5 Things I've Learned in My 5th Year Running a Social Enterprise

We made it. Apparently only 50% of small businesses survive 5 years in business, and here we are, having just completed our 5th year. I've literally had to check that my math is right multiple times, as it feels rather unbelievable that this has been my full-time gig for that long.  In most ways, we still feel very much like a small start-up business (just ask my scrappy Operations Manager BFF, Anna), so it's super strange to me that people consider us to be a relatively large social enterprise, selling to 600+ stores and working with 8,000+ women around the world. I am still completely baffled when people know about Fair Anita and aren't one of my long-term buddies-- but it is SO humbling and heart-warming to see strangers know and love our mission, and want to share that with their friends. I get emotional about this fact on a regular basis-- there is a relatively high chance that you're the cause of some of these (happy) tears.

I've made it an annual tradition to write this blog post-- you can see my reflections from years onetwothree, and four on our blog. Reflecting on our learnings is helpful to make me realize how much we have grown and what has happened over the past year, and I would love if these learnings could be useful to others working to start a mission-driven venture.  Go do it-- you've got this!

Here are my top learnings from our fifth year in business:

1. Truly understanding your financials is a game-changer. 

Okay, this might sound obvious. Or dumb. Or like, dude, Joy, you went to business school... didn't you know this already?  But I'll be real with you-- I didn't. I knew the general idea of what was going on, I knew which big numbers to look at and generally what the different categories meant, but I didn't know what they really mean. This last year, I participated in a class through Women Venture, a Minnesota nonprofit organization helping women-owned businesses thrive, and PEOPLE-- I know stuff now.  Different from business school, I did a deep dive on my own financials and discussed them with a small group of other kick-butt lady bosses, so we could learn from one another as well.  Now, I dramatically better understand my margins on product segments, my cash-flow management (and its limitations as a fair trade business), why the balance sheet is fascinating and not just a pain-in-the-booty to make the thing balance.  My personal favorite: I found the breakeven point for our business for this year, and was able to implement a pretty hefty holiday bonus strategy to our staff as a result.  Being a nerd is cool, y'all!  And legitimately helpful.

2. Maintain a consumer-driven mindset (while keeping artisans front and center).

I have 8,000 feelings about this as a fair trade brand. Yes, artisans are forever and always why we do what we do-- creating economic self-sufficiency for women is our #1 priority, always. But just because our artisan partners can make something, doesn't mean we should sell it**. Our partners often create beautiful pieces that would likely sell well within their own communities and cultural context, but that doesn't mean they're right for our markets.  Life is easier for everyone if we're producing products that our customers actually want and will use. We're able to greatly reduce waste in this way, too. 

Speaking of reducing waste, this year we went wayyy out on a limb and started selling bamboo straw and utensil sets... as a jewelry company. This was driven by YOU, our customers, by your requests for functional products that help you to practice sustainability. We saw the consumer demand, noted that no one else was creating these products under fair trade principles, realized we partner with talented women in Vietnam who have access to the natural resources and have the ability to create these products, and made the rather out-there decision to start selling these bamboo products. Y'all bought us out immediately: we have sold thousands and thousands of these sets in the last 3 months alone.  Learning: sustainability is not only necessary but it is COOL, and young kids are leading this charge! 

**(Realizing I should provide the caveat that this is our agreement with our partners from the beginning: that we would create the designs using their skillsets, and they would produce using local materials. All of the partners we work with joyfully jumped on board. #consent).

3. Share the heart-work. 

For a long time, I have been the bottle neck between our customers and our artisan partners. I do my best to share the stories of our customers with our partners abroad, showing them pictures, sending them your comments, etc -- and vice versa. But every time I'm meeting with these changemaking women around the world, I wish y'all could experience it as well-- the biggest smiles, the never-ending dance parties, the joyous laughter, the many hugs, the genuine mutual respect that exists in a room full of women who are trying to do good in the world. I can take all the videos and pictures in the world, but until you know these women for yourself, it's hard to know the greatest parts of Fair Anita.

This year, partnering with Colonial Church in Edina, I had the privilege of taking 20 Americans to Cambodia. Our artisan partners, led by Anak (one of my favorite humans, holy moly), requested that I bring a group to their workshop to help with a few volunteer projects, to help grow eco-tourism in their community, and to show off their workshop that they (rightfully) are very proud of. I was so nervous to make this happen: I didn't want to fall into the traps of more-harm-than-good voluntourism, I was terrified of white savior complex that could easily accompany a group entering a community that looks so different from their own, and I really, really wanted to make sure everyone (on both sides) felt safe, happy, respected. Luckily, we had the best people along for the ride, the trip went super well, and at our final dance party, I took a step back and cried as all of our customers/volunteers danced with our beloved Cambodian partners. (More on that experience is on the blog here, or in a talk I did here). 

Still figuring out how to do more heart-work sharing... always open to your thoughts and ideas!

4. Transparency is what fair trade is all about. 

Anna and I spent 2 weeks in Chimbote, Peru, alongside a cooperative of women led by Maritza and Anita (watch my TEDx talk these ladies here). Back to being a financial nerd, one of my favorite parts of the year was sitting down with the whole group and breaking down all of the numbers, product by product, to make sure women were earning enough money, and wanting every single woman in the group to understand where the numbers come from. I'm proud that our partners in Chimbote, many who cannot read or write, understand why we charge $14 for the pair of earrings they made-- knowing how much they make, the cost of materials, the cost of shipping, and our cost of business in the U.S. Not many businesses can say that, and I'm pretty proud of it. 

Side note-- because this group understands their finances, they know that they have a few extra "pots" of money: one for emergencies, one for group expenses (ie electricity, filtered water), one that they can vote on to do as they please. This year, the group of 12 women decided to spend some of their extra money to throw a Christmas party for 265 kids in their community (one of the largest, poorest cities in the world)-- complete with a gift for every single kid. Women are awesome: when they have reliable income, they improve the lives of their children and communities.

5. Life happens. Life will always happen. 

Personally speaking, it was a really hard year for me. One of my best friends died, I was responsible for her memorial, and after my grandma had multiple strokes, I became a key caretaker.  My priorities shifted, and simultaneously I was consumed with grief (and accompanying anxiety).  I did not work my usual nutso hours, because I physically couldn't do it. I needed to rest, I needed to cry, I needed to take care of those who are closest to me. Of course, putting work on the backburner meant I started feeling guilty-- feeling like I was putting artisan careers on the backburner as well. It has been a pretty vicious cycle this year of not feeling like I'm doing enough, while simultaneously feeling like I'm doing way too much. The biggest shout out to Anna (our Operations Manager), who absolutely picked up my slack this year, on top of her already very full plate. She made space for me to prioritize me and my mental health, and I am so grateful for that opportunity, as I don't think I'm often very good at it. 

I believe as a result of my half-here-half-there mindset, we didn't meet the big, audacious sales goal that I set out for us to hit at the beginning of the year.  And do you know what? I'm okay with that. There is always this year, or next year, or whenever it happens.  What matters is that we stayed true to the beautiful relationships we've built with women around the world, grew their financial capacity in so doing, and maintained our core values, culture, and spirit.  We're women investing in women-- no matter what that looks like.  Life will always bring new challenges, and as long as we're all here to support one another through them, we'll be alright. 

As always, over-the-moon grateful for this incredible community.  Thank you for being such a critical part of our journey, you changemaker, you.  Cheers to a great 6th year!