We did it! We made it through our 3rd year running a social enterprise. I was recently reflecting on how incredible it has been to see this idea grow into something real, and it has somehow happened without me taking the time to stop and recognize that. When I first started Fair Anita, our customers were exclusively my friends and family (thanks, peeps!), and it has been humbling to watch online orders come in when I realize I recognize very few of the names. Year after year, we’ve grown nearly 3x, which means more fair trade jobs for women. I’ve written blog posts on my learnings from our first and second years in business, so it’s time to think back on my biggest takeaways from year #3.
As always, there have been some silly things we’ve learned along the way: how to masterfully kill sneaky Mexican cockroaches, how to explain tiny detailed descriptions of jewelry in Spanish, how to pack entire trade show booths into our checked luggage, and how dance parties almost always attract new customers. Our best decision made this year, by far, was joining the Fair Trade Federation. While we have only been members for a few months, it has been incredible to be in the company of our favorite ethical brands and have others to lean on as we figure out how to do well by doing good.
Here are some lessons I’m taking away from our 3rd year in business:
1. Autonomy and delegation – scaling a business means everyone has a part to play
I dabbled in all sorts of classes in college—marketing, design, finance, all of it. And I like to be challenged with my work, allowing each day to bring new varieties of tasks. The entrepreneur in me likes to try every little thing hands-on; how can we create this, what will we learn as we make this happen. But as we continue to scale, it has become quite evident that I can’t do it all, nor should I. Having a team over the last two years has been the biggest blessing to our business, and it has been when we give each team member autonomy in their tasks that we really see the team member (and the business) thrive.
This last year, Anna became a full-time employee as our Operations Manager, and she was able to fully take over day-to-day tasks. I hired her because I know that she can do this better than I can—and she does! She plans our event schedule, manages our inventory, and is THE BEST with customer service. Anna’s ownership over her role is a huge factor that allowed us to scale this year—she’s just as committed to this organization as I am, and having team members that are able to see the big picture and work towards that growth is truly phenomenal.
I am not a micromanager. I’ve learned that we have to find the right team members that work well in autonomous roles—where we determine goals together, but then they figure out how to make those goals happen. While sometimes this can be difficult because I’m not giving as much direction as maybe I should, I think it has allowed our business to become stronger as we see what ideas and strengths each team member brings to the table.
2. Communication is always key—set clear expectations from beginning
Over the last 3 years, we’ve set up partnerships with 28 different artisan groups in 16 countries. Some of these relationships have been much easier than others; some groups already know how to export, some artisans speak English, and some women can create absolutely any design we pull out of our brains. Some, however, aren’t such a piece of cake to work with; they don’t regularly have internet access, they have interpersonal conflicts between artisans, or, in one instance that we experienced this year, they don’t fully trust us.
I spent 6 months of 2017 living in Mexico City, working with artisans both there and in more rural Mexico. One of these groups has been burned a few times in the past, especially by organizations that claim to be “fair trade” and then never pay the artisans. Because of this, and rightly so, this women’s group has really struggled to trust me and my intentions in working with them. They are paranoid that I am stealing their designs and working with other groups to have our products created (I’m not, of course). We’ve done everything I can think of to ease their anxiety—paid them 100% upfront, before seeing samples or having any clue about pricing, bought them additional tools so they can increase their production capacity, and I was visiting them about once a month. However, we still struggle to have a healthy working relationship.
In all of this, I really wish that I would have been clearer with my intentions and expectations from the beginning. I believe I did this to a certain extent, but it seems I was not thorough enough. If clear expectations had been set, we would have been able to start selling their products sooner, and that benefits both their artisans and Fair Anita as a whole.
3. No need to follow the status quo—get informed, then do it the way that feels best to you!
This year, Anna and I started selling at trade shows for the first time to increase our number of retail partners that sell our products. We quickly learned that trade shows are an entirely different world, with their own culture, rules, and expectations. For example, we learned that we weren’t supposed to enter other vendors’ booths without their permission (after having done it ~40 times, whoops), that most trade shows are unionized and you have to pay $160 to have someone put the two screws into your display, and that selling to boutique buyers is very different than selling to retail customers.
We received SO MUCH advice on how to tackle trade shows, often times from our lovely friends who have done it before (shout out to Tracy, Max, and Sonal!). For the most part, this was super helpful—we got a crash course in trade show culture that we knew nothing about. But we also received advice from some Negative Nancys that we were told over and over again we “had” to do to be successful in the world of trade shows.
Now, we have 5 trade shows under our belt, and I’m proud of how we manage these shows. We learned from our friends, then created systems that felt best to us. For the most part, we don’t sell at trade shows the way others recommend; we just did what we thought we would want if we were in the customers’ shoes. So, while we’re still relatively new to trade shows, we’re able to impress people with our preparedness and our customer service—and (especially as the youngest people selling at these shows), that feels really good.
4. Creating a balance with our storytelling—when is the right time to share our mission focus vs my story
Running a mission-based organization, one of the aspects I’ve struggled with the most in our marketing is when to share stories and when to let the products speak for themselves. I never want people buying our products out of pity, and I like to think our designs and price points make the products attractive even without the extra (big) bonus of ethical-production.
When we do share stories related to our women’s rights mission, it can be difficult to discern when is the right time to share artisan stories vs my own experiences. On one hand, the artisan stories are why we are doing this, and by sharing what they’ve been through, I believe we’re able to build more cross-cultural empathy. On the other hand, these are not my stories to share, even when I do have their permission. The story that I own and always have the right to share is my personal one, but I also don’t want to make Fair Anita centered around me—we are 8,000 women strong!
This is especially difficult when talking about sexual violence. 2017 was an amazing yet triggering year for survivors, with the #MeToo campaign and rape culture being unearthed center stage. At Fair Anita, we primarily work with women who have histories of sexual violence – I think most of our customers know that (maybe?). I felt compelled to do this because of my own history of rape and sexual violence. But I know how much I dislike being seen exclusively as my identity as “rape victim,” and I don’t want to put other women in that situation, so I don’t talk about it a whole lot. However, I believe that we need to be talking more about rape culture in order to create change, so I do want these stories to be told more frequently. This year, especially with my TEDx talk, I tried to be really conscious of when was the right time to share my story vs others’, and I made sure I had permission to share any stories that weren’t my own. It’s still a difficult balance, but I think it’s an important one!
5. Home sweet home – the importance of a home base and a community that supports you
For the last few years, I’ve been back and forth between living in Latin America and Minnesota, benefitting from both working directly with artisans and better understanding cultural context, but also being able to work with our U.S. team to grow our mission. More and more, as we continue to grow our retail/wholesale operations and artisan relationships feel really solidified, it was difficult being away from Minnesota for such long periods of time. Most notably, I was putting more stress on our staff members (holy moly, no clue what we would have done without Anna).
While led by unexpected changes in my personal life, professionally, I am quite excited that I will be based in Minnesota for the foreseeable future. I will definitely still be spending periods of time with artisans, but my home base will be here, at home.
It’s difficult for me to explain what the support of this community feels like, how much it means to me. Coming back to MN and running into people at the grocery store who are excited to tell me about their Fair Anita purchases, to working at pop up sales/events and meeting customers who tell their friends about our brand, to the long list of amazing volunteers who are ready to help us out at any given time—it’s truly remarkable. We are able to grow this mission because of the support of our Fair Anita community, and I feel more confident in my capabilities and the capacity of our team when we are lifted up by the hundreds of people who actively choose to support us. I can SO feel the love, and it makes this possible. Thank you, thank you.
Here’s to a great 4th year!