Photo by Shaun Menary
A “socially good” company is a label we are seeing and hearing a lot of right now. It’s a concept that merges everyday business practices with a responsibility to value and preserve human dignity, and to use our business to help improve the world. When I first found myself at this crossroad, trying to decide if I wanted to go into full-time humanitarian work or begin a career in fashion, I wasn’t able to see how the two things could be one. As I was finishing up college, companies like Tom’s Shoes, Krochet Kids Intl., or Warby Parker really weren’t things people were aware of, yet. I had no example of how a business could be profitable while making a difference in the world, so I felt like I had to choose one or the other. I chose to go into humanitarian work and helped launch a non-profit in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums located in Kenya. I absolutely loved working in Kibera and found it very rewarding but my desire to be in fashion never went away. It was during my first five years in Kenya when companies that approached business in a completely different way began to emerge. They were creating great products that were more than just something you could buy; they were giving people an opportunity to help change the world through their everyday purchases. Thanks to these awesome companies, I was able to see how I could start my own social enterprise by combining my love for the slums of Kenya and fashion.
In 2013 I launched Slumlove Sweater Company, an ethically-made clothing line that pays employees fair wages and gives a percent of every sale back to providing high-school scholarships for children from the slum. There’s few things I love more than being able to use my passions and talents to help improve the lives of others. People often express their desire to me that they wish they could do something similar, start their own “socially good” business that is giving back and making a difference, but they have no idea what they would do or where to start. First off, I love that so many people have a heart for this. I believe that our generation really wants to be a part of something bigger than just themselves and wants to see the world become a better place. So way to go, millennials! Secondly, while at first the thought of starting your own social enterprise sounds overwhelming, it really is possible for anyone. I’ve taken the things I’ve learned over the past few years and broken them down into steps that can hopefully help you on your journey into social entrepreneurship.
01 | RECOGNIZE THE NEED
I put this as number one, because it really is the most important aspect of a social enterprise. It’s what sets us apart and gives us a greater purpose. With Slumlove, my entire business was built around a need I had seen in the world. I had spent several years working with the people of Kibera, and knew this was a community I desperately wanted to see restored and rebuilt. Whatever future business plans I had, I knew Kibera would always be an important part of it. You might not have a “Kibera” in your life yet, but finding a need in the world is really quite easy. You can start by looking around your own city. Are there after-school programs that need extra funding? Are there Shelters looking for jobs for the homeless in your area? Maybe you are passionate about bringing clean water to the 663 million people in the world without it? Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of needs in our world. Fortunately, you can help do something about it.
02 | UTILIZE YOUR PASSIONS AND TALENTS
Even though social enterprises revolve heavily around charitable work, it’s still a business and will have to be operated like a business in order to be successful. So what should your business be? Well, that’s really up to you. What are you good at? What do you love doing? These are some important questions to get you started thinking about what you can do. From a young age, I loved fashion. I worked hard in high school and college, learning more and growing my skills in designing, so launching my own clothing line seemed like the obvious choice for me. I believe that any business can be used for social good. Are you good with numbers and finance? Start an accounting company where a part of each client’s business goes to providing free budget training for people in under-resourced areas. So when people come to you for their accounting work, they’ll know they are also helping improve the financial stability of families who desperately need it. Maybe you love to bake? Start your own bakery that donates to a local food bank. Everyone has something they are good at or something they are passionate about. Whatever that “thing” is for you, use it to change the world.
03 | LEARN AS YOU GO
Often times, we feel like we have to have everything figured out before we start. I don’t believe this to be true. Like the old saying goes “the more you learn, the less you know.” It’s impossible to know everything or be completely prepared for something like this, so don’t even put that kind of pressure on yourself and your business. Research enough to get yourself started and then go from there. When starting Slumlove, I knew pretty much nothing about running a business. I didn’t study business in college, and most of my previous experience was from nonprofit or design work. So what did I do? I called up an acquaintance who had a lot of social enterprise experience and asked her if I could buy her a cup of coffee and ask her a few questions about international production. Next, I called my cousin’s husband who’s a lawyer and asked him if he could help me figure out how to set up an LLC. And then I asked my best friend’s boss if I could have a few minutes of his time to get advice on business operations. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to give you advice and help you out if you are just willing to ask. Don’t feel like you have to do this thing alone. I’m an independent and introverted person. I prefer to do things on my own and I don’t necessarily enjoy talking with strangers, but these meetings have been invaluable to my business. They’ve grown into relationships that are still vital to Slumlove today, and it made the process of starting my business easier. You are going to learn so much after launching your social enterprise. Your company will continue to evolve and adapt alongside what you’re learning. You are going to grow and improve and a year from now you will feel like you know so much more than you did when you first began. This is the way it should be. Taking the first step is usually the hardest, so my advice: just do it.
04 | BRING OTHERS IN
No one can change the world on their own, it’s just not possible. The purpose of starting a social enterprise is to help give others the opportunity to be a part of something awesome, so let them be a part of it! If you speak openly and passionately about your business and mission, others will catch your vision and want to join. I can’t tell you how often people email me asking if there’s anything they can do to help Slumlove. They aren’t looking to get paid, they don’t want recognition, they simply want to be a part of the incredible things that are happening in Kibera. The further this thing goes, the more I’m realizing how important working together is. I’ve been able to collaborate with other socially good business to help raise awareness of important issues and promote the mission of these companies. Other social enterprises are not your competition. Don’t view them this way. They are your allies in changing the world.
05 | DON’T QUIT
This may sound obvious, but I can’t stress enough how important these two words will be to you and your business. There will be days when everything is going great, and you feel encouraged and confident and can’t imagine doing anything else. And then there will be days, or even weeks and months, when things are really hard. You’ll be stressed, discouraged, and feel like a complete failure. I’m not saying this to scare you out of starting your business. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I want you to know the reality of what it’s like so you are ready to join the fight. There are going to be plenty of moments you want to give up, because giving up is the easy way out. Social entrepreneurship is tough, but the end result is so worth it. You’re going to be using your passions and talents to improve people’s lives and make a difference in the world. So when you’re tired, don’t quit. When you are stressed and scared, don’t quit. You can be open and honest when you feel discouraged. You can ask for help. Just don’t quit. The world needs your talents and heart for helping others.
Obviously, the reality of running a business is much more complex than something that can be broken down into a few steps, but having an idea of how you can get started and what to expect will be extremely helpful in your journey. It’s okay to be nervous and scared before beginning, but there’s no reward without risk. If you are constantly staying in your comfort zone and playing it safe, you won’t ever know the amazing things you are capable of. Take your passions and gifts, and use them to change the world. It really is that simple.
FROM THE EDITOR
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