by Robbieana Leung
For the cynics and optimists alike, mainstream news can be a major buzz kill, with its constant spew of stories about the negative state of our world. Seven days a week, there is a disproportionate focus on disheartening stories: “More slaves exist today than ever be- fore in human history…” “…Every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger…” “…1.2 billion people live below the poverty line, a number that will surge to 3 billion by 2050 if current environmental degradation trends continue.” Told from this overwhelming perspective and outdated paradigm, it is not surprising that the result is hopelessness and paralysis.
So how does one conquer numbed inaction and instead better the world?
Ten words: “By giving a shit and making choices to reflect that.” Straightforward and simple, Birgit Coles’ declaration is proof of the light in this world. As one of the countless people who rage forward when confronted by provoking issues, Birgit, the President of Simbi Haiti, is driven by the belief that one person can create positive impact in any situation. The following eight organizations — Simbi Haiti, Smile Squared, I Am., the Starfish Project, Choclo Project, Priya, Connected in Hope and Compassion It — are prime examples of businesses with social missions that are improving thousands of lives around the globe.
Responding to daunting issues with proactive efforts to serve and support vulnerable individuals, these companies inspire society at large to live a socially conscious and compassionate lifestyle. May their stories encourage you to actively use talents and resources to further goodwill, especially in moments where the odds seem insurmountable. In doing so, you will be the story that is much yearned for: a hope-filled testimony about what is right in this world.
Haiti locals Birgit Grossmann Coles and Lori Manuel Steed launched Simbi Haiti with a desire to share their country’s fine crafts and cultural wealth with the world. With its fashion apparel and accessories conceived and manufactured in Haiti, the company’s main objectives are “to simplify the link between hair and fashion and to help Haiti” by providing locals with employment opportunities and clean water to improve their quality of life. Explaining their unique business model, Birgit says, “We are like no other company here in Haiti, because we are here not only to help Haiti’s population, but also elevate Haiti’s reputation in the world by giving them products they can be proud to wear and look good in at the same time.”
When the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 and resulted in a cholera outbreak due to the lack of clean drinking water, Simbi Haiti’s visionaries designed a hair tie bracelet to raise money for Haiti’s suffering population. They found that while people were eager to help Haiti, several hesitated to donate because they did not know which organizations to advocate. Simbi Haiti’s solution was to create and sell a high quality product with a Haitian cultural touch so that people who wanted to help Haiti could give without the complexities of donating. Today, every Simbi purchase provides employment opportunities for a seaside community in the Valley of Jacmel.
Named after the Haitian water spirit that dwells in the sea and is called upon in times of trouble, Simbi Haiti uses a portion of its sales to install water filtration systems throughout the country to provide those in need with clean water. Furthermore, each Simbi bracelet sold provides enough funds to purify one gallon of water each day. The larger goal of Simbi Haiti’s foundation, Aqua Haiti, which manages the water filtration systems, is to “support, promote and finance the installation of water purification systems throughout the country” in an effort to eradicate water borne diseases.
Since the start of Simbi, its founders have installed two water filtra- tion systems, with the help of Life Giving Force, LCC, a USA based water filtration company. Gifted to the communities of Wharf Jérémie and Montrouis, located in a large slum of Port-au-Prince
and an orphanage near a seaside village, 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the systems provide 20,000 gallons of clean water every day for about 40,000 people. Installed during the height of the post-earthquake cholera outbreak, the water filtration systems donated to a clinic in Wharf Jérémie helped to dramatically de- crease the cases of cholera from 80 to 5 each day.
Giving a shit has opened the doors for Birgit and Lori to engage in a job that they love going to every day. For Simbi Haiti’s founders, the best part of their job is creating Haitian inspired designs and using the art to save, empower and improve the lives of their neighbors and community.
It all started with adoption. With three children born in Guatemala and Korea, Eric Copes and his wife felt strongly about giving back to the countries that had given them so much. Seeking to serve, the Copes volunteered with Buckner International, a Dallas-based organization that hosts dental clinics for children in Guatemala City. In 2010, the couple joined Buckner International to teach children about dental hygiene.
Most kids that the Copes met did not own a toothbrush, while the ones that did had to share it with family members. Not surprisingly, the children at the clinic had diseased teeth and gums, which painfully impacted their health and confidence. It was striking for the Copes to realize that something so easily preventable was inhibiting the kids from smiling. When a supervising nurse told Eric that his lesson was most kids’ first time learning about oral health, it sparked a vision for Smile Squared, an organization dedicated to improving children’s health around the world.
Following TOMS Shoes’ “One for One” business model, Smile Squared promises that for every toothbrush purchased, one will be donated to an established children’s medical and dental program. The best sustainability, Eric says, is offering a great product that people want to keep purchasing, with a simple message, “When you buy, we give!”
To date, the toothbrushes have been distributed through 20 organizations and have reached communities in all 50 States and 19 countries around the world. Besides donating toothbrushes, Smile Squared supports key personnel and medical directors from partner organizations and provides educational materials for patients. The small company with a large impact challenges customers to rethink the way they buy and consider that their purchase can change the world, even if it’s just a toothbrush.
Having received an influx of emails from international organizations seeking assistance, the Copes hope that Smile Squared will one day be in every major toothbrush retailer, so that they can fulfill every one of these requests. One benefactor, the International Justice Mis- sion, gratefully wrote Eric, “The toothbrushes are a small but powerful first indicator to individuals that they are cared for, they are safe, and they can begin to heal from trauma. The toothbrushes serve a real, tangible need that our clients have.” Heartening messages like this remind Eric that, “To be a small part of what they do on the front lines of helping the vulnerable is humbling and motivational.” The best part of his work, however, is sharing the story of Smile Squared with its muses; the whole reason why it exists in the first place: his children.
“Find a need and don’t be afraid to do something about it.”
“Shaming the Energizer Bunny” are the appropriate words to tag at the end of I AM.’s name, after Will Baxter’s crazy feat “Don’t Let Will Die” to fund his 2011 Kickstarter campaign. If you have four days left to raise $30,000 for a winning idea, try this: pledge to run on a treadmill, without stopping, until you are fully funded. And then do it for 50 hours, 26 minutes and 17 seconds in front of a camera for the world to see. Inspired by actor Will Smith’s words of determination, “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.” Will Baxter ran for over two days straight, to prove commitment to his idea and the women it championed. One sleep and bathroom deprived, yet amped up, visionary later, I AM. was born: “the yoga-inspired social enterprise with a mission to promote interconnectedness and change the world through amazing products.”
But let’s go back to the beginning. Born on a yoga mat in the Highlands of Guatemala, I AM. came to Will as he read Muhammad Yunus’ book, “Creating a World without Poverty” at a yoga- teacher training course. The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s argument that purposely designed social businesses can effectively tackle social problems struck a chord with young entrepreneur. Immediately, Will began seeking ways to apply Yunus’ principles on Lago de Atitlán. He didn’t have to look very far, however, before seeing thousands of impoverished Maya women – many of whom were single mothers – surrounding the lake; talented artisans that were trapped in a market where their indigenous back-strap weaving had been replaced by cheaply and quickly produced machine-made fabrics.
Reimagining their realities, poverty free, Will envisioned a financially stable community of women using their hand woven textiles to make the world’s most socially conscious yoga bag, and receiving high wages in return. Spinning the vices of consumption for good and in- stead channeling its power as a tool to empower, educate and sustain, Will set out to bring his idea to life. Joined by his sister, Jessie, and designer Nadja, the trio set up camp in Guatemala for three months, dedicated to product design and market research. With the support of Micaela and Luis, two natural dying specialists from the village of San Juan la Laguna, I AM.’s pioneers tested 30 yoga bag prototypes under consultation with a U.S.-based yoga practitioner, before craft- ing the finalized product: a 100 percent naturally dyed, cotton yoga bag, woven with recycled traditional textiles and the shared aspirations of local Maya women and I AM.’s founders.
Through I AM., Maya weavers are preserving an art that is an important symbol of their cultural heritage and identity, while securing a future for their children. Sustainably employed, the women work at home and have full autonomy over their work hours. To this beautiful journey, what can we say, but “when there’s a Will, there’s a way”?
THE STARFISH PROJECT
Walking down a beach littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore, an old man came across a young boy that was picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled by the boy’s diligence on the enormous task, the old man said, “Son, the starfish outnumber you a thousand to one. What difference can you make?” Reaching for another starfish and gently returning it to the sea, the boy answered, “I made a difference to that one!”
With a namesake in honor of this allegory, the Starfish Project believes in and demonstrates the strength of one. Seven years ago, founder Jenny McGee never imagined that her heart for the marginalized would have resulted in a company that impacts thousands. Perturbed by the sight of women and children in brothels masked as shops in China, Jenny and her friends made a commitment reach out to and care for the victims. Every week, they visited the women in the streets, engaging them in conversations, coffee dates, birthday parties and English lessons. As friendship grew and replaced caution and mistrust, the women shared anguished stories about their unfortunate situations. Exchanged as payment for debts that their relatives owed, the women were deceived by their own family and imprisoned in an unwanted lifestyle.
As victims of stigmatized jobs and for simply having been born female, Jenny’s new friends were society’s ostracized. She explains, “They have been told since they were born, whether explicitly or implicitly, that they were a mistake, they do not deserve happiness, and they are not worth it.” Compelled to provide her friends with a better life, Jenny initiated the Starfish Project, where the opposite message is believed as truth: “These women were put on this earth for a reason, they deserve joy, they are loved, and they have the utmost worth. They matter. That is what drives everyone who works for Starfish. We want to share that message to every woman we contact, and hopefully some day they will believe it for themselves.”
To offer the ladies a dignified job in which they could delight in crafting beautiful products that spread joy, the Starfish Project began a jewelry business. The social enterprise pro- vides training and promotional opportunities into higher-level positions, such as management, graphic design, administration and sales.
Furthermore, its Advocates of Hope program invites followers to raise awareness at events and sell jewelry in support of women that are leaving a life of exploitation. At its shelter, Starfish offers a variety of services, including team building activities, counseling and one-on-one coaching, educational and vocational training as well as employment with a sustainable income. Its focus on five main areas – physical, mental, emotional, moral and relational – is rooted in the philosophy that all areas need to be in balance in order for each to thrive.
“Sacrifice personal gain to deeply invest and engage the people and problems you encounter daily.”
Working with the women daily, hearing their needs and listening to their dreams inspires the Starfish Project to act as a launching pad for the women to enter into a better future. Like the boy on the beach, Starfish expresses, “We do it for the one.” Desiring to give exploited individuals the chance to provide for her family, grow and feel valued, Jenny hopes to multiply the Starfish Project’s branches throughout Asia and the world, into places where the “one” is overlooked. The pebble whose empathetic actions have rippled into waves around the world adds, “After pouring into their lives over the years, it is huge to watch them start to value themselves, and it is even better when they recognize how they can impact others for the first time.”
Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Give a child a marker and creative environment to thrive and fuel his imagination for life. This is the premise behind the Choclo Project, a social venture that believes that there is nothing more important for a child than being creative. One visit to the Nuevo Futuro orphanage in Lima, Peru in 2009 and Roland Wimbush was hooked to the en- chanting country and its people. Deeply touched by the warmth of the orphans and stunned at the over- whelming amount of abandoned children on the streets, the half- Peruvian Aussie decided to put a decade of design experience “for good use.”
Founder Roland explains that over half of Peru’s population lives in poverty, of which two-thirds are children under the age of five. Childhood is one of the most vulnerable periods of life, where young kids and adolescents are at great risk of ending up in the streets and being exposed to drugs, alcohol and crime. Supporting charities that actively help children get the start in life that they deserve, the Choclo project creates a safe environment for at-risk and ex-street youth to freely express themselves through art and learn positive ways to make a living.
Named after Peruvian corn, a staple food for the people, the Choclo Project produces ethical clothing that can be worn for any type of activity, whether it is yoga, surfing or hanging out at a café, the beach or in the mountains. Grown from little seeds like choclo, each garment in the line is inspired by the original doodles and photography created by little hands. Rather than working with high-fashion gurus to endorse or conceive his brand, Roland and his team work directly with abandoned kids. By designing Choclo’s entire collection on location, the team draws inspiration from ancient Peruvian textile culture and diverse landscape and remains close to the heartbeat of the organization: the Peruvian children.
Winner of the 2012 Social Awareness category of the ISPO Brand New Awards, the Choclo Project gives five percent of sales to its partner charities to finance education, re-socialization and family care programs. In a little over four years, the project has raised over €10,000 ($13,760) for the children. Choclo’s goal for the collection is to sell enough merchandise to finance a year’s schooling for the Center’s 18 kids – with whom its team spent last winter, hosting creative workshops, teaching new artistic techniques and receiving graphics that inspired an entire collection.
“Change the world by becoming a part of it… all of it and not just the nice parts.”
With a heart for Peruvian children that once had to fend for themselves on the street and are now learning to reintegrate back into society, Roland expresses, “The most important thing is the feeling of importance it gives the kids knowing that their imagination has real value. I have never experienced anything more gratifying than taking finished prototypes to the kids and witnessing their reaction when they see what has been created from their drawings.” Testifying to Choclo’s impact, Andreas Clamer, founder of Mundo de Niños, adds, “When the children see what has been made from their drawings, they feel special and this is the best feeling a child can have.” What was initially deemed as “crazy” and “impossible” by the founder’s close friends has turned into a movement so mighty that its positive impact and reach has even surpassed its bold dreamer’s wildest imagination.
In the midst of figuring out next steps after graduation, Joy Kennedy embarked upon a two-week trip to India in 2010 as a design and product development consultant. In Kolkata’s red light district, the then 22-year-old college senior met with women that had escaped forced prostitution and begun pursuing entrepreneurship. Through assisting the survivors, Joy was moved by personal stories about the horrors of being kidnapped and even sold by family into captivity.
Inspired by the women’s strength to move past scarring pasts in pursuit of new beginnings, Joy felt drawn to support the women in their venture to sell handmade crafts and accessories. She noticed that although the products were stunning and well made, its artisans lacked design knowledge and a market to sell their products. Suddenly, the light bulb went off: nothing seemed more exciting than using her business skills and passion for fashion to help the women bridge the gap. The power of entrepreneurship in combating poverty and modern-day slavery sparked the idea for Priya, which Joy calls her dream job, a synergy between her love for traveling, fashion and humanitarian work.
Meaning “beloved” in Sanskrit, Priya is a fashion brand that produces high quality purses and vibrant jewelry made of Indian silk that are handcrafted by female survivors of forced prostitution and sex trafficking in India and Nicaragua. Symbolic of transformation, Priya’s lotus logo, which is India’s national flower, represents rebirth and a beautiful fresh start for the survivors. By earning a living and having access to business, education and health opportunities and spiritual counseling through Priya’s efforts, the women have a brighter vision of the future as they break the cycle of exploitation and rebuild dignity.
Real change, Joy believes, “is about teaching a man to fish” and by being committed to equipping her artisans with business savvy strategies and skills. Eager to diversify products and provide micro-loans for female entrepreneurs in developing countries over the next five years, Joy exclaims, “The ripple-effect of a woman being able to sustain herself and her children because of the hard work she puts in running her own business is what excites me to no end.”
Remaining true to her original vision set three years ago, Joy asserts, “The message I want to get across, that I have learned from these women, is that they still haven’t given up. They have been through unimaginable heartache, yet they still have a desire to be productive members of society. They still enjoy the simple girlie pleasures in life, like dessert and nail polish, and they still, amazingly enough, can laugh.” With every Priya purchase, customers are helping to create jobs for courageous survivors and share their stories, which its founder calls, “the definition of true perseverance and strength.”
CONNECTED IN HOPE
The story of Connected in Hope began in 2009 as Ryane Murnane journeyed to meet his newly adopted Ethiopian son, Joseph, for the first time. His adventure through the country was a beautiful, yet heartbreaking, surrounded by the wonderful people he came to love. When Ryane crossed paths with female fuel wood carriers, he learned of their arduous trek to collect and sell wood. Leaving their children before dawn for the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the women would strap 80 – 85 pounds of eucalyptus branches onto their backs and embark on an 18 mile hike down Mount Entoto, sometimes barefoot, to sell the wood at city markets. Among the poorest in Ethiopia, with average monthly incomes below $12, the women endure enormous tolls on their bodies, not to mention wild animals, harassment and even rape, in an effort to financially support their families.
Compelled by these haunting stories and a deep desire to give back to the land where his son was born, Ryane joined forces with the Former Women Fuel Wood Carriers Association, a group that teaches weaving as an alternative livelihood. Gifted but without a market for their new trade, the women in the association relied completely on sales from tourists that serendipitously stopped by.
On a good month, they sold a mere two to three scarves. With 60 percent of the women being their family’s sole breadwinner, 33 percent between 10 -19 years old, and 100 percent without a steady source of income, expenses for rent and schooling were nearly impossible to meet.
Ryane recognized that an expanded market was the best solution to combat the women’s daily challenges of poverty, unsafe water and inadequate sanitation and food. Moved to action, he founded Connected in Hope in 2010, a nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to provide weavers access to international markets and training to earn a sustainable fair trade income. The organization is built upon the principle of empowerment as a more sustainable and effective approach than charity.
“Take risks. Don’t be afraid. Dream BIG. Tell a story.”
“There is nothing better in the world than a woman having the opportunity to work hard to provide for her children. Giving a woman a meaningful job with the appropriate tools to earn a sustainable income not only empowers the woman, but also her children and by extension, the whole community,” Ryane articulates. Connected in Hope’s holistic approach to sustainability means that 100 percent of profits are reinvested into programs for its clients, which include a preschool, classes on leadership development, business and literacy, basic health screenings, and as of next year, a children’s library.
Valuing today’s growing population of socially minded consumers, Connected in Hope proudly links buyers to the artisans with full transparency and values the strong relationships between its Ethiopian and American staff and weavers. Its founder explains, “Our buyers know how and where their products were produced and who produced them. They are able to see photos of the whole process and read the stories of the women behind the products. Through our social media updates they are able to continue to follow her progress long after that initial purchase was made. That’s a connection that just isn’t available in traditional buying situations and people love it.” Buyers can even write messages online to thank the weaver that made their scarf. Connected in Hope gratefully credits its success to its loyal supporters, for seeing a captivating story woven into each scarf, of a woman who has hopes and dreams, much like their own.
A witty play on words, COMPASSION IT reinvents “compassion” as a verb and inspires its patrons to actively live a life of kindness.
Through its reversible bracelets, which bear the phrases “COMPASSION IT” and “SELF COMPASSION,” the organization creates a community of empathetic citizens. Every bracelet challenges its owner to pledge 365 days of kind acts. The instructions are simple – begin each day with the dark side of the bracelet showing, and then flip it to the light side once you “compassion it.”
Founder Sara Schairer explains that her company was sparked by a 2008 episode of “Ellen” featuring compassion. The guest spoke about the virtue and how it was the most important lesson to teach children. Dealing with an unwanted divorce while her daughter was only a baby, Sara was refreshed by contemplating the virtue and its healing powers.
In an epiphany, the words “compassion it” came to mind. Acting upon these words, Sara found that when she was caring towards others, her actions positivity impacted herself and others. Profoundly influenced by this two-word message, Sara studied a compassion cultivation teacher-training program through Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and is now teaching Compassion Cultivation Training at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness. More than just a symbol of belonging to a movement, the interactive bracelets remind people to actually live the message that they bear. Sara also hosts outreach events in her hometown of San Diego, thoroughly enjoying interacting with people that are passionate about “compassion-it.”
Envisioning the future, Sara sees the brand as a household name and its soon to be eco-friendly-made bracelets worn and flipped by children, parents, students, business people and world leaders. The happy optimist states, “We imagine that this can help solve the world’s social problems of violence, poverty, hunger and civil unrest.”
Go Out and Give a Shit
Who would have thought that scarves, bangles, clothes, jewelry, yoga bags and toothbrushes could shake up the world so powerfully? The positive outcomes from these eight businesses were never methodically conceived at their inception, yet grew into what they are today through the same humble beginnings: with an overwhelming encounter with people in need, which was then interpreted as an opportunity to daringly put skills and ideas into action to better a community, and inevitably the world.
Having boldly left their comfort zones to experience and contribute to life’s diversity and richness, these socially conscious businesses are creating movements that are redeeming the consumer culture for good and transforming lives around the globe. Captured best in the words of I AM.’s co-founder, Will Baxter, the eight propel an idea “…that we no longer have to live in a world of blind consumerism; an idea that the power of business can be used to create and not exploit, to provide and not just profit; an idea that the value of a product can be measured in the benefit it brings to many, not the image it brings to one; an idea that we can all make difference. All we have to do is remember that every time we make a purchase, it casts a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.”
May you be inspired to care, to risk and to act.