This is the first in a series of posts about great brands.
A Beautiful Story; A Beautiful Brand
Earlier this week I wrote a post about building a brand by telling a story. Sometimes the story is about an innovative company founder. Sometimes the story is one of revolutionary products. But once in a while a story emerges that combines the two: a founder with a vision and products that change the way we interact with the world.
A few weeks ago I attended an Austin Chamber event where I heard three local entrepreneurs talk about their businesses. The third speaker, Kirsten Dickerson, described her philosophy: sourcing beautiful, fashionable, eco-friendly clothing, accessories and housewares from women around the world, celebrating their craftsmanship and traditions while providing them with a world-class partner that offers their products to a wide audience. I was captivated by what I heard.
Raven + Lily is a brand that is a story in itself — and what a beautiful story it is. In only five years Raven + Lily has empowered women in Ethiopia, Kenya, Cambodia, Pakistan, Guatemala, India and the United States by purchasing their handmade goods, making sure to adhere to fair trade principles while respecting each culture and its traditions. But behind this fact lie a wealth of beautiful, human stories: Women “rising above poverty and sex trafficking” when given the chance to earn a living wage. An HIV+ woman who no longer has to beg, learning a craft and overcoming the social stigma associated with the disease. A woman who is supporting her family while passing down traditional weaving skills to the next generation. Another who took the money she earned and invested it in herself, buying a sewing machine and opening her own business. These products were not produced by machines in a factory — each skirt or necklace is the embodiment of evident human effort, making the Raven + Lily brand a full antidote to the emptiness of fast fashion.
These products are ecologically friendly, but even within the materials themselves reside arresting stories. Jewelry crafted from metal reclaimed from shell casings — a testament to the will that overcomes adversity. Cotton fabric made by hand in the only carbon neutral, fair trade factory in Africa. Paper made from waste that comes from the textile industry; another step in reversing the damage that was done to this land over many decades. Even the materials used to create these products contain a richness and depth that is difficult to come by in this age of indifference.
The public has begun to take note. Kirsten has received awards from Austin Fashion Week and the Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She has been featured in a wide range of media outlets, including the Huffington Post, InStyle, and Fast Company. During her presentation, Kirsten mentioned that Raven + Lily is a Certified B Corporation.•• This certification, recognizing social and environmental impact, transparency and accountability, is hard to achieve; more than 10,000 are in the process, but just over 1,700 have completed it.
The Story is Part of the Gift
Since this is a personal post and I’m using this space to voice my opinion instead of teach, I’m going to add a few of my own thoughts. First, I think some of the designs are exquisite. Generally I like less than 10% of all the design I see in the world (a prejudice formed during 20 years of working in graphic design) so the vast, vast majority of what’s out there doesn’t interest me. But I think the Cambodian screen printed designs are extraordinary, as are the paper products and wood and metal jewelry from India. I love the embroidery from Pakistan; I can picture so many of the women I know in these simple, elegant pieces. Some of the jewelry from Kenya should be in MoMA — the earrings that remind me of Brâncuși’s Bird In Space series are a particular favorite. (Somebody’s gettin’ those for Christmas — but not you, Mom. You have way, way too many earrings already.)
But the thing I love most about these pieces is the stories they carry with them. When I purchase these products and give them as gifts I will be sharing the stories of these women. I want my friends to know that the metal used in a necklace comes from melted shell casings; that the woman who made the earrings no longer has to beg for food. I want my friends to know that the fabric in the scarf was made in a traditional manner by a woman keeping her cultural history alive. Most of all, I want people to see that it is possible to shop in a way that benefits everyone; that profit is not the only motive for business.
For too long I have heard that “the purpose of business is to benefit shareholders.” This idea, proposed by Friedman in the 70’s, has been used as an excuse for the most unethical behavior; it has caused too much harm to our world. I propose we redefine “shareholders.” Let’s broaden that term to include everyone a business interacts with — employees, vendors and customers — not just those who own stock for the purpose of making a few percentage points on their investments. This is a new kind of entrepreneurship, one that sees itself as a catalyst, bringing people together for the benefit of each. This is the kind of entrepreneurship that I will support and encourage with my custom and my praise.
We understand great brands in retrospect — they are important because of the cumulative effect these brands created over decades of effort. But we rarely know about great brands when they are in their infancy. We can never predict which companies will be remembered; which brands will make indelible marks on our lives.
I hope that, in twenty or thirty years, Raven + Lily is broadly known as a fashion pioneer. That this brand is remembered as one of the first to understand that vendors are just as important as customers — that the human beings who make products are just as important as the people who buy them. That the individual woman, sewing on a machine that is her only source of income, deserves as much respect as the designer with posh boutiques in fashionable districts around the world. This is, after all, the mandate we were given: to recognize that all people are created equal, and that we love each other, love ourselves and love creation in equal measure.
I hope that, soon, more people know the Raven + Lily story. When a company goes out of its way to improve the lives of its customers as well as Its suppliers, it's a story worth hearing.
**Full disclosure: I have met Bryan Welch several times. He is the son-in-law of one of my closest friends. He is also the CEO at B The Change Media, which is “the primary media hub for Benefit Corporations and Certified B Corps." But my enthusiasm for Raven + Lily comes from the company itself and its mission, not from its relationship with B Lab, and I did not choose to write about this company because of that relationship. I have not received and will not accept any compensation in any form to write about any brand on the Captain’s Log.
Any opinions expressed are entirely my own. I have not asked for or received any compensation from this or any company or organization in exchange for any mention on the Captain’s Log portion of this site. The choice of which companies to write about is entirely my own. To any entrepreneur reading this, let me be even more clear: do not ever ask me to write anything about your company. Do not offer me anything — not money, or products or discounts or anything else — to get me to write about your company. If you ask me to write a positive review of your company I will fully disclose your communications on this site. The Captain’s Log is not for hire. It reflects only my own thoughts and feelings based on what I see, hear and read.