Q&A with Fair Anita Founder Joy McBrien on the Riveter

Q&A with Fair Anita Founder Joy McBrien on the Riveter

Q&A with the Founder of Fair Anita

This feature was originally published on the Riveter. It can be viewed here. Text is quoted below.

Q&A with Joy McBrien, Founder of Fair Anita


by Sally McGraw

Joy McBrien says she founded Fair Anita for selfish reasons. While working at Ten Thousand Villages— a fair trade retailer with storefronts all over the United States — she noticed that women her age would happily shop there for their moms, but almost never for themselves. McBrien could relate: She loved the store’s mission but seldom saw anything on the racks that felt modern and chic enough to buy and wear herself. She wanted a place to shop that sold stylish, responsibly created clothes, jewelry, and accessories for college students and young professionals. And since nothing like that existed, she set about building it herself.

McBrien works full time on Fair Anita from her home in St. Paul, MN where she does everything from website updates and shipping inventory to local boutiques, to co-designing new items with her vendors. All Fair Anita items are made by women artisans and come from Guatemala, Peru, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although Fair Anita’s primary mission is to provide economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, and leadership opportunities to women in developing countries, the company also works with and supports many artisan groups comprised of women who have been victims of sexual violence. This is an issue and cause close to McBrien’s heart, and one that is interwoven with the founding of her company..

I spoke with McBrien about social enterprise, her unique business model, and why this company is the perfect marriage of mission and money-maker.

Sally McGraw: The story behind Fair Anita is deeply personal and involves your own experiences with sexual violence. Is it difficult to have to share that aspect of yourself so publicly in order to tell the story of your business?

Joy McBrien: Yes and no. With Fair Anita I’m trying to be a genuine, ethical, this-is-what-we-are brand. Very transparent. I think, especially as a start-up, I have to live that, too. I have to be really open and honest about why I’m here and why I’m doing this if I’m actually going to build a genuine brand. And that means I’m probably more of an emotional business owner than most. Some days it can be a little bit much to talk about women who’ve experienced sexual violence all day. Recently I did a night market, and people kept asking me, “Why did you start this?” I only give them a snapshot, but I do mention sexual violence and to say it a thousand times in one night can be a little taxing.

SM: What is that snapshot?

JM: I have a long history of sexual violence and that led me to Peru about seven years ago. I built a battered women’s shelter there and started learning from women there who had also experienced domestic sexual violence. And then I started traveling to other countries — in the last six years, I’ve gone to about 18 different countries — with the intention of learning more about women who have been in similar situations. How they experience violence, but also how they experience leadership. These women are treated as victims, but they don’t behave as victims. Rather, they’re leading their families and their communities and it’s really just outstanding.

I tell people I intended to start an organization that was more social work-focused, and that worked directly with women who had experienced sexual violence. And the response I got from those women was typically, “Well, that’s nice, but ultimately what I need is a job. If I have a job then I’m seen as having more worth in my own home so abuse levels go down, or I can leave an abusive partner. And I can take care of my children which is my number one job anyway.”

Hearing that in 18 different countries was like a slap across the face. Like, “This is a clear theme, Joy.” What I thought should happen in developing areas and imposing my own Western ideas of what people needed wasn’t going to work. They don’t want that.

Just to be clear, not all of the women I work with have experienced abuse. It’s not a prerequisite — that’d be terrible. It turned out that in the countries I visited, the women I was intentionally meeting with had some sort of history [of sexual violence]. But they bluntly showed me that they were very talented in other areas, so that’s why we started working with them.

So sexual violence is integral to how the company started, but also as a hardcore women’s rights advocate I think one of the main reasons sexual violence is still so pervasive is that nobody talks about it. It’s this taboo topic that makes people uncomfortable. When I first experienced rape as a senior in high school, I didn’t talk to anyone about it for two years. Not to a single person. And I was finding it really hard to build genuine relationships with people; I didn’t make a single guy friend throughout my first two years of college, probably because of that. Ultimately, after I started sharing this piece of me, I thought, “OK, now I can start connecting with people. They understand why I do this, where my thoughts are coming from,” that sort of thing. It was the best decision I could’ve made to start talking about this, so I’m not gonna stop talking about it now.

SM: The link between economic autonomy and empowerment has been well documented, but you take it a step further and link entrepreneurship with women’s ability to break free of abusive patterns. Have you seen that in action?

JM: I’ve absolutely seen a lot of that growth, though it looks different in different countries. My closest experience is in Chimbote, Peru, where I lived for the three summers and built the battered women’s shelter. I also founded a domestic violence support group there that doubled as an artisan work group. It was a way of having abusive partners allow these women to come to a domestic violence support group without knowing that’s what it was.

I still work with that group, and they make our basic friendship bracelets, which sell like crazy because people love friendship bracelets. Women in this group were living on maybe $1.50 a week — basically no money — and didn’t have jobs but had been raped so many times that many of them have upwards of 15 children. In the last six months, I’ve bought about 1,000 bracelets from them and they’re paid $1 per bracelet. A bracelet takes a maximum of four hours to make, so comparatively they’re being paid really well and doing a job they never had before. There’s one woman who was able to leave an abusive partner and buy her own plot of land, which is a huge deal especially as the majority of the population in Chimbote is squatters.

We work with a group in Ethiopia that makes jewelry from recycled bullet casings. All the women suffer from fistula, which typically results from circumcision or female genital mutilation and then because of a bad pregnancy or because of rape, they develop a hole inside their bodies. They’re leaking fluids, blood, urine — it smells super bad. So a lot of people will ask me, “Do you make sure they get a fistula surgery? Do you make sure they’re being educated about fistula?” No. It’s their body.

I also don’t do that because I’m worried about mission drift. I don’t consider it my job to monitor what they do with their money, how they choose to use it. My job is to take the awesome products that they’re making and sell as many of them as I can so that they can provide a good life for themselves and eventually employ other people. That’s what I’m trying to do.

SM: Compassionate capitalism, as practiced by companies like TOMS and Warby Parker, has gotten plenty of bad press, a recent criticism being that this model is wildly profitable and assuages consumer guilt about economic disparity, yet has relatively little impact on the people it’s supposed to help. How is social enterprise different? Or is it different?

JM: When I was working at Ten Thousand Villages, I learned that the quickest way to make a sale was to tell the sob story. Easy. Every single time. I’m not interested in telling that story. At all. I want to share women’s stories because I think it’s really important to bring the artisans back into the supply chain and know where you got your products from. This was made by hand, and this is who made it. But I don’t want anyone to purchase anything because of sympathy or pity or guilt. I don’t want it to be, “Look at this woman, poor her, you can make her life better.” I want it to be, “Do you like that? This is who made it. She’s sweet!”

But in my marketing and communications, it’s really hard to find that balance. And as far as impact goes, the thing that I can guarantee is that I’m paying fair wages to these women and they’re working in good working conditions. They’re being provided with opportunities that they might not otherwise have. And I know that because I’ve personally visited all of these groups. I’m really trying to focus on creating a dignified relationship between the consumer and the producer.

I used to be a really big TOMS fan, and I like the company because it brings young people into mission-based businesses. Getting consumers to care is really challenging, and they’ve created this movement around social enterprise. However, their actual business model can destroy local communities. If you come in and give away 800 pairs of shoes, local shoe stores are put out of business. And what happens when the shoes fall apart in a year? Now your shoe store’s out of business, you don’t have any shoes, TOMS isn’t coming back. I think it would be cool if the shoes were made in the communities they were supporting: they’d be providing shoes, but they’d also be providing jobs.

SM: How do you navigate being a white woman from America stepping in to aid women of color in Africa, Asia, and South America? Does it ever feel invasive or awkward?

JM: Yes. I go into these communities, and regardless of what I’m doing — aiding them or not doing anything useful — I’m seen differently. And that’s something I just have to accept because I can’t change it. How I handle it is something that I can control.

First of all, I really do feel like I’ve entered into these relationships from a place of empathy. So most of the women I’m working with, we’ve shared our stories of sexual violence with one another. One of my favorite quotes – I’m paraphrasing – is, “If you’ve come to help me you’re wasting your time, if you’ve come because your struggles are bound with mine then we’ll work together to create change.” In my brain, that’s what I’m trying to do. We’re in this together.

I think of what I’m doing as providing a platform for these women to help themselves, but also addressing a need in the U.S. market. It’s not just about the women. It’s definitely mainly about the women. But I was a young person looking for alternatives to all of this trendy jewelry and clothing made in these humongous factories and sweatshops. As a college student, the places I was supposed to shop were Forever 21 and H&M and while they had cute, trendy stuff, if you looked into where it’s coming from, it was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. So I did a lot of activism work around that in college, and I created Fair Anita as much for myself as for anyone else. Now I have jewelry that I can wear that I like, and I know people weren’t exploited in the making of it.

SM: There aren’t a lot of products on the Fair Anita site right now, but it sounds like you’ve got more than what’s available online.

JM: Not all of the stuff is sold on the website. So, for instance, all of our South African products are in different retail stores right now, same with our Peruvian products. And some of the one-of-a-kind items are sold at off-site pop-up shops, which I do in two ways. One is the traditional way, a craft sale or night market; I was in a trade show a couple of weeks ago. But more often my pop-up shop model is to take over a studio, coffee shop, dance studio, whatever, and turn it into a little store for the day.

Q: Do you have design input with every artisan you work with?

A: When I started Fair Anita, I thought, “OK, I’ll sell things made by female artisans, but I don’t want them to look like stuff you’d only wear if you’d just gotten back from a trip to India. I wanted the products to be more mainstream so that women could feel like they’re empowering other women through their purchases, but by accident. You buy it because it’s trendy, because you like it.

My design input varies from artisan group to artisan group. If they show me something I know won’t sell here I tell them, “I’ll sell your products, but I’m not going to sell them as-is. You have the talent and skill set, you can make this cool stuff and I understand that. I also understand the U.S. market and it has to be changed just a little bit so it’s something I can actually sell. So if I tweak your product, you’ll not only sell two a year to someone who is buying out of sympathy, you’ll sell hundreds because people actually like it.”

Q: Any advice for others who are interested in launching social enterprise businesses themselves?

A: One, do it. Two, be really intentional about how you do it, making sure you’re true to yourself and true to your mission. Figure out how to actually achieve the mission. So often I think you set out to do good, but it doesn’t always happen. You don’t need a business degree. You really have to just know who you’re working with.

In terms of advice for young entrepreneurs, I think the best time to start something is while you’re in college because you’ve got a ton of resources and there are zero students starting something like a business. You can go to any random executive and interview them and you’re not a threat or a competitor at that point. I did my prototype of Fair Anita when I was in college, and I had advisors and professors willing to challenge me on strategy and help build up the business. And they’re still super helpful now. Plus it got me really engaged in my education. When I’m learning about accounting, normally I wouldn’t care, but if I have to learn how to do accounting for my business it’s totally different. It also set me apart as a university student and opened different doors for me.

But my main piece of advice is just do it.

Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, blogger, and communications professional. In addition to writing her popular daily style and body image blog Already Pretty, she offers personal shopping and style consultation services, both in person for clients living in the Twin Cities and via e-mail for clients worldwide. She is a style columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a contributor to the Huffington Post, manager of the Shopping Tips channel for About.com, and a weekly guest host on KMSP Fox 9. In her free time she c0-chairs the board for a women’s leadership program and openly worships her two cats.

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