Want to Run a Social Start Up?

An infographic of male and female professionals surrounded by words including social, entrepreneurship, etc.

Entrepreneurs in all sectors can probably attest that despite being your own boss and having flexibility in your schedule, starting and running a business has more logistical and emotional ups and downs than most careers. And then there's the Social Entrepreneur. It’s a cool idea, isn’t it? You work focuses both on impact and the bottom line.

I'll let you in on my day-to-day of running a business as a recent grad with a need to create viable, lasting change from a continent away.


Take this week for example. I’ve been researching trademark displays, applying to several funding opportunities, planning two pop-up shows, desperately trying to find a reasonably priced contract lawyer, finalizing trademark paperwork, trying to get 1,000 shoes shipped from Kenya to California, and changing the name of my company. Phew. Other weeks will feel like nothing is happening. Last week I sanded wood for 8 hours for a display.


I flip-flop more than you would in a typical 9 to 5. One day, I’m so confident in my abilities to make this happen, we’re doing something meaningful in the right way. Then like a switch, my view changes and I start feeling like things are moving so slowly, I’m too unqualified to do this etc. But as I keep going back and forth, I’ve learned it’s important to take a deep breath and get out of your own head. Give it a day. Out of the blue something amazing will happen, a door will open, a breakthrough will take place and you’re in a good place again.


As with any start-up, nothing is linear and missteps are frequent. Take our giving model as an example. The original plan was to fund a vocational school with profits from the business. But the more time our team spent on the ground with our artisans, the more we learned about the context of this Kenyan town where we operate. Because unemployment rates are through the roof, aid organizations have set up various vocational trainings for citizens. Despite the inundation of education, there still are no jobs because there is no market for skilled or semi-skilled labor. Those who have jobs are paid minute wages that cannot support a family. That is when we realized a serious misstep—we had not listened enough to the needs of the people we were trying to serve. The more we learned from the artisans about the local context in which we are working, the more it became apparent our giving model needed revision. We should have started more organically by focusing on our artisans, their families, and their needs.


My organization operates under a core belief that everyone deserves fair wages for fair work. We needed to put our artisans first, so that’s exactly what we did. By ensuring our artisans are being paid fairly, much higher than the industry standard, and working in a safe and facilitating environment, we know they are in a better position to both serve their families and provide quality products. We're committed to ensuring our artisans are receiving fair wages for fair work. They're paid fair higher than the industry standard and by 2016 we're working to ensure they all have health care. In 2017 we're looking at establishing a day care and other services conducive to our artisan's well-being. We're working to break the cycle of poverty by increasing opportunities for our artisans.


We then shifted our focus to the community. But if past lessons had taught us anything, it’s that an outsider’s place is to listen and possibly facilitate change, but not decide what that change should be. So we created a community development fund. Our artisans assume a leadership role and decide how to allocate these funds in a way that serves a need in the community. We figure out together how to make it happen. We acknowledge they know so much more about the community in which they're living and should be the ones making these types of decisions. It's empowering for them and we're there to make it happen!

This business is a journey, and it’s really hard at times. To have a lasting and meaningful impact, you have to be willing to adapt and listen. We have made so many gaffes along the way, and in order to get from Point A to Point B, we have zigged and zagged, but we have accepted that it’s part of the process. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.