Taking the Leap: The Journey of a Fair Trade Start Up : Under30CEO Taking the Leap: The Journey of a Fair Trade Start Up : Under30CEO
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Taking the Leap: The Journey of a Fair Trade Start Up

| December 11, 2010 | 2 Comments

entrepreneur leap

I always considered myself to be highly motivated. I knew I wanted to be in the fashion industry since high school, and started interning as soon as I could in college. I was the person who applied for internships by emailing my resume, followed up with mailed copies, followed up with a weekly status phone call until the exhausted HR rep hired me. I drove two hours each way to corporate retail internships in the Boston area. I had my eyes set on the prize- a seat at the top of the corporate ladder, a jag in the reserved parking spot, and a beach house on the New England coast for summer months. I graduated from URI and was relocated to San Francisco to join a prestigious training program at a large corporate headquarters. I wasn’t planning to move across the country but I couldn’t pass up such an incredible offer. And so I had earned my place on the first rung of the ladder. I was immersed in corporate culture etiquette and after the nine month training program was complete I became an assistant production manager. I learned how to negotiate costing for the garments we designed, how to monitor quality, and how to communicate with my overseas vendors. I realized that I absolutely loved working with the product so closely and found so much joy in establishing relationships with my vendors.

Reality hits

The pleasurable parts of the job started to be overshadowed by the ever growing workload. The pressure to have the best product, at the lowest price, and delivered to stores quicker than the competition makes the sanest people go mad. There are more meetings about how to achieve impossible goals than there is time to execute the strategies. Entire design collections are scrapped and redesigned over long nights and weekends. I decided that I wasn’t learning anymore and it was time to move on. I worked at two more companies with different, and yet similar issues. I realized that the retail industry is structured to overwork employees until they can’t sustain it anymore and leave. They take a job at another retail office, and after the honeymoon period is over they find themselves in the same situation. More than that, it doesn’t extend any appreciation to the people making it all happen. Our poor producers are held to the highest standards, bear all the responsibility, and are pressured into lowering costs in order to keep the business. If they don’t lower their prices we’ll just find someone else, maybe in a more desperate country to do it. We don’t treat our producers with respect and it was adding to my growing discontent.

A new idea

During this time I started volunteering at SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation). SAGE serves the survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in the SF Bay Area. I had noticed all the massage parlors in the city and questioned their authenticity. Then I read an eye opening article in the SF Chronicle about a woman who was trafficked from Korea into San Francisco’s massage parlors (Diary of a Sex Slave). It opened my eyes to the ways we are exploiting vulnerable people. While volunteering at SAGE I realized that my corporate life and personal life were become more and more separated. My life goals didn’t seem to include jaguars, and pant suits anymore. I had progressed into a humanitarian within the past five years and wanted to do something meaningful with my time. I loved production but I had to figure out a way to do what I love in an ethical manner. I thought of SET (Support Ethical Trade) in the shower before work (that’s where I do all my thinking), and envisioned selling fair trade apparel and accessories on my own terms and guaranteeing fair wages to my suppliers.

Now that I had a mission I spent hours every day after work planning the business, all on a shoe string budget based on my post-college savings. I attended classes at the local SBA, and met with a mentor during “lunch”. I designed the site using Zen-Cart, which is free but requires HTML knowledge. My web design 101 course in college only took me so far so I used Google and endless tutorials to teach myself the rest. I used Mint.com to get my personal budget in line before I dived into a business. My tight budget kept me in bargain mode at all times, so I purchased office supplies and computer software like Quickbooks on Ebay. I went to work every day tired and pre-occupied but was unable to tell anyone what I was planning because I needed the steady paycheck. I started planning in December 2009, and launched SET Boutique on June 3rd 2010, which was the goal that my SBA mentor and I chose back in January.

Where am I now?

Well, I am running a small business out of my apartment, and working as a temp so I can have Fridays off to devote to SET Boutique. I spend all my waking hours finding fair trade suppliers, researching every affordable resource to gain web traffic, and updating the website. I’m a one woman show, I’m planning my first factory visit trip to India and Nepal, I’m always short on time and money… and I have never felt so good.

Lindsay Sullivan graduated from University of Rhode Island in 2005, and currently lives in San Francisco. She owns and operates SET Boutique, which retails fair trade, eco-friendly clothing and accessories online.

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