind.
FRANK BLAKE: And how many packages have you now sent out? If you go back over the last six years, almost?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: We have sent more than 26,000 care packages, which considering the first year, a couple of hundred was intimidating to me. And now we can hold a pack event that does 10,000 at a time.
FRANK BLAKE: And do you actually have your own warehouse and things like that now?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: We do. So considering it went from my living room to the spare bedroom to the garage, to this very shady little business, to now a warehouse. It’s amazing.
FRANK BLAKE: If you were giving advice to yourself now, and you’re back in 2015 or 16, what would that advice be?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: That advice would be, don’t be so in love with your own idea that you weren’t willing to pivot.
FRANK BLAKE: Interesting. So explain that.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So at first, I was gung ho that the way the site was, that everything I had on there was absolutely perfect, and any advice that I received was just take it with a grain of salt. It doesn’t need to change. And I think that a lot of entrepreneurs and startup businesses are kind of in that mindset where they’ve already worked so hard to launch something that now they don’t want to pivot or change. And I’ve learned over time, that you really have to have, what we call in the military Semper Gumby, which is being very flexible, always be flexible. And so, you don’t want to ever pigeon-hole your business or your idea because you aren’t willing to take advice and make a change.
FRANK BLAKE: And if you were giving advice to others, somebody else who’s listening now, who says, “Boy, I’ve got a passion for this, but it just, just does seem so challenging to get something started.” What would your advice be?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: My advice would be to use your resources and by that I mean using your community to find mentors and networking. Something else that I didn’t realize early on was that there is always a community of small business owners, large business owners who are willing to help you, to mentor and guide. And at first, you just want to do it by yourself, you don’t want to ask silly questions when really there, isn’t a silly question. So, find mentors, use that guidance. You’re not alone.
FRANK BLAKE: Do you ever get wonderful letters or comments from either service members or families that just say, “Oh, thank you so much for what you’re doing?”
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yes, we do all the time. And I love them so much.
FRANK BLAKE: So what are a couple of examples?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: We just received letter the other day from a unit of 60 individuals who were in Kabul and they sent a note just thanking us for the products that we had sent them, and how big of a difference it had made, especially for the service members who didn’t have family.
FRANK BLAKE: Is your, in effect, customer typically the instance where there isn’t a family that’s sending a care package, or is it more the family who has a service member, but is a little bit intimidated as you say, by the process?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So we’ve recently, over the past couple of months, have been taking surveys of everyone who comes through and uses the site. And something that I was really surprised about is that actually the biggest portion of our customers are service members sending to themselves.
FRANK BLAKE: Oh, interesting.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: I know. I was really surprised. So, these are individuals who don’t want to necessarily bother their families or who might not have families. And so they go to our site because they know that we can send to the military, we can get packs delivered to them. And so that is actually our largest customer base.
FRANK BLAKE: And was setting that up difficult? Just being able to execute?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: It was. That was another thing where, over time, we’ve had to work, create partnerships with the US postal service. We’ve created partnerships for bulk shipping, so we can get prices down. Actually, now, anyone who uses the Troopster site does not pay for shipping to send a care package overseas. We’ve really gone through a lot of obstacles and hurdles to make it what it is today.
FRANK BLAKE: It is one of the interesting things for me, again, it was just such a high regard for the people who do join the military and serve their country. And you think that everything the country would do to make that experience feel as the most appreciated thing you could do. And yet, so often, just as you described things like sending… I mean, the basics, like communicating, sending packages, we seem to make extraordinarily difficult. I assume the need is there whether you’re deployed overseas or you can feel as lonely in a base in Georgia or North Carolina as you do overseas?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Oh yes, absolutely. And kind of an interesting statistic is that 45% of the military is 25 years or younger. And a lot of times that it’s their first deployment or they’re away from home. And so even if you are at a base in Georgia, you could be 18 years old. This is your first time away from your friends, your family, everything you’ve ever known. And so, it can impact morale.
FRANK BLAKE: Five years from now, what are you doing and what is Troopster doing?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So my vision is for Troopster to be the household name for military care packages. And we are working to develop various partnerships around the nation so that we can grow our impact.
FRANK BLAKE: And are there other need states that you see that you’d be addressing in addition to care packages? Or is it best to keep focused on that?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Right now, I really want to perfect our operating model. So sticking to the care packages for the military, but as we are growing, we’re also seeing there are DoD individuals who aren’t necessarily active duty, who also deploy overseas. There are a lot of students who study abroad and there actually aren’t care package programs to get for study abroad students. So there are other avenues.
FRANK BLAKE: Who has done a crazy good turn for you in your life?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Well, actually I would say that you’re certainly one of them. I did not expect when I sent the cold message to hear back. Well, I feel as though I have to say my mom, actually. She has always been an individual who comes through and who has always been very motivating for me. So when I first launched Troopster and I told you the story, but she sent me a card with a frame that said, “No matter what happens, or if Troopster succeeds, I’m immensely proud of you. And this is a day you’ll remember forever.”
FRANK BLAKE: So, anybody else in your work, during your time in service, somebody who just did something and you say, “Boy, that was an amazing thing to have done for me.”
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Yes. There was a Master Sergeant Parisi, who was in the Marine Corps with me and we served on one of my last deployments together. And after I had started Troopster, he had given me a challenge coin. And he had given me advice that in life, no matter the challenges so long as we try our best and always know what our true north is, that that’s what you should follow. And I know that it seems very, very minute. I mean, this wasn’t someone who made great connections for me or who made this massive contribution to Troopster but what they did do was he helped me to know that someone was in my corner and just in having that, it made all the difference in the world.
FRANK BLAKE: I think those are the crazy good turns that people do that they’re not even aware of, but that are hugely impactful. And a person may not even know what he did for you, which is the other thing. I think one of the things I’ve learned doing this podcast is just the importance of saying thank you to people and how often people are doing amazing things for others. And they never get a thank you. So if people want to learn more about you, about Troopster, where do they go?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: So they can visit our site at troopster.org and Troopster, since I know that can be tough to spell is T-R-O-O-P as in Paul, S as in Sam, T-E-R.com or .org.
FRANK BLAKE: And about yourself, the same place? Go to the same place?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Absolutely. Yep. You can find my story. You can see the impact that we’ve done. We try to post anything that we’re doing in the communities. You can also follow us on social media. So we are all over the place.
FRANK BLAKE: All right. Terrific. Chelsea, this has been just… This has been terrific. And congratulations to you. I think I’ve said this to you before, but one of the things in doing this podcast is I get the chance to talk to lots of people who have great charitable impulses. But the other thing that I would add that you have in addition to the charitable impulse is that you put in the work and the effort, your description of spending all your leave time learning about business, and how you set things up. It’s that combination of the charitable impulse with “I’ve got to do this right. I got to figure out how to do it.” That’s really impressive. And I think this’ll be a great success. Troopster will be a great success.
I encourage all of our listeners to go check out the site and it feels like it’s always appropriate to say thank you to a service member. And I don’t know if there’s a way either… Does your site have a way for people who just have no relationship to anybody go on and say, “I want to say, thank you to some service member I’m going to send a package.” Is that possible too? Or do I have to know who the package is going to?
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Nope. That is absolutely possible. Whenever you go to our site, you can send a donation care package to, we have a very, very long list of troops that don’t have that family support network. So you can choose to support one service member. You can choose to support an entire squadron and we will get those care packs out for you.
FRANK BLAKE: Well, I think that’s terrific because as I say, I think that one of the things we can all do is just that habit of saying thank you. And the people who really deserve a thank you or the folks in lonely outposts, both in this country and all over the world who are protecting us. So thank you, Chelsea. Thank you for your service. Thank you for what you’re doing with Troopster and thank you for joining us on Crazy Good Turns.
CHELSEA MANDELLO: Thank you for having me.
There is no deed too great or too small. Know somebody (or a group of somebodies) doing something amazing for somebody else? Tell us here and we’ll help spread the word.