Jessica: OK, guys. Hi. I am here with Molly, and I am here with Liz, and we are all speakers. We’re here to speak at the Fair Trade Federation Conference here in Austin, Texas.
Liz: We’re here.
Jessica: I was just getting some really good speaker coaching because my producer, Eddie, for this podcast, the very first text I got this morning was “Jessica, let’s go over it one more time, how to pronounce the singular of ‘woman’ and the plural of ‘women.'”
Liz: And he spelled it out phonetically for you.
Jessica: He spelled it out phonetically.
Liz: I really hope he sent that text at, like, 5 a.m., too. I don’t know Eddie…
Jessica: It wasn’t kind out of Eddie.
Liz: …but I want to envision, like…
Jessica: He’s a good man.
Liz: …a middle-aged man laying in bed going, “women, women,” and texting and spelling it out phonetically before the sun rose.
Jessica: No, he’s such a good man. In fact, I texted him back, “I’m so fried right now. I’ve been traveling too much.” And then he was like, “Oh, whoa.” Because I had told him, “Hey, if I sound kind of dumb ever, you’ve gotta have my back.”
Molly: See? Everyone needs an Eddie.
Liz: Everyone needs an Eddie.
Jessica: Everyone needs an Eddie.
Jessica: #EveryoneNeedsAnEddie. And so here I am. He knew I was interviewing… You guys both are… First of all, Molly, you used to be a stand-up comedian.
Liz: No pressure.
Molly: …improv comedian and sketch comic. I did a stand-up once.
Jessica: OK. Even more. That takes even more…
Liz: So much.
Jessica: …britty… Brittiness?
Jessica: Brittiness. Brilliant and wittiness, guys.
Liz: I’m into it. I’m into it.
Molly: I’m into it, brittiness.
Liz: Me, too.
Jessica: I see you as britty as well…
Molly: It is britty.
Liz: Aw. No one’s ever called me britty before.
Jessica: You are so britty.
Molly: You’re so brittiful.
Jessica: So britty. I mean, you guys both have that witty, brilliant thing, and I’m the one who can’t pronounce “women.” So…
Molly: No, you can be britty…
Molly: …and still say “woman.”
Jessica: I don’t know. I think that Eddie…
Molly: Aren’t you all about the…
Jessica: …might challenge you on that.
Molly: You’re all about the end.
Jessica: I am.
Molly: You’re all about embracing the end. Brilliant.
Jessica: OK. And I say “woman” now.
Molly: I say “woman.”
Jessica: Yeah. OK. So, I wanna introduce you guys really quick. We’re doing a live podcast here of Going Scared here at our Austin office. And so, Liz Bohannon is the founder of Sseko Designs, and Sseko is an ethical fashion brand that works to educate and empower women by providing employment and educational opportunities. Sseko enables women to continue their education and become leaders in their country. And Liz is also a public speaker. You turned your book in…
Liz: I did.
Jessica: …which I cannot wait for that.
Liz: Like, last week.
Molly: Oh my goodness.
Liz: Oh, yeah.
Jessica: I didn’t know it was so…
Molly: It’s fresh.
Molly: It’s fresh.
Jessica: Fresh. Still a little fried. So, you’re like…
Molly: You’re in recovery mode.
Liz: I’m in… Yes.
Liz: Yes, I’m in the trenches, just barely able … kinda just crawling out.
Molly: Yeah. And your hair is brushed. That’s impressive.
Liz: Brushed, not washed.
Jessica: Small differentiation, but yeah.
Molly: Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s right.
Jessica: And I have with us here, Molly Stillman, who has been a huge advocate for fair trade, long before any of us even knew what it was, I think. And you have been just an amazing supporter of Noonday, of fair trade, and she has… Well, she writes for the popular blog, Still Being Molly, which is a lifestyle blog that exists to inspire women to walk joyfully and confidently in purpose. She talks about fashion, beauty, recipes, her latest obsession. And she’s the host of a podcast that I think we both have been on.
Jessica: It’s called Business with Purpose, which takes you behind the scenes with some of the world’s most generous entrepreneurs. And really your podcast has elevated the work that fair trade and B Corps are doing, social entrepreneurs, businesses that … We’ve got so much nomenclature for what we do now, right?
Molly: I know. I know.
Jessica: Whatever it is, you cover it, and I’m just so appreciative. Thanks so much for being here, really. I know Molly’s been up since 4:00 flying to Austin. Liz has got two babes. Your flight was probably… Oregon to…
Jessica: …Austin is not okay.
Liz: We’re not close to anything.
Jessica: I know. I’m sorry. It’s rough.
Liz: Except Hawaii. Pretty quick trip.
Jessica: And that’s nice.
Liz: We’re gonna own that.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s good.
Liz: We’ll own that.
Jessica: I mean, you know, we’re here in Southern Texas. We got Cancun, we got Mexico, but pretty much anything else, it takes about 10 hours to get out of the state. And that’s OK.
Expanding the Niche Market of Fair Trade
OK, guys. So, we are here for the Fair Trade Federation Conference.
Jessica: And tell me a little bit more … Molly, you can go ahead and start.
Jessica: What has been your journey to kind of discover and own your place in this idea of fair trade? Or do you even call it fair trade? I don’t know. What do you call it?
Molly: I think right now you have to call it ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical fashion,’ but my dream, my goal, is eventually those terms just kind of go away because it’s just that’s how business is done. That’s really my dream and my vision for it.
I first learned about fair trade, in the existence of that it wasn’t coffee, tea, or chocolate, in the summer of 2011 when I went on my first trip to Kenya and I toured the Kazuri Bead Factory, which is right there in downtown Nairobi. And that was the first time that I had ever seen firsthand what fair trade could do on a person’s life, on a community. And so, when I came home, I just dove headfirst into learning as much as I could.
And I remember Noonday was one of the first brands I discovered, and I started … I went to a trunk show. I went to this little fair trade fashion party a friend of mine had thrown, and Noonday was there, and then another little brand from Uganda was there, and I think Sseko was there. I mean, we just had … This was early. Yeah. This is late 2011, early 2012. And I just dove headfirst and just started learning as much as I could, and I just became so passionate about it. And I began to see the disconnect between … The ethical fashion and fair trade world seemed very niche for a small portion of the population, and I didn’t like that because I believe that it doesn’t matter who you are, you should have access to being able to support these brands with your dollars.
“The ethical fashion and fair trade world seemed very niche for a small portion of the population, and I didn’t like that because I believe that it doesn’t matter who you are, you should have access to being able to support these brands with your dollars.” Molly Stillman
And so, I wanted to kind of bridge that gap between sort of this almost cool kids club. I don’t know. Does that make sense?
Molly: This kind of portion of the population who are … of people who are really passionate about these values and then bridging that gap to the consumer. And so, I just started talking about it and kind of how I was applying it in my own life, and I just … Oh, gosh. I just love it so much.
Jessica: I love that so much because I feel like a lot of people … And I know Liz and I, this is actually what happened to us, we went and started businesses to actually import and partner with artisans and empower artisans. But I love … There’s so much power in your story because it really was just about advocating, and using your voice, and voting with your dollars, but then also saying “I have influence, and I’m gonna influence other people.” And there’s just so much power in that.
Liz: So much power. Because it’s one thing for the makers, the people on the business side, to be like, “This means so much. Buy our stuff,” but then to hear it from you, you represent and advocate on the consumer side, you know… And just the way that you write and the way you style, it’s all just so accessible. And I think one of the things that I love about you and the way that you’ve used your platform is you have a lot of people in the community that I think are a little preachy and kinda like, “I’m gonna shame you into being a better consumer.” And I think what you do that’s so awesome is—it’s so whimsical, and accessible, and inviting. And it’s just like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. Come along. Discover brands. Here’s how you can style it,” which I think is a much-needed voice in this space.
Molly: That is the biggest compliment that you could give me because … I really take that to heart because that is something I have really been intentional about. Because when I started this journey, I felt very ashamed in a lot of areas where … When I first started out, when I first got home from Kenya, I was just newly engaged. I was still working to get out of debt. I wasn’t married yet. I didn’t have a lot of money. But this was something I … I was a new Christian.
I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew this was something that my morals, my values, lined up with. And I obviously have always loved fashion and beauty, clearly, but I really knew that it was something that I was passionate about. But I felt like if I still shopped at Old Navy, I was going to hell. I’m just being honest. Because as I started to support these things, I felt like it had to be this either/or. And that doesn’t win anybody over. Like a shame narrative wins no one.
And so, I’ve really tried to come at it from an empowerment narrative of like, “But look at the way that you can empower other people and yourself, too, with the way that you purchase things.” And just start with one thing.
Molly: You don’t have to change your habits overnight. For me, it’s been an eight-year journey of gradually changing my purchasing habits. And I still love Target, guys. I still love…
Jessica: I was gonna say … Could we bring closure?
Molly: I know…
Jessica: Can I just say you are not going to hell if you shop at Old Navy.
Jessica: I gotta bring it back.
Molly: No, exactly. But that’s what I mean, and that’s what I try to tell people is you do not have to be perfect.
Jessica: Exactly, yeah.
Molly: But if you make little, tiny intentional choices in the way that you change your purchasing habits, it’s not only better for your wallet, but it’s better for the people who are making your things. Absolutely.
Liz: I love that. Well, that comes across super clear. One of the things we say at Sseko is this idea of, let’s be louder about what we’re for than what we’re against…
Molly: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Liz: …and let’s create a new path and invite people along with us in that journey as opposed to being, like, “No, that’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong.”
Liz: It’s just more attractive.
Molly: I completely agree.
Liz: It’s more attractive.
Elevating the Value of Fair Trade Brands and Products
Jessica: OK, Liz, so, first of all, what do you call it?
Liz: So, here’s an interesting evolution. I’m glad you’ve asked this, because for us who have been around in the space for a while, it is interesting how…
Molly: We’ve called it a lot of different things over the last several years.
Liz: The semantics have changed. So, I had a moment, like I don’t know, maybe it was like a year ago, where I was referring to our ethical fashion brand, and someone that was so far outside of the space was very taken off-guard. You can tell he was kind of laughing and was like, “As opposed to non-ethical?”
Liz: Which was an interesting indicator to your point, we eventually won’t need these describer words because we’ll just assume that people are doing business in a way that’s humane and good for people. But we’ve kind of evolved … We call it “socially-conscious,” “social entrepreneur.” “Impact entrepreneur” is a phrase that we use a lot. So, I don’t know. Pick your poison.
Jessica: Pick your poison. I know. “Socially responsible” is something else that we’ve used. And then we kind of battle, like, do we say “fair trade?” Because I think people do often associate fair trade with coffee, so it’s like, wait … You know, it’s like there are so many categories that people have in their head, and so when you say something, it’s like what category are you gonna slip into? And I feel like we’re still finding our way around playing around that.
Liz: Honestly, I think the fair trade thing for us, we’re just gonna go there, is that I think when we describe ourselves as like, “Oh, yeah. We’re fair trade and we source stuff from Africa,” it immediately conjures up this idea in people’s heads of what we are that really, I think, holds on to this very old narrative of what fair trade is, what Africa … You know, “oh, it’s gonna be crafty, or it’s gonna have this—It’s gonna look like something that I bought when I was on a cruise ship. And I felt good about it in the moment, and then I got home, and I was like, I’m not actually gonna wear this in real life.” And so much of what we’re trying to do is really say … We wanna elevate the conversation. We wanna elevate the brand. We wanna elevate the product.
In my mind, if I’m not making product that … I mean, put the mission aside, put the impact aside, put everything aside that you wouldn’t look at and go, “Oh my gosh. That’s a fantastic bag. It’s made out of beautiful leather. It’s gonna wear so well. It’s multifunctional. It’s gonna fit great in my wardrobe.” At the end of the day, we’re not gonna create scalable, long-term impact. We can’t be relying on our missions to help us make product and build brands that are less than beautiful, excellent, on-trend, innovative.
“We can’t be relying on our missions to help us make product and build brands that are less than beautiful, excellent, on-trend, innovative.” Liz Bohannon
And unfortunately, I think sometimes in the conversation, fair trade gets kinda lumped in with the “Well, you may not actually like it, but you’re doing something really good for somebody.”
Liz: And one of the things that we say is … We wanna be product-led. I want you to buy the product because you love the product. I want you to then become a sold-out community evangelist for the brand because you’re like, “Oh, I have this beautiful wardrobe and I’m making this incredible impact in the world.”
Jessica: Yes. My very first trunk show … It’s funny because … Well, I didn’t know it was a trunk show at the time, you know. I just invited a whole bunch of people into my house to buy beautiful things to raise money to bring Jack home. But there was this one necklace, and it was like crack cocaine. People had to have it, and it sold out. And that’s actually what started the whole business model because I had women saying, “Ah, this necklace is gone, and I need it. I want it. Can you get more of this?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh. This could be a business. There is actually a consumer demand here.” And I think that is what each of us has really done for the space is … To me, the ethical part is the icing on the cake. The social entrepreneur, it’s the icing on the cake. But you have to be consumer-centric, consumer-focused, and product-driven.
“To me, the ethical part is the icing on the cake. The social entrepreneur, it’s the icing on the cake. But you have to be consumer-centric, consumer-focused, and product-driven.” Jessica Honegger
And even as I look back over the last nine years, I think about … Because I was thinking about this necklace this morning actually, and I was like, “It’s not really in style now.” That necklace would not sell out at a trunk show. And I was thinking about how cool that is. That’s something that I love about fashion is that it does enable constant creativity because our tastes change and trends change. And I actually like that because that creates demand for creativity when it comes to your product and innovation when it comes to your design.
And actually, I just saw on Instagram this morning that Joanna—who was my first designer, she designed for us for five years, she was one of my first hires—she is now a freelance designer, and she just designed for a fair trade company that we know very well, and she just launched some products for them. She just went and designed for them in India. And I was just so thrilled because I was like, “Oh my god. This stuff is beautiful.” And that’s what is gonna help elevate this other fair trade brand that I know has been shutting down stores. Because you’ve gotta be product-focused.
Thinking Dignity, Not Charity
So, Liz, I wanna hear more about… I know your journey, but for those that don’t, what has been your journey to ethical fashion?
Liz: So, I would say I didn’t know that that was a thing. That was not part of my consciousness. I mean, I would say when I was in college, just to give you guys a picture of who I was, I was this very idealistic journalism student. I wanted to be an international human rights correspondent. I had zero interest in business. I thought that if you were interested in business, you were just greedy, and you just cared about building up your wealth and didn’t care who it oppressed. And I actually was not at all interested in fashion. I thought that if you were into fashion, you were shallow and had no idea where Syria was. And I was gonna be over here saving the world with my words that no one would pay me to write.
So those two things, it was just so far off my consciousness. And I moved to Uganda with my journalism degree, and I really wanted to learn about issues women and girls in East Africa were facing. And I met a group of incredible young women, some of the brightest women I’ve ever met in the world, and they were in between high school and university. And they tested into college, but they couldn’t afford to go. And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” Here’s this massive global issue, women and girls and a lack of access to economic opportunity and education. All of a sudden, I just shrunk down. And it was like here’s 25 of the smartest women in the country. We need to figure out a way to bridge this gap between high school and university so that they can go into college, become leaders in their community, ultimately, in our world. How to do that, I couldn’t have cared less about.
So long story short, I actually started a charity like a good, idealistic American who comes over and thinks every problem can be solved with that. And luckily, I still had on this kind of like investigative journalist hat. And so, I just started asking a lot of questions about, “well, who’s doing something similar, and is it working, and does it work 10 years down the road, and what are the implications?” And my whole world started turning upside down. And all of a sudden, I went from thinking, “Oh, the only way you do good in the world is through, journalism or social work or philanthropy,” to going, “Oh my gosh. We need to be creating jobs, and we need to be building infrastructure, and we need to be growing the middle class and the economy and contributing to GDP if we really wanna be serious about seeing long-term life lift,” which I was horrified by.
“We need to be creating jobs, and we need to be building infrastructure, and we need to be growing the middle class and the economy and contributing to GDP if we really wanna be serious about seeing long-term life lift.” Liz Bohannon
You know, here I am, this journalism student who thinks business is evil, going “Oh my gosh. If it walks like a duck and it talks…” You know, like…
Liz: …employ people, make stuff …
So, my journey, I very much so backed into it going, “Dang. I think I gotta start a business.” And so, I started…
Jessica: Why didn’t I get a business degree?
Liz: Why didn’t I get a business degree? Literally, my sophomore year of college, I came home, had my Journalism major, and I’m like, “Yeah. I think I’m gonna get a minor in Women and Gender Studies.” And my dad was like, “Hopeless.” He comes from a business background, and he’s like, “Really? Like we don’t think one liberal arts degree is enough?” He was like, “Could you just get a minor in business?” And I was like, “Clearly, you don’t know me if you think I would do such a thing.”
So, I’m living in Uganda, and long story short, I just started a chicken farm. That failed. I’m not cut out to be a chicken farmer. And then I had designed these pair of sandals. “Designed” actually is a very generous word. I made a pair of strappy scrappy sandals because I wanted a pair of flip-flops that didn’t flop. And they checked enough boxes, and I went to the school, and I hired three young women, Mary, Mercy, and Rebecca, taught them how to make these sandals. And then I was like, “OK, ladies, here’s the deal. You make these sandals for the next nine months, I promise you’ll go to college next fall.” And they were like, “OK.” And I was like, “OK.” And I came back home and tried selling the sandals out of the back of my car.
Molly: But it’s not like the Michael Scott promise. He was like…
Liz: OK. Hilarious. I love you so much for saying this. “Scott’s Tots.”
Molly: Yeah, “Scott’s Tots.”
Liz: OK. I joke. I have said before the reason I chose 3 women as opposed to all 25 … Because my mentality was like if I completely fail and no one will buy these, I can probably scrape together and fundraise and beg on a street corner to send 3 women as opposed to like 25. Molly’s referencing this episode of The Office where Scott goes into like a bunch of …
Molly: Michael Scott goes into like…
Liz: Yeah, kindergartners.
Molly: Yeah. He had gone years earlier and promised all these kindergartners…
Liz: That he’d pay for them to go to college.
Molly: That he would pay for them to go to college, and no one…
Liz: Like 50 of them.
Molly: And they all do it. They all graduate. And then he realizes that he can’t keep his promise. And it’s like the line is something like, “I’ve made a lot of empty promises, but this was the best one.” He was like, “I made a lot of empty promises.” So, you didn’t do a Scott’s Tots.
Jessica: Oh, that’s so good.
Liz: I did not do Scott’s Tot, yeah.
Molly: Yeah. You did not do Scott’s Tot.
Molly: If you’re an Office fan, you will love that reference.
Liz: Oh, man. I think about that all the time. I love that you brought that up.
Jessica: I just knew there was gonna be an Office reference with you guys, and I knew I wasn’t gonna get it. That’s OK.
Molly: I’m really sorry.
Jessica: I’m cool with that because I can be britty…
Molly: I’m like, Season 4, Episode 13…
Liz: Yeah. You’re britty.
Jessica: I’m britty.
Liz: You’re britty.
Molly: You’re britty.
Jessica: I’m still britty…
Molly: You are so britty.
Jessica: …even if I don’t have Office episodes memorized, you guys. OK.
Join the Sisterhood
Jessica: Hey, thanks for letting me interrupt this conversation for just a hot second. If you guys have been listening to Going Scared for a while, I know that you are people who are committed to courage, you’re committed to impact, and you’re committed to entrepreneurship. And, as you probably know, I am the founder and co-CEO of a social impact company called Noonday Collection. And the way that Noonday grows and creates an impact is through our Ambassador Opportunity.
Ambassadors are social entrepreneurs who earn an income while also making an impact. And right now, I, personally, am looking for 20 social entrepreneurs who are ready to crush it, who are saying, “I’m ready to harness my courage to make a difference in the world.” And I want to personal invite you into this opportunity. We now have the opportunity for you to start a business for $99, which is so crazy and so amazing. For $99 you are going to get your own website, you are going to get sample collection of products, you are going to get all of the training that you need, and I want to get to know you.
So, if this is something that you are interested in, if you already know an Ambassador, then give her a call, let her know. And if you don’t know of an Ambassador then would you please reach out on the website, on noondaycollection.com, click on Join, let them know that you found out about it through Going Scared. And I just can’t wait to join you on this amazing journey.
Collaboration Over Competition
Jessica: So, something that is really interesting … I just got back from India a couple of weeks ago, and I was there meeting with a bunch of different partners. And one of those partners is TARA Projects, who also partners with Mata Traders or … And do you guys partner together?
Jessica: So, I didn’t know all of that. But as I was walking through TARA Projects … We are just now placing our POs for fall, and a lot of our samples—you all can relate to this, this definitely—didn’t quite execute well with this particular group. And so, the orders that we placed were not as big as they could have been. But I am there, I’m getting inspired, I’m seeing all these women who are just “Give us more work…”
Liz: They wanna grow so much.
Jessica: I know, and I’m like, “Oh.” Like we did. We placed a big order, but it’s just not what it could have been. But then I came across these…this one couple making this really cool necklace, and I was like, “This is such a cool necklace. Who’s this for?” And they were like, “It’s for Mata Traders.” And it was just that whole … To me, the distinction of fair trade is that we are super transparent and that we are a community, and that it’s never about having one artisan group be dependent upon Noonday, but it truly is if we can all be a community together and doing our thing.
So, that is something that is extremely unique to fair trade when I think about… Well, I have never worked typical retail. I worked for a year in a jewelry store, ironically, many years ago, but I have never worked on the corporate side of retail. But what I have heard is you sign your life away, do not give away who your sources are, and you don’t ever talk about your vendors, and you pay cash 90 days after receipt of product, and all of these things. And I’m learning about that as I am partnering with vendors that might source to more traditional retail.
And so, there’s something so powerful about this community that we … It is a message of collaboration over competition, and so … And yet I know that each of us is a very ambitious woman. I know that and I love that about you guys. And there is always how do we balance that tension of being ambitious, which is a little competitive, that involves being competitive, and also collaborative. Because you brought it up. I’m an end girl, and I am, but also it takes a lot of intention. So, I’m just curious what your journey has been. I’ll start with you.
Molly: You know, it’s funny, as I think about this … when I teach different blogging classes, or I teach a lot of workshops and speak to a lot of bloggers and content creators, and one of the things I tell them all the time is “do not buy into the lie that there is not enough room for your voice.” Because in the podcasting world, in the blogging world, there are millions of bloggers, there are millions of podcasters, but there is only one you. Your perspective is unique. And it’s not like with TV…
Track with me here for a second. So, back in the ’70s, if you wanted to watch one television show that came on at the same time as another television show, you could only watch one or the other. There wasn’t DVR. There wasn’t a way to consume both shows at the same time. You had to pick, either/or. Well, that’s the beauty of Instagram, and the internet, and podcasting. It’s not an either/or. I can listen to Jessica’s podcast, and I can listen to another podcast, and I can listen to Jen Hatmaker’s podcast, and I can listen to The Daily, and I can listen to all these podcasts, and support them, and encourage them, and share them with my community because I love them, and it doesn’t take away from my own. Does that make sense?
And so, we can be ambitious and encourage each other in what we’re doing because it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I can be a fan of this blog and that blog. I can shop from Noonday and Sseko. I can shop from all of these different companies because I love them, and it’s … I don’t have to pick.
You see it mostly among women. Men don’t really have that same mentality. They’re just kind of like “Oh, yeah. That guy is doing that. That’s cool. I’m gonna go do my own thing.” But women, it’s like we have this innate thing within us where we feel like we have to compete with everybody else around us, and I think that that’s just the enemy coming in there and filling our head with a bunch of lies.
Jessica: Well, I also think for a very real point in time, there literally was one seat at the table for a woman…
Molly: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
Jessica: …and so there was that. But now we’ve … we, us here on this podcast, have created a freakin’ stadium…
Molly: We’re building a stadium.
Jessica: We’re building a stadium for seats for women to come and not sit, by the way. Don’t sit in my stadium. Get up and freakin’ play ball with me. And play to win, by the way. And so, I do think that we’re overcoming a history where there wasn’t just a scarcity mentality, there was actual scarcity.
Jessica: Because we didn’t have the golf course to go play on, and hang with the dudes, and network, you know.
Sisterhood: Sharing Elevation, Empowerment, and Courage
Molly: Which is funny you say that because … So, another fun fact about me is I played competitive golf before.
Jessica: You did. Of course.
Molly: Of course I did.
Liz: I want a photo. Prove it.
Molly: I know. I know. I played golf. So, my dad was a professional golf teacher. So, when I turned 2, he sawed off a pair of clubs and he made a set for me. So, I started playing golf when I was 2. I started, played in my first tournament at 16, and played competitively through high school. I did not play in college because I just was so burnt out at that point.
But I say that because I was always the only girl. I was always the only girl and so I always had to prove myself. Because if I was in a … I actually did not make the varsity golf team my freshman or sophomore year of high school even though I was better than the other guys because my coach was … I mean, just straight up, he was sexist against me. He didn’t want a girl on his team, until finally, by my junior year, I was too good to the fact where he was just like, “OK. Well, now she has to be on the team.”
But that was just one of those things where I always felt like I had to prove myself, and I get a lot of that from my mom. My mom served as an Army nurse in Vietnam.
Molly: When she came home from Vietnam, there was no support for women veterans. She was spit on. She was called a baby killer. No one acknowledged her service. Nobody stood up and saluted her. She had to hitchhike her way home from when she was dropped off at the airport to where she was going, and people would pull over and throw trash at her. I mean, this is the early ’70s, and so there was no … She had to claw her way to get any type of support or recognition for what she did.
As a young child, I saw my mom fight for those things and fight for the rights of women veterans, and so I took that to heart, and I still … She passed away when I was a senior in high school, and I just think about what would she want me to be doing. And she was the person who just elevated the worth of everyone around her.
Molly: And she just … Yeah. I mean, there’s really no other way to say it other than, everybody that came into contact with her felt elevated, and empowered, and encouraged. And so, I tried to take that into what I do as both a woman, and in the business world, and the content creation, whatever I’m doing—I want other people to feel encouraged, and elevated, and empowered, and challenged, all of those things.
“What I do as both a woman, and in the business world, and the content creation, whatever I’m doing—I want other people to feel encouraged, and elevated, and empowered, and challenged, all of those things.” Molly Stillman
Liz: That’s amazing.
Jessica: That’s amazing legacy.
Liz: I know this is your show, Jessica, but I’m just gonna say, “And that’s a wrap.”
Molly: No, no…
Liz: And it was really nice to be with you all.
Liz: No, no. No, that was awesome.
Jessica: No. But I love that you just broadened the conversation a bit because we are in a conversation so much around women, and that’s so much of our passion. At the same time, at Noonday, we have been very specific to not say that we’re just partnering with female artisans. We really are partnering … I mean, same with Sseko. You’re impacting men. I just met some of them a couple of weeks ago. And so there really is a sense of family, and empowering people, and empowering the worth of people around the world, and what an amazing legacy that you are living. Thanks.
Liz: That’s good.
Jessica: Thanks for sharing that.
Liz: I love the conversation about collaboration over competition, specifically for women, because it’s like “oh, bless your souls if you’re seen as an ambitious or competitive woman.” That’s such an attractive feature that we see in men, and when we see a man that’s a go-getter, and he’s competitive, we’re like, “Oh my gosh. He’s going places.” And that really freaks us out in women. And I think we have this misnomer that it’s like, “oh, choosing collaboration over competition means we all sit in a room and just Kumbaya.”
Liz: And I really think it’s less about “don’t be competitive” and more about, like, well, who are you competing against and why. And so often, I think, especially if we’re operating out of scarcity and insecurity, we look at the person that’s right next to us or maybe a couple of steps ahead and we start competing with them. And to me, that’s a sign of, “oh girl, you’re dreaming too small.” If you’re getting so caught up in—whether they’re vanity metrics or whether they’re…you know.
And I’m looking to the left and to the right going like, “No, no, no, no.” Literally, what I want you to be pouring your life, and your energy, and your ambition, and your innovation is … we have a huge task ahead of us, right? And for me, it’s figuring out how to elevate some of the brightest, smartest, most ambitious, by the way, women, in developing economies into academia so that they can go on and be leaders in their communities, the ones who are gonna be writing laws into place, that are gonna protect land rights, and women’s bodies, and all of these really, really important things.
And then on the fair trade side, it’s like … I think I read that fair trade represented about $1 billion in commerce last year, which is awesome, but retail in general in the U.S. is like 6 trillion, right? So, it’s a small percentage.
Jessica: And that was probably including consumer goods like coffee and…
Liz: Right. Oh, yeah. I’m sure that was a huge part of it.
Liz: And so, it’s just like, no. If you’re buying into the line that it’s, “oh, you know, we’re competing for this really small piece of the pie,” I’m so much more interested in going, “how do we friggin’ make a bigger pie?” Let’s make a bigger pie so that there’s a seat at the table for all of us. Because it’s just that the work is too important, and there’s too much to be done in our lifetime, and there’s too much opportunity to each do that in a way that is … I mean, can you imagine if … It’s so funny to me that in the fair trade industry, someone would sit around and be like “No, someone’s already doing this out of this country.” And you’re like, “OK. Adidas didn’t sit back and be like, ‘Well, Nike already exists.'”
Liz: I mean, whether it’s in technology, whether it’s in retail, whether it’s in automotive, there’s always gonna be a way that you can create a brand, you can create a product line, you can create a story. You’re connecting with your consumers in a way that’s unique and in a way that continues to elevate and innovate. And I think the opportunity that we have, specifically in this little, tiny bubble of the fair trade, ethical, socially conscious, is to really link hands and say like, “Hey, I think we have a more similar than dissimilar vision of what the world is gonna look like.”
“Whether it’s in technology, whether it’s in retail, whether it’s in automotive, there’s always gonna be a way that you can create a brand, you can create a product line, you can create a story. You’re connecting with your consumers in a way that’s unique and in a way that continues to elevate and innovate.” Liz Bohannon
Liz: “So how do we do that together?”
Jessica: Capitalize on that.
Liz: How do we capitalize on that? And how do we be strategic about it? And it’s exciting to me.
Jessica: It’s funny. You say that we can compare ourselves to someone who’s a couple of steps ahead of us, and I think when you’re a big thinker … This is a true story. I think it was Khloe Kardashian released a makeup company the week my book was coming out, and I literally screenshot it. It was like, “Khloe Kardashian, $1 billion in 1 week.” And I texted Jen Hatmaker. I was like, “Jen, Khloe Kardashian. My book needs … it needs to go big or go home.” And she was like, “I can’t believe you pick the most famous people in the world to compare yourself to.”
But it’s to your point. I do see there is just so much more, and I still see us as so tiny. And that, to me, can cause frustration. That can be a frustrating point, which can … I don’t know. It can demotivate me sometimes because there’s some times I can feel like, “man, I’ve been pushing this boulder up the mountain for a lot of years, and I thought we were gonna get at some sort of top where it would roll just a little bit, but I’m finding that it’s still just like we’re still pushing. We’re still pushing.
Liz: You’re just perpetually pushing.
Jessica: But, you know, Liz, you and I are direct competitors. I don’t know if it gets more direct than you and I. We have the same business model, a lot of similar products, but I think that’s why I almost, in a way, wanted to have you on this podcast to almost disrupt that conversation. But then I think it’s also the power of fair trade. It’s just, to me, that we can…
Before I went on this trip, I called up another friend of mine who owns a fair trade brand, and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to this country. I know you’ve got some suppliers there. Can you make the intros?” That would never exist…
Liz: Never, ever, ever.
Jessica: That is the power of togetherness and why I’m just so excited about what we get to do.
Molly: That’s so awesome.
Jessica: Yeah. OK, Molly, tell us a little bit, like…
Molly: Uh-oh. I’m scared.
Broadening Fair Trade Awareness
Jessica: No, no, no. Nothing to be scared of. So, you’ve been at this since about the same time as me, and you’ve seen a lot of change happen. So, if you were to sort of recap the changes that you’ve seen in this space over the last nine years what would you say?
Molly: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I mean, I think, here’s the best example I can give. So, when I, in 2015 … So, this is, what, four years after I went on my first trip to Kenya. In 2015, I remember I wanted to find a central place online, just a directory, a place where I could find brands that are either made in the USA, or fair trade, or ethical, and there was just nothing. There was nothing out there, no place where I could Google “ethical brand directory,” and there was nothing there. And so, I was like, “I’ll just start one.” And it was scrappy. It was just like a page on my site where…
And so, I spent about a week or even longer just finding any ethical or fair trade brand that I can find, and I put it on this directory on my blog. There was probably about between 35 or 40 brands at that time. That was 2015. At last count, and I had to redo my site and make it searchable, and taggable, and all that kind of stuff, redo the whole directory, there’s about 500 now….
Molly: …in 4 years.
Jessica: That is crazy.
Molly: Four years.
Molly: And so that, to me, is really telling. And then some of my nearest and dearest friends own ethical brands. Bethany Tran, who owns The Root Collective, is one of my best friends, and we talk about this all the time. And she talks about when she started The Root Collective in 2013, she was like … social enterprise just wasn’t that common. And so she’s had to really reframe her messaging over the last few years because in the beginning she was marketing the message of the business model of, “Well, we’re employing men in the slums of La Limonada who are coming out of the gang life,” and, you know, that was her big marketing message. Now she’s really focused on creating a product that will get women noticed because they make amazing boots, which Jessica and I actually happen to be wearing the exact same Root Collective boots. They’re amazing.
But it’s changing that narrative and it’s … I’ve loved seeing brands have to … Kind of like what we were talking about earlier where it’s like you make a product that is beautiful. When you were talking, Liz, I was like, “Yes!” I wanted to just give a round of applause, a standing ovation, because I’m just like, “yes, that’s what I wanna see fair trade brands doing.” It’s because when you create a company that is resting on the laurels of, “Oh, well, our stuff is ethically made so you should buy it,” that just creates a pity purchase, and that does not empower your artisans. And so, if you’re not creating a product that is beautiful, and well-made, and in-demand, then you potentially are risking not being able to pay your artisans. You don’t want that pressure.
“When you create a company that is resting on the laurels of, ‘Oh, well, our stuff is ethically made so you should buy it,’ that just creates a pity purchase, and that does not empower your artisans. And so, if you’re not creating a product that is beautiful, and well-made, and in-demand, then you potentially are risking not being able to pay your artisans. You don’t want that pressure.” Molly Stillman
So yeah. So, I mean, I think I would say it, just in the last 4 years from going from 30 to 40 brands on that directory to almost 500, that is, to me, really telling.
Jessica: I think it’s telling about social consciousness, and about entrepreneurship, and artisans, but I also think it’s telling about the internet and Instagram…
Liz: Yeah, yeah.
Jessica: …and how it’s just become so accessible for people to find artisans and find sources. And then I think artisan businesses don’t have the quantities of China, which are massive. And so, there is a little bit of a low entry point if you’re just wanting to suddenly open a store in Instagram and buy a few things from another country. I’ll say in my last eight years, I could also list you so many artisan businesses that have gone out of business.
Molly: Oh, yeah. For sure.
Responsibility in Fair Trade Business
Jessica: And I know that you could speak to that, Liz. So, what have you seen over the past 10 years?
Liz: Artisan businesses, brands, companies, it’s been a really … I don’t know if you feel this way, but it feels so exciting, and also quite harrowing, right…
Liz: …where it’s just like you’re … I mean, I would say on the regular, we’re hearing about retailers that we used to sell to that are no longer in business, little brands that we maybe used to run with that have kind of shuttered their doors, artisan businesses. There is, to your point of the barrier to entry is so low that there is kind of the danger, I feel like, of people being like, “Oh, this can’t be that hard. I’m gonna go in and I’m gonna place an order for 5000 pieces of this necklace that this artisan organization that I’m making in this country that I went on vacation is. And it can’t be that hard to go home and sell it,” without a real kind of understanding of how that can affect people along the way, right?
So it’s like, OK, well, that artisan group then went out, and she invested money to make the product, and she likely was contracting that work out, and she promised her community …
Jessica: She probably bought raw material…
Liz: She probably bought the raw materials.
Jessica: …more than she needed, and it’s sitting in a workshop.
Liz: Totally. And there’s all of these things. And then people get back, and they’re like, “Oh, OK. I can sell a batch of anything once.” But building a brand is really freaking hard.
And so, there is kind of this interesting … As it becomes more common, I think we do need to probably get a little bit more serious about our education and resources of how do we do this, in a way. And I am all about “just do the thing. It’s never gonna be perfect. Everything is iterative, so do the thing and then build on it.” But I think that there is a level of resource and responsibility that we have to start entering into the conversation. But I will just say that it’s like any business, fair trade or not, in fashion accessories—it is brutal.
“We do need to probably get a little bit more serious about our education and resources of how do we do this … I think that there is a level of resource and responsibility that we have to start entering into the conversation. But I will just say that it’s like any business, fair trade or not, in fashion accessories—it is brutal.” Liz Bohannon
Molly: It is.
Liz: I mean, it is just like…
Liz: I think the statistics of general business is hard, but if you’re in the fair … or if you’re in the fashion…
Jessica: I think it’s fashion. It’s a 4% success rate in business.
Liz: It’s in the single digits, low end of the single digits.
Jessica: Yeah, yeah.
Liz: And then our industry specifically is incredibly competitive, and that’s not just fair trade companies competing. It’s just like you’re competing with massive, mass-market designers. And so, I think it’s exciting because it’s like…
Jessica: There’s never a dull day.
Liz: There’s never a dull day. And what you were talking about of just constantly feeling like you’re pushing the boulder up the mountain, I totally feel that way.
Can we just talk about this? I really dislike hearing “silver bullet” stories. I was in the car the other day and I heard a silver bullet. This was about a comedian, and she was like, “Well, I just wasn’t really into comedy, and then I went to a club and I did this bit, and then it made it on YouTube, and then it went viral.” And I literally, in my car, was like “I don’t wanna hear that story” because they’re so rare, and yet they lodge themselves into our consciousness.
Jessica: They have lodged. They do. Yeah.
Liz: lt’s silver-bullet disease.
Jessica: It is.
Liz: Yeah, we’re all running around going, “There’s a silver bullet. I just gotta find it. I just gotta find it. And once I find the silver bullet, everything’s gonna work and everything’s gonna be easy.” And it makes us feel like what we’re doing isn’t right because it’s not the silver bullet.
Jessica: Or it doesn’t matter.
Liz: Or it doesn’t matter. And instead, trying to stop myself in the moment where it’s like I’m sweating, and I’m heaving, and I’m pushing the boulder up the mountain, and I’m going … I thought by now, it would start to roll, and then having these moments where I step back and I go, “Oh my gosh. We’re still here.” We’re still here. Ten years in, this scrappy little sandal company that a 22-year-old journalism student started against all odds, with product that wasn’t great, with zero systems to support it, we’re still here. And we’re growing, and we’re making even more beautiful product, and people are becoming a part. And just taking these moments to sit back and say, like, “Oh my gosh. We’re still here,” and celebrate just that accomplishment in and of itself because there are a lot of people that can’t say that.
Jessica: I know. But I mean, this is my perpetual conversation. I think it’s probably a personality thing, too. Like, don’t you? I think that when you think so big, it … Because I might have this conversation with a friend who doesn’t struggle with this and she’s like, “Just look what you’ve built.” And I’m like, “No. Look what still has not been built.”
Liz: I’m so with you. That’s why I do feel like friends that are shared personalities are important.
Liz: Because when someone who’s running as hard as I am and who is dreaming as big as I am kind of calls me into that, then I feel like I can listen. If it’s someone that feels kinda more on the … they’re not necessarily … and they see what I’ve done, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. But that’s so amazing,” I’m like, “No, no, no. No, you don’t see the whole big picture.”
Jessica: When I first met you, you actually said something when we had lunch in Portland a few years ago, and it was so good because I was like, “Man…” I was really … I was just sharing. I was so angsty in my 20s, and I was really impressed because I feel a lot older than you. I am older than you. And I was just so impressed that in your 20s, you already knew exactly where you were going, where I didn’t start Noonday till I was 35. I had a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 2-and-a-half-year-old on the way, and it was just crazy. And you are just already starting your journey in your 20s, and I was just so angsty, and you were like, “Yeah. Usually people like us, when we think we can actually change the world and you … And there’s a point … There was a gap between that feeling and then actually what you’re doing, there’s a little bit of angst there.” And I was like, “Yeah. You’re right, because we’re actually psycho enough to believe that we actually can.”
Liz: We are. And it’s a delusion. And it’s one I never wanna be cured from. What I say is that a visionary is someone that sees the gap between the way things are and the way things could be, and they’re the person that says, “Here’s the difference,” and “Come with me. Help me build a bridge. I don’t care. Bring your dump truck. Bring a plastic hammer.” But it’s bigger than me, and so we have to be in on this together or we’re never gonna make it.
Building Fair Trade with a Long View
Jessica: OK. I have to bring up this point, and I know, Molly, you’ve been to some Noonday Collection Trunk Shows. You are friends with Noonday Collection Ambassadors. Liz, you guys have a Fellows program, which is very similar. And I just have to kind of bring it all back to the business model that we talked about, how the barrier to entry is often very short, but then the actual staying power … and then thinking about your long-term impact, you don’t think about that at the beginning.
And that’s what I love about our business model, as we get to offer a business in a box to other women so that they can actually be a part of this long-term vision as opposed to saying, “Yeah. Go out and find an artisan, and start…” And building a brand is so hard. So why not just partner with a brand that—you love the aesthetic, you love the mission, they’re in it to win it for the long term, so that you know, I might just do this for a season, I might just do this for a few years. But Noonday’s gonna be there forever, so you can feel really good about … And I know Sseko’s the same way. So, I just had to bring it back.
Liz: Yeah. No, I love that.
Molly: Yeah, I love that.
Liz: You know, I used to get really frustrated with the micro-enterprise conversation. I believe that there is absolutely a place for micro-enterprise, but they’re like, “Give a woman a $50 loan and she’s gonna go start a business.” And you would never walk into just a room of 100 women in the U.S. and assume that they’re all entrepreneurs. Assume that if I give you $50, you’re gonna be able to get a return on your investment and have the mind, and the risk tolerance, and the idea to actually be able to put that in place, which is why we think it’s really important to be creating workplaces for people that just want a steady job where they can grow from within and where they can get paid fairly and grow their own skills.
But it’s the same in the U.S. that there’s a lot of women that are like, “I love the idea of social enterprise, but I don’t have a product. I can’t go move and start a manufacturing company. I can’t do brand.” And so yeah, absolutely, saying, “OK. Take what we have built, but you can speak to people in a way that we can’t.” Your story will touch a woman that, like me, from our corporate offices, won’t be able to make that impact. We won’t be able to make that relationship. Like you have a special sauce. But instead of going out and trying to recreate it on your own…
Jessica: Create that whole thing.
Liz: If you are, that’s awesome, but you’re a rare bird. You’re 1 in 100 people that are gonna go out and do that. For the rest of us, let’s link arms and do that together, which is awesome.
Jessica: OK. So, Molly, we talked a little bit about where we’ve come from, and you talked about going from …was it 40 businesses at first?
Molly: Yeah. It was like 40 businesses on the directory.
Jessica: Forty to 500.
Molly: There’s like 500.
Jessica: Where do you see this movement going in the future?
Molly: I mean, my dream, and I think I mentioned this before we started recording even. It’s just that … my dream is just thinking about the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the Fair Trade Federation Conference, or the Fair Trade Federation, that in the next 25 years, I want the term “fair trade” to be gone, to just cease to exist because that is just how business is done.
“I want the term ‘fair trade’ to be gone, to just cease to exist because that is just how business is done.” Molly Stillman
What I have been saying for the last couple of years is I really do think that in the next 5 to 10 to 15 years, we’re gonna see what we saw with food, in the fashion and purchase and product industry. Like 10 years ago, 12 years ago, nobody really was talking about organic, and GMO, and farm-to-table. That just wasn’t the conversation. And now, everybody’s talking about farm-to-table, and everybody’s talking about organic, and GMO, and all these kinds of things. And it’s like we’ve gone back to the way our grandparents ate. You know what I mean? And so, it’s like we swung the pendulum in the ’90s to all of the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Dunk-a-Roos, and like…
Liz: Bagel Bites. Bagel Bites.
Jessica: I just wanna say I am still here for Bagel Bites. If Bagel Bites is listening…
Molly: Bagel Bites. But yes, but we swung the pendulum in the ’90s, and everybody was like, “Woop, woop, woop, woop, woop, we don’t wanna do that. We don’t wanna do that.” And so, we were coming back, and so now it’s getting back to the way our grandparents ate. And I think that is how I see the future of the fashion and product industry. It’s going almost back to the way our grandparents purchased things. And it’s like they purchased things because they were high quality and they lasted. And they bought a dress, and when it got a rip, they fixed it. What a novel concept. What a novel concept to replace a missing button instead of just running out and buying another one.
But I really think that as we see more and more brands … I mean, just this year, in the last six months, we’ve seen J. Crew and Madewell launch Fair Trade Certified.
Jessica: Which has been awesome. I need to go get a pair.
Molly: We’ve seen Athleta become a certified B Corporation. Athleta is owned by Gap. Target has partnered with IJM. These are big companies that are standing up and saying, “Hey, you know what? We see a problem.” Consumers are standing up, businesses are starting to make a change, and I think we’re gonna see a pendulum swing the other way.
“Consumers are standing up, businesses are starting to make a change, and I think we’re gonna see a pendulum swing the other way.” Molly Stillman
Jessica: And we’re gonna be leading the charge…
Molly: Exactly. Exactly.
Jessica: …for all of you people listening…
Jessica: …right now.
Molly: That’s my dream. That’s my vision.
Jessica: Well, thanks so much for coming on the show today. And we can find both of you guys. Molly, where can we find you, and hang out with you, and learn from you?
Jessica: Awesome. Liz, you, when does your book come out? You said you just turned in the manuscript.
Liz: It comes out in October.
Molly: Oh my goodness.
Jessica: OK. OK.
Liz: It launches this fall.
Liz: So you can stay up-to-date on that. You can find me on the socials, just @lizbohannon, and then sseko, which is S-S-E-K-O, designs.com, and all the social interwebs.
Jessica: Have you revealed your title yet?
Liz: I haven’t.
Jessica: What is it?
Liz: I haven’t.
Jessica: Oh, you haven’t.
Liz: I haven’t, you know, publicly.
Jessica: This won’t be your space to do that, but maybe yeah.
Liz: But it’s out there and I just got the final, final cover.
Jessica: Oh, you did.
Liz: Uh-huh. I’ll show it to you guys.
Molly: Ooh, yes.
Liz: I’m really excited. It has been…
Molly: Secrets. Secrets.
Liz: I mean, you know this. We could talk forever about the process of writing a book, but it was the hardest, scariest, most mind-trippy thing I have ever done. But now that it’s out in the world, it’s okay. Now, I’m just…
Jessica: Now you gotta launch it.
Liz: It’s another chapter.
Jessica: Honestly, that was the…
Liz: Don’t tell me that.
Jessica: You have heard about the Khloe Kardashian comment, OK? I am messed up, OK? We are both psychotic, so I’m just telling you right now, Liz, that the launching part to me, yeah, a lot harder.
Liz: I love it.
Jessica: OK. Thanks for coming on, guys.
Molly: Thanks for having us.