Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

The Evolution of an Ethical Start Up

The Evolution of an Ethical Start Up

Lindsay Sullivan

In 2008 I was asking myself a lot of questions. Why was I working so hard for someone else’s success? Why do I feel unsatisfied, and what would make me satisfied? Why is my personal life and work life growing so distant? Up until then I had been following my dreams since high school. I wanted to work my way up the fashion industry ladder until I reached the top. I had a resume full of internships before I graduated college, and was accepted into a prestigious training program at a top retail corporation. They even paid to move me from little ol’ New Hampshire to San Francisco. I was gaining lots of experience, and had the stability of a good salary and benefits. It was everything I had hoped for but as my small town boundaries expanded I found myself wanting more from my career.

I read an article called Story of A Sex Slave and realized that all the so-called massage parlors in my neighborhood and around the city were enslaving girls and women into forced prostitution. The horrific news distracted me from negotiating the cost and delivery of fashion clothing. I started researching human trafficking and reaching out to non-profits in San Francisco for volunteer opportunities. After a year of pursuing SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) I became their volunteer coordinator during my spare time on nights and weekends. I would screen potential volunteers and place them in appropriate departments within SAGE programs. Interacting with the staff at SAGE was inspirational and thought provoking. They work as hard as I do, but they are instrumental in saving people’s lives and I simply pressure vendors to reduce the costs of imported garments. They use their people skills to nurture survivors of sex trafficking and motivate them to start a new life. My people skills consist of adapting to corporate office politics, and schmoozing with vendors. SAGE exhausts all their resources to secure shelter, medical attention, legal assistance, and jobs for their clients. Meanwhile I am praised for my resourcefulness in sourcing low cost labor and materials. I realized that my own career choice indirectly exploited others, while my time outside of work was spent helping those who had been exploited. The Evolution of an Ethical Start Up

I felt frustrated that I had focused all my education and training on the retail industry, giving me no value to social service or non-profit work. The initial idea for SET Boutique started when I learned about a couple companies that gave survivors of sex trafficking job training so they could exit the sex trade. The women were able to make bags and jewelry to sell for profit and become self reliant again. This was my first exposure to social enterprises, and I was thrilled to learn that my retail skills could contribute to human rights. I was inspired to use my production experience to promote fair trade producers and organizations that help survivors of sex trafficking. I chose the name SET Boutique because I wanted to incorporate my mission to ‘Support Ethical Trade’ without taking the fun out of shopping. The acronym holds the purpose of the company, but customers will ultimately find the website to be a stylish boutique.

The Evolution of an Ethical Start UpI funded SET Boutique by selling my employee stock program shares. I used this money to purchase opening inventory and office supplies. I designed the website myself to save money. I had basic HTML knowledge and taught myself the rest over a five month period filled with late nights and isolated weekends. I’m really happy with the choice I made because I know my website inside and out, and can easily communicate projects to web designers. I utilized SBA (Small Business Association) classes which were conveniently located near work. This allowed me to skip out of the office many afternoons due to “doctor appointments”. When it was time to launch the website I quit my full time job and chose a temp position that offered more flexibility and reduced responsibility. SET Boutique launched June 3rd, 2010 and retails clothing, jewelry, bags, and home goods that are ethically produced. I have strong relationships with my vendors, and try to visit them if possible. 75% of SET Boutique’s significant suppliers are fair trade certified, and 70% of products offer environmental benefits. I have made two trips so far to Nepal and Rwanda in order to visit fair trade producers. As the business grows I plan to increase my travel to other locations for continued relationship building. A major milestone for SET Boutique was becoming a Certified B Corporation after meeting rigorous standards for social and environmental performance. One program I am particularly proud of is Giving Back, where a $5.00 donation is made for each purchase of $20.00 or more. The customer gets to choose from a selection of non-profits that aid sex trafficking victims and who educate vulnerable youth. In 2010 SET Boutique donated 11% of its revenue to these organizations and will continue partnering with them.

I still work part time in addition to operating SET Boutique but it is 100% worth it to create something I am proud of. I have an amazing intern who is helping to increase the website’s SEO ranking. The best advice I have received is to leverage the talented people in your life. My friends have contributed so much to SET Boutique’s success just by lending me a hand with skills they are already good at. SET Boutique’s first fashion show is a perfect example. It was hosted by a wonderful fair trade store whose owner I became friends with after meeting at a SBA class. My friends modeled, did makeup, and helped with styling the outfits. My amazing boyfriend chose the wine since he works at a wine shop, and we got as many compliments on the wine as the clothing! The best way for me to pay them back is through lots of praise on the website and blog, and ample discounts. The philosophy that I live by when running SET Boutique is that every business transaction (whether payment is involved or not) should be based on respect, and mutually beneficial for both parties.

Please visit SET Boutique and the Support Ethical Trade Blog. There is a learn page to help spread awareness on exploitation and trafficking. To learn about upcoming events join SET Boutique on Facebook, or start a conversation with Twitter. I continually post informative videos on the YouTube channel as well.


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