5 Things I Learned in My 2nd Year Running a Social Enterprise

By Joy McBrien, Founder of Fair Anita

Just over 2 years ago, we incorporated Fair Anita as a Public Benefit Corporation in the State of Minnesota.  An entirely new structure in our state, I knew there would be a learning curve, but I was committed to being along for that ride to provide that a business can be BOTH profitable and provide real social value.  This year has been another crazy ride-- hiring team members for the first time, attempting to figure out the world of wholesaling, managing a business from another continent... it has been challenging and rewarding and, like me, a little bit all over the place.  Last year, I reflected on the top 5 things I learned in our first year in business, and while those 5 things I still find to be very true, I decided there are more things to add to that list after wrapping up our 2nd year. 

Let me again start off with the seemingly useless things I've added to my list of learnings: how to remove backgrounds on pictures until you want to cry, how to get 18 boxes of jewelry to MN from India, how to stand outside in negative temperatures selling things until your toes are totally numb, how to text Anna 895 times in one day, and how to wear 10+ pieces of jewelry at once.  Now, on to the things that really mattered--

#1. A great team is everything.

Oh my goodness I could go on about this forever.  In my first year, I was an official team of one, though I was surrounded by many amazing volunteers and mentors.  I thought I needed to do everything on my own. In February of 2016, I hired Anna and PJ, and my life completely changed for the better.  No longer did I feel like I had to work endless hours and get everything done solo, or come up with Fair Anita's next big campaign in my brain alone. Now, with a team of 6, we are able to dream together for the future of our business, and collaboratively work towards that growth.  It's SO amazing to be able to find people's strengths, have them take ownership of those areas, and see how much more we can accomplish working together.  Stronger together-- we've heard it before, but I believe it now more than ever.  

#2. Nothing beats face-to-face.

In the world of EmailInstaTweetBook, I feel comfortable behind my screens-- I know that I can connect with people no matter where I am, as long as I have my little electronic rectangle in my pocket.  This provided a lot of wonderful opportunity for me in this last year, as I was able to live in Chile and work remotely for about 6 months.  As much as I enjoyed the Andes mountains and Chilean wine (but seriously, the wine!), living abroad did remind me that there is nothing as valuable as connecting in-person.  Luckily, I was able to do that with artisans while living in Chile, and I'm more confident in our Chilean Collection than any other because I know the processes and the women behind the products so well.  We were able to design together and really spend time understanding each other's goals and operations. 

While being in Chile was undoubtedly wonderful, it became super obvious to me when I returned back to Minnesota how much more we can accomplish as a Fair Anita team when we are meeting face-to-face.  Similarly, I have a much better understanding of our customers when it is me behind the tables at our pop up sales.  While I can follow their Instagram feeds from abroad, I can't see the intrigue on their faces as we talk about our artisan partners, or see what designs and price points delight them.  In order to be an authentic brand, we need to connect with people authentically, and I believe that means beyond the internet.

#3. Always keep one eye on the numbers. 

Ohhhh financial management. On the list of biggest takeaways from this year, this one was likely the hardest learned.  Financial planning: do it.  In the world of fair trade, it's common practice to pay artisans before they start making products, as opposed to regular retail that pays suppliers usually up to 90 days after they receive the products in their stores.  But when you're working in some of the poorest communities on the globe, it's necessary that our partners have money to take care of themselves while they're getting the work done.  So, for example this year, we paid artisans in March-June for product that we wouldn't receive until September-October, and as we don't do pre-sales, cash flow is always a challenge.  A challenge that I, apparently, completely forgot about this summer, when I got an overdraft notice from the bank.  Of course we have to prioritize paying our artisans and my team here, so we got to the point that we were working dollar to dollar for a few months.  It was mega-stressful, and ultimately delayed our Spring Collection by a bit (but don't worry, it's on its way!).  I wasn't able to pay myself for 6 months (which is saying something about cutting costs, because I promise you that is a VERY small paycheck!).  Anyways, I'm happy it happened to us earlier on, as it was definitely a good lesson to learn, and I'm planning much better for this upcoming year!

#4. Find your tribe and stay there.

Like it was for many, 2016 was a difficult year for me.  There were tons of bright spots, but I was regularly overwhelmed by the sexism in the media, especially as it related to the election.  How many times did we see legitimacy of sexual violence debated, from Brock Turner to Donald Trump. As a rape survivor and someone living with PTSD, this was exceptionally difficult-- rape triggers all over the place sent my mental health spinning. Focusing on getting anything done was really, really hard, and it all felt completely out of my control. 

However, through all of this mess, it seems that "my people" have come to light more clearly, coming out of the woodwork to speak out in support of women's rights and #blacklivesmatter and equality for all. It gives me so much hope, and it really helps calm my anxiety to know that work is being accomplished when I'm surrounded by people that are fighting for the greater good.  All of our Fair Anita customers are certainly a part of this.  I'm constantly reminded that people really do care, and they want to be a part of a community with purpose. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being my tribe (whether you knew it or not). 

#5. Growth requires planning.

I'm proud to say that we exceeded our regular sales goals for last year, thanks to the wonderful team mentioned in #1.  I set some audacious "reach-for-the-sky" goals as well, that we didn't come close to meeting.  I keep hearing that male entrepreneurs set insane sales goals and either fail quickly and move on or amazingly achieve them, whereas women entrepreneurs tend to set very realistic goals (and therefore tend to run slow growth or lifestyle companies).  I don't think either of these ways is bad or wrong, but I was trying to challenge myself to hit some of those crazy numbers.... the issue was that I put them out there without a real plan to achieve them.  We had real plans for all of our regular goals, which is likely why they were seemingly easy to beat.  This year, we're making real plans for all of those "reach-for-the-sky" goals because we want to triple the number of women we're able to work with to provide fair trade jobs.  Sounds ambitious, yeah? That's why we're thankful we have an incredible community like you all to help push us to keep growing!

BONUS: #6. Make time for yourself.

This lesson was hard-hitting this year, as my mental health hit a low that it hasn't seen in 4ish years.  Living in Chile without my BFFs and dealing with the triggers from this election cycle, I was regularly finding myself in depressive states.  I learned that my best work doesn't get done when I'm pressuring myself to do things that my brain/body isn't ready for-- so I developed ways to take time for my mental health.  I joined the coloring book craze, I made time for walks/hikes/dance parties, I tried to prioritize connecting with friends, and I let myself be okay with sleeping in. These are things I would have felt guilty for doing last year (and sometimes still do!), but they are an absolute necessity for me. A wilted flower provides joy to no one-- water your flowers, people.

Another huge thank you to all of you who are a part of this journey.  Our second-to-none customers, volunteers, mentors, facebook-likers, Colonial Church members, artisans, advocates-- you're what makes this possible.

Cheers to new learnings in 2017!

<3