5 Things I Learned in my 8th Year Running a Social Enterprise

5 Things I Learned in my 8th Year Running a Social Enterprise

I don’t know about y’all, but 2022 felt like a year of coasting for me. I've made it an annual tradition to write this blog post-- you can see my reflections from years one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven on our blog. It isn’t until I take the *intentional* time to reflect (and read my lessons from past years!) that I can appreciate how far we’ve truly come – not coasting, but progressing with intentionality, slow and purposeful growth. I’m always 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 eighth year in business:

1. Navigating big change is scary but good

Our business looks very different at the end of 2022 than it did at the beginning of it. Many of you likely knew the team behind Fair Anita as myself + Anna, my lovely bestie, roommate, and right-hand-lady in this entrepreneurial endeavor of ours. For the first chunk of our business, it was just the two of us, but after Anna dedicated nearly 7 years to our social enterprise and building a successful team and supply chains, she cycled out to new adventures. She left her responsibilities to our capable team, that she had invested so much time into teaching and ideating and growing with.

Later in the year, we welcomed our new Director of Sales, Mary Lind Mahmud, to our team. This was a big deal – she’s well known in our fair trade community as a sales queen, and I can’t even tell you how beloved she is within the Fair Trade Federation and Museum Store Association communities. We have historically hired younger professionals, typically early in their careers who are excited to learn and grow with the company. Hiring Mary Lind was the first time we’ve hired someone super established in their career – she came to the team with so many ideas of how to grow and improve and could teach us the ropes of wholesale sales, as we’ve 100% made up how we operate from the beginning. Our whole team is really enjoying learning from her because we can easily see how we are leveling up our operations, and this woman’s hyped-up energy is unmatched!

I get that two staffing changes wouldn’t be earth shattering to a larger organization. But as someone who started this business with a bestie and it’s long felt like a little start up out of our own apartment, it feels like this year was a true test. Yes, we can still thrive as an organization without Anna (though we love and miss her dearly!), and yes, we are a more established business, selling to about 1500 stores (primarily around N America) that can hold our own. Being present in this season of change, recognizing where my own gaps are as a leader, and reconfiguring our operating procedures to make space for the continued growth of our organization – it’s all really refreshing and exciting.

2. Own your truth

This year, I came out as queer to our community, albeit not in a grandiose manner. I wanted to share why we celebrate Pride in the way we do: unequivocally proud and solid in our values, but not shouting from the rooftops, as it feels disingenuous when some of the homelands of our artisan partners criminalize LGBTQ+ persons. We support our artisan partners in whatever ways they identify, and we fully recognize love is love – and it’s a hard truth to acknowledge that some of our artisan partners don’t have the privilege of being so loud and proud.

Our marketing team also revamped our messaging, which was time intensive and really required us to deep dive into our values. The word we kept coming back to over and over again: feminist. We’ve included this word subtly in our messaging over the years, but never 100% claimed it, as we knew not all of our customers did. Through our team’s many conversations though, we decided to double down on our feminism and our willingness to speak it outloud. Our feminism doesn’t need to look like yours (just heard a customer the other day claim she’s not a “fierce feminist” but rather a “mediocre feminist trying to figure it out” – love that!), but we unequivocally stand for women’s rights and we’re going to stop being Minnesota passive-aggressive about it. We’re owning it. We’d love for you to join us <3

3. Packaging is part of the product

I’ve avoided this learning for a while, admittedly. I’ve always focused on how our products are made and the people behind it all, so the final stage of slap a tag on it hasn’t felt as important. As we continue to grow our wholesale channels, reality has quickly slapped me in the face: the packaging being just as important as the product. Cringe— I dislike that so very much, but it’s unfortunately true. The parts I can easily get behind – using recycled paper tags, importing our products in transparent bags made from corn starch instead of plastic (they’re biodegradable!) – those are easy. It’s the developing special packaging for certain products (inevitably leads to more waste), the “every packaging for every country you work in needs to match exactly” thing (which I understand, it’s just *really* difficult), and the constantly developing new packaging to keep up with our evolving messaging and whatnot – that’s all what’s most challenging.

*However,* we have definitely seen the positive impacts here. We put all of our metal quote cuffs (that say things like “trust your journey” and “we create ourselves as we go”) on larger cards that have the quote easily readable and a related inspirational word up top. Previously, customers had to knowingly pick up each bracelet and read the quote, which most people didn’t even realize existed. Our little hang tags (where we put the price tag!) would fall off, and it was super irritating for our retail partners. Now, it’s a no-brainer giftable item. You quickly read the quote, think of a bestie who needs to hear that message, and buy the gift (which is made from recycled metal fair trade by women in India – the part of the product that I’ve always been here for, of course!). We’re selling 3x the bracelets already, and we’re excited to grow this line with more quotes (and bigger-than-ever orders for our changemaking artisan partners!).

4. Your people are everything

I could easily say this is a learning from every single year in business, but after a few years of hunkering down at home and not visiting our artisan partners much, I’ve more so focused on the beauty and changemaking power of our team right here at home.

One thing I’ve consistently gotten positive feedback from our team is the way we prioritize mental health. Honestly, this came from my own need for it, and wanting to extend the same grace to our team. We have mental health days (used similar to sick days) that we can take: no questions asked. Similarly, we’re flexible with which hours are worked: if you anxiety-spiraled (ahem, me) until 3am, you certainly don’t need to be in the office by 9am – you do you, boo. We trust team members to get their work done on their own timing, and we also enforce people taking time off. The team works better when everyone is feeling their best!

We have built a lot of self-accountability into the way we manage our team and our tasks. EOS procedures, anyone?! Everyone has their own metrics to track and be responsible for hitting, everyone sets their own quarterly goals (with feedback from the team!), and our performance reviews look more like a love fest with an opportunity for growth (then we take those opportunities and figure out a commitment to the team, and we self report on that for the rest of the year).

Also, we do summer camp. You’ve likely heard Kam or I talk about this because we are obsessed. We get matching tees, do team building activities, crafts, values work, get cocktails – all sorts of good stuff. It’s summer camp for adults and it becomes a *treat yourself* day and we love it.

5. Make space for impact bigger than your biz

This year, I was elected as President of the Board of the Fair Trade Federation. I’m pretty sure I’m the youngest person to ever hold this title, and likely the only openly queer babe. When the board suggested I take on this role, I was pretty terrified, as everyone else has put in more time in the fair trade world than I have. I figured I would just try to run our meetings efficiently and do my best to make sure everyone’s voices would be heard – and that’s where my leadership would end. I was cool with that! However, the board and the FTF staff has encouraged my leadership, and I’m learning the level of influence I have on the larger fair trade movement. It’s weird, it feels like a massive responsibility, but I’m hoping to steward that responsibility with intentionality. My main priorities have been how to decolonize fair trade, focusing on anti-racism and getting the white savior narrative out of this movement (ooooof– it’s hella present), and making the fair trade world more inclusive (let’s meet people where they’re at, be excited about their aligned values, and collaborate to help them meet our high standards!). I’ve been invited to speak with industry leaders and share my opinions on how to create and prioritize more ethical supply chains. I get to listen to the experiences of our members and hear their celebrations and challenges, and bring those learnings back to the board. I get to chat with the staff of the Fair Trade Federation and dream and game plan for the future of the organization, the brand, and the larger movement. I am seriously enjoying this leadership opportunity – as someone who started her business as a 25 year old woman who it felt like people never took seriously, the way people are respecting me and my experiences within this field really makes me feel good. I hope I can steward this role and make space for others to feel heard and valued in their leadership, too!

Thank you for being a part of this community-- it blows my mind to truly think about what we’ve created together. I am so very grateful for each one of you. Cheers to intentionality (with a little sass!) in 2023!

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