5 Things I've Learned in My 1st Year Running a Social Enterprise

5 Things I've Learned in My 1st Year Running a Social Enterprise

By Joy McBrien, Founder of Fair Anita

Fair Anita at a winter market in Minnesota

While bootstrapping to build this company, I've become a mediocre-master of many things, a Jane-of-all-trades. I surprised myself and built a website, but then got stumped and reached out for help. I started my first Instagram account, and very slowly built a following. I exported product for the first time, and totally messed up wiring money to the artisans. Every day has been a learning experience, some lessons more welcome than others, and it's a continual challenge that keeps me excited about my work and what I've chosen to do. 

I've learned many seemingly useless things: how to print tags as cheap as possible, how to avoid Kinkos at all costs, how to work all day in my pajamas, how to write hundreds of thank you notes, how to explain for the billionth time that your name isn't Anita, how to get a barcode (I was hoping I could just draw a random selection of lines... turns out you have to purchase them from the National Barcode Association!). But I've learned some really valuable lessons too, so I've decided to share them here-- 

1. If you're true to your values, you'll feel better... eventually.

As a survivor of sexual violence, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable in my feminism, to regain my own power and voice and feel confident enough to act and speak for what I believe in. Many times, when I voice my opinion as an intersectional women's rights advocate, I can feel really vulnerable-- afraid that I said it wrong or someone will attack me for my beliefs. This is especially freaky on social media-- if you post something with #feminism, you're almost certain to get internet trolls who will threaten rape or murder. However, after that initial fear is gone and you've put your beliefs out there, you'll find a community of support. Sometimes, these are people who have been thinking the same thing but haven't yet said it. Other times, these are people who haven't thought about it with that perspective, but they open to your ideas. And the best times are when you're supported by people who know much more than you on the topic, and you're able to learn and grow in your own values. This is true when facing authority figures, too: so often I've felt like I should succumb to the opinions of my superiors, even if I don't fully agree. But staying true to those values is part of the reason why I started Fair Anita, and it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made!

2. To create change, stop thinking you have to follow the status quo.

I'm continually reminded of the way I'm "supposed" to be running a start up. Having graduated business school with a degree in nonprofit management and entrepreneurship and now being involved in the startup scene, there are many (un)spoken rules that founders are supposed to follow. You're supposed to scale mega-fast, get lots and lots of investment dollars, and money is certainly how you measure your success.

We decided to do things differently. First, we incorporated as one of the first Public Benefit Corporations in Minnesota. This means that we're mission-driven in addition to our for-profit status, and we're legally obligated to be working to provide economic opportunities to marginalized women (which is awesome, and, of course, why we're here in the first place). Second, our seed funding wasn't from an angel investor or friends and family-- it was from an amazing church that we had never stepped foot into prior to founding Fair Anita. The Colonial Church of Edina hosted an Innove Competition that provided us with the loan we needed in order to fix the cash flow issues present in a fair trade organization, as well as much-needed mentorship and a community of support. Finally, we're definitely scaling quick, but we're pushing off the pressure to scale insanely fast. This is what is best for our artisans and the quality of our products, and our manageable growth allows us to learn and pivot along the way.

3. You'll find the most success by being your authentic (awesome) self.

My name is Joy-- as you might suspect, I'm generally a very happy, enthusiastic person. I have a lot of energy, and sharing Fair Anita's message with others gets me really excited, so then I have a LOT of energy. Throughout my career, I've been criticized for not being "professional" enough-- this word has hung over me like an evil cloud, and I was always worried that I wasn't meeting others' expectations of being a professional. One of my mentors suggested an exercise: make a list of everything you want to be known for, then make a parallel list of the words people might use negatively against you about those same qualities. Her example was that she wants to be memorable, but often times she's criticized for being too dominant. Now, if someone criticizes her for this, she knows she's achieving her goal of being memorable. For me, I want to be authentic. I wear it all on my sleeves, and you know what to expect from me because I try to be my genuine self in every situation, whether talking to a Fortune 500 CEO or my best friend. If I'm criticized for not being professional enough, I know that I'm staying true to who I am, rather than putting up a front (dressed in a business suit). For every time I'm criticized, I'm probably complimented 10 times for my authentic nature. I know this is one of the reasons why we've found success with Fair Anita; we want our supporters to know 100% who and what we are and are not.

4. As the entrepreneur, you're a living sales pitch for your company.

I've learned that I always need to be "on" as an entrepreneur. Every new interaction is a reflection of our brand, especially because the team is still small and often times Fair Anita = Joy. I need to live our brand values in order to be genuine as a company. Luckily, this usually comes easily: supporting women rather than always competing, standing up for women's rights, travelling and gaining more global competency.

One of my biggest challenges as the founder of Fair Anita has been styling myself. I am not a fashion guru and never will be. I feel pressured to be fashionable whenever I leave the house, but that's not me. However, I love all of our Fair Anita products (of course!). It's easy for me to throw any jewelry piece or scarf on over my tee, grab my Cambodian tote (they're so cute!) and head out. If I'm not wearing Fair Anita products when I leave the house, I'm not doing my job as an entrepreneur. That way, when people ask me what I do, I can show them how awesome our products are, because they're always adorning me somewhere. It's all about creating more jobs for more women, and when we can show our community how amazingly talented these women are and why our fair trade products are different, it's an opportunity to gain another supporter.

5. It might be lonely, but you're never alone.

People talk about entrepreneurship being like a roller coaster ride: full of highs, lows, fear, thrill, and just a crazy ride. This is all true, and these ever-changing emotions are really hard to articulate to others, even those closest to me. This combined with the fact that many days I spend 12+ hours by myself at the computer can sometimes lead to feelings of loneliness.

I have learned, however, to never confuse loneliness with being alone. No one achieves anything alone, and this is certainly the case with Fair Anita. We've found success this year because of our amazing community of supporters. I really am overwhelmed with gratitude for the things you all have made happen this year. We've had much-needed legal support from Kim & Debbie at Fredrikson & Byron; amazing mentorship, skills share, and community from the Colonial Church of Edina; a fantastic cohort of female entrepreneurs from Open Hands Initiative that have shared valuable lessons so we can all scale together; kick-butt summer interns that helped us figure out photoshoots and instagram; and the most incredible volunteers a woman could hope for (Anna, Kelsey, Tanya, Brian, Kristin, David, Mom & Dad-- I'm looking at you!!). And, of course, a mega-talented community of artisans in 16+ countries that have worked with us (and my many, many emails) to start doing fair trade differently. They're the reason we exist, and they're so worth it.

But most importantly, it's you-- our customers-- who have made this first year a great one. I'm blown away thinking of the support we've received from you all this year. Certainly in terms of purchases, but also the stories you've shared, the nonstop encouragement, the social media love, and the fact that you're willing to share our mission with your friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If I've learned anything this year, it's that people are good-- and you people are the very best.

Cheers to new learnings in 2016!

<3 <3 <3

Founder of Fair Anita Joy Mcbrien Giving a Speech at Colonial Church in Edina, MN

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