5 Things I Learned in my 6th Year Running a Social Enterprise

5 Things I Learned in my 6th Year Running a Social Enterprise

We survived. I feel so very privileged to be able to say that. A year filled with promise quickly turned to a year all about survival-- and we couldn’t have made it here without you.

I've made it an annual tradition to write this blog post-- you can see my reflections from years one, two, three, four, and five on our blog. Reflecting on our learnings is helpful to make me realize how much we have grown (especially in a year that primarily felt like time stood still!). I’m hopeful some of these learnings might help others in their social entrepreneurship endeavors: we want more mission-driven business in the world!

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

1. Plan for adaptability, don’t plan for the plan

I am a planner. Because of this + my anxiety, I think through plans all the time: it helps me feel in control of a situation, and therefore more at ease. At the start of 2020, I had big plans for our social enterprise: huge revenue goals, growth plans, exciting product releases, international artisan learning tours-- all sorts of fun things that I was so excited to tackle with our team.

But we all know how 2020 turned out.

In March + April, we learned that all of our pop-up events (a primary source of revenue) would be canceled for the remainder of the year, our international artisan partners may or may not be able to work (which meant we didn’t know if we’d have any products), international shipping might not be a reality-- plus all the big scary parts of a pandemic: people’s health and safety, lost jobs, healthcare overload, etc.

I’ve learned that the best thing to plan for is how to be adaptable: how we can appropriately react to the world around us, how to make smart decisions in haste, how to know when the time comes to change course, how to build leaders within our organization and distribute this responsibility. Moving into our 7th year, I’m still setting goals and thinking through plans of how to achieve them, but I’m leaving behind expectations. As long as we stay centered on our values, we can continue to adapt as the world keeps changing.

2. Self-accountability is the best way to manage a growing team

I was super fortunate to have been able to take part in a program through Women Venture, where I worked alongside a cohort of 9 female entrepreneurs to get processes in place to grow our businesses. I met with them every Wednesday for 3 hours, and it’s a big part of what kept me sane + motivated during so much solo quarantine. I’ve always considered myself to be a good leader, but not the best manager: I’ve always relied on my team’s autonomy and self-determination to push our mission forward. But as we’ve grown our team (hired 3 additional full time employees… during a pandemic!), I’ve learned that growing my management skills was just as important. Luckily, this was a big part of what we focused on in my Women Venture cohort. I learned all sorts of skills and tools for managing my team in ways that felt natural to me: aka never micromanaging, but still having a good pulse on what our team was up to. We’ve implemented weekly staff meetings (and they are productive, y’all!), a weekly “scorecard” where we track key metrics (and each team member is responsible for different numbers), and SMART goals that we report progress on each week. I’m in love: I can’t believe it took me 6 years running a business to implement some of this, but now these processes are in place, each team member sets/knows what’s expected of them, and our whole team has a better understanding of where we’re at (which when we’re quarantined at home, is huge!).

3. Profits have never been the main goal. Human-centered, always.

A shocker of 2020 was our best-selling product of the year: face masks. Like, by far. I made the decision early on that I didn’t want to profit from the sale of face masks-- it felt gross to be profiting from a pandemic that was hurting so many. So, we committed to donating the sales of our face masks to our Emergency Relief Funds, which gave artisans funding to provide the best resources for their communities. While artisans were well taken care of, they wanted to make sure their neighbors were, too-- they ended up distributing food, medicine, cleaning supplies, even oxygen tanks. These changemaking women distributed $75,000 in resources to their communities, all simply from the sale of face masks.

2020 was the first time we didn’t exceed the previous year’s sales numbers: our first “down year.” While my achiever-mindset self struggled with this a bit at first, I realized that what came out of 2020 was far more important. Our impact in 2020, I believe, was larger than ever before. From the sale of face masks, to ensuring steady/reliable/safe work for our artisan partners and US staff, to formalizing sick/safe time policies and making sure our team prioritized their own care and mental health-- this year recentered us on what’s important: the people. What good is a big ol’ profitable business if it doesn’t take care of its people? We’ve always been about centering our makers and creating the most ethical business we can dream up-- and this year especially, I believe we did just that.

4. We have one heck of a lot to learn.

Maybe this is a strange thing to point out, maybe it’s obvious, but this was still a key learning from 2020, so I figured I should include it. Fair Anita is located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the epicenter of 2020’s most prominent Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of our community member, George Floyd. Our work came to a (necessary) halt in the weeks that followed, instead our local staff devoting our time to rebuilding, listening + learning, and caring for our neighbors.

Of course, this renewed focus on anti-racism work quickly forced us to look internally, at our primarily white, US-based team, working with almost exclusively women of color around the world. This is common in the fair trade world: white Americans partnering with marginalized communities in the “developing world.” There is so much to unpack here, and I’m committed to doing it both privately and publicly, as I’d like for our Fair Anita community to come along on this journey with us as we work hard to create better practices around anti-racism work in global trade. I am a member of the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Committee with the Fair Trade Federation, and I’m so grateful to be part of a team that’s challenging norms and working to set the standard for how we most equitably practice fair trade. And while we feel good about so much of the work we are doing, there are always plenty of spaces to improve, and how my white body continues to grow, interact, sometimes lead, and build in this space is absolutely a priority for me moving forward.

5. Resilience is easier in community.

You maybe heard how I started off the pandemic: violently robbed and dragged behind a taxi in a planned attack, then stuck indefinitely in Chimbote, Peru. I felt super violated in a community that I’ve always called home. Without a passport, I was not only ineligible to leave the country on repatriation flights when the Peruvian President closed all borders, but I couldn’t even leave the house. Thank God for Anita. I always live with her when I’m in Chimbote, and she takes such incredible care of me: this time was certainly no exception. Throughout my month of forced quarantine + unknown return to the US, she would put her hands on my shoulders, encourage me to take deep breaths, and remind me that this would all work out. She made sure I ate, loaned me a phone so I could stay in contact with my family back in the US, and worked next-level-quick to arrange transport when I learned I had less than 12 hours to (illegally) get to Lima for my repatriation flight home. She got me through this hard time, as did my beloved community members both in Chimbote and back home, and I’m eternally grateful.

Similar learnings back here in the US: when one of our team members needed to step back, others would step up. When we needed to sell all the Zoom statement earrings to financially survive the year, y’all stepped up. When we needed a customer-facing space to sell during the holiday season, we collaborated with 6 other fair trade brands.

While I spent most of this year super isolated in my solo apartment, you all were here for me, for Fair Anita, and for each other. In return, I did my best to show up for our artisan partners, our Fair Anita staff, and my communities. This year was a tough one, no doubt, but we made it through together.

Thank you for being a part of this community-- I am so very grateful for each one of you. Here’s to resiliency, growth, and togetherness in 2021!

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