A Non-Profit Idea Becomes a For-Profit With a Heart

Why the social enterprise model worked best for two women seeking to alleviate poverty.
Content Creator/Speaker/Consultant, Alpha Dogs Media Group
July 09, 2012

When Kirsten Dickerson and Sophia Lin first started Raven + Lilly in 2009, they were convinced that their venture, which sells fair trade, eco-friendly jewelry and accessories made by impoverished women in Ethiopia and Northern India, would best fulfill its mission as a not-for-profit. The idea, after all, was to provide sustainable economic opportunity to women in poor countries. But the two quickly realized that they—and their artisans—would be far better off with a bona fide for-profit business with a strong social mission.

Shifting the Model

“The U.S. government puts a lot of restrictions on nonprofits,” says Lin. “Since we sell a tangible product, not a service, there were issues if we wanted to grow.” And growth was essential because the founders wanted to employ as many women as possible. “We also thought it was more empowering for the women to have a business relationship with us than a charity relationship,” Dickerson says. And so Raven + Lily officially became a business in 2011, and now partners with 108 women in Ethiopia and 91 in India. Their programs have grown so significantly that the artisans, while trained by local NGOs, have been organized into their own for-profit enterprises.

The idea for Raven + Lily grew out of Dickerson’s travels with her husband, a documentary filmmaker. “In India, one of the trends we saw was that the heads of not-for-profits were very focused on training impoverished women in design skills,” she says. But training was only the first step. Without knowledge of and access to receptive markets for their goods, economic independence would still be beyond their reach. Dickerson spent a year talking to heads of NGOs, and with friends in the design community, including Lin, about how to bridge that gap. “We did a lot of listening,” Dickerson says. “I don’t believe in going in and saying ‘I know what you need.’’

Partnering with NGOs

Now, Raven + Lily partners with three NGOs that serve and train women who are HIV positive, rescued from brothels or living in rural poverty or urban slums. Following a fair trade model, the company buys goods from artisans—jewelry, paper goods, scarves, etc.—and stores the inventory in Austin. They then sell it on their own website and at approximately 60 high-end boutiques in the South. In the fall, the partners will take their products to market on the West Coast to increase distribution, according to Dickerson.

Part of the appeal of the company’s products comes from the stories behind them. In Ethiopia, for instance, HIV positive women are making jewelry from beads that are fashioned from melted-down bullet casings—reminders of the many conflicts the country has experienced. “It’s a beautiful, redemptive story,” Dickerson says.

While the company’s revenues are still small, Dickerson and Lin pledge 10 percent of sales (not profits) to fund healthcare and education within the company’s partner communities. And those communities are expanding. Earlier this year, the company started a new program that puts women in Cambodia to work sewing t-shirts and tote bags. New programs are also in the works in Kenya, Burundi and Morocco. And, says Lin, a partnership with Kiva, the micro-lending organization, has resulted in an order for 16,000 bracelets from Ethiopia, to be sold during a campaign that Kiva is doing with skin care company Dermalogica. “Our goal is to be very profitable,” Dickerson says. “But our profits go back to a social cause.”

Donna Fenn is a business journalist and co-founder of Y.E.C. Mentors, an initiative of the Young Entrepreneur Council. She is author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success and Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack.

Photo credit: Courtesy subject