Belinda Coker: “Learn to let go of your ego; Humble yourself and trust your management team”

Learn to let go of your ego. We all have an ego to some degree. Co-operation must exist between your conscious and sub-conscious mind so things can work harmoniously in your favor. If your ego is at play, this synergy doesn’t work, and your perception can distort reality. Humble yourself and trust your management team. […]

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Learn to let go of your ego. We all have an ego to some degree. Co-operation must exist between your conscious and sub-conscious mind so things can work harmoniously in your favor. If your ego is at play, this synergy doesn’t work, and your perception can distort reality. Humble yourself and trust your management team. Let them be the best that they can be.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Belinda Coker, founder of the iconic reusable bag brand Envirosax and now her recently launched rain poncho brand November Rain. Belinda is also a consultant for clothing brands wishing to manufacture in China using sustainable and environmental practices with her consulting company Bellouco Consulting and has just launched her new brand Corporate Green, providing companies with stylish and environmentally friendly corporate merchandising.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career has constantly evolved since leaving high school. As a side to my college education in PR and Communications, I’ve also studied pattern-making up to couture level as well as millinery. I actually had my own bespoke millinery label back in 1995. My jobs since leaving high school have always balked at what is “normal,” and I feel this has enhanced my entrepreneurial spirit.

I remember picking up a back-pack when I was 18years old in the early ’80s. There was no internet, and overseas phone calls were terribly expensive. After a few months traveling around SE Asia, with the original edition of the Lonely Planet’s “Asia on a Shoestring” I arrived in India alone and headed for the Indian Himalaya. With no money, I managed to secure a job helping an organization install solar energy into an area of Ladakh. This early introduction to sustainability grew my interest in improving the planet in some way or another.

With the launch of Envirosax, I believe I had the same attitude of “I can do.” I knew that in a world where there were no stylish reusable bags, I could create that niche — and make it successful. Upon selling my interest in Envirosax, I created November Rain rain ponchos as a vehicle for raising money to fund water projects in developing countries. It sort of ties in all of my skills and passions into one neat little package!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think when I launched my company to start selling Envirosax, I was terribly naive. Which wasn’t exactly a bad thing, it just meant I had no sense of what could happen if things did go wrong, so no fear. Growing a company was a huge learning curve for me, and my teacher was my intuition. I kind of knew no boundaries. I thought to myself, “Right, we need to start selling into the USA as California has the population of Australia — it’s a huge market” — so off I went. And just did it. I actually entered the market at precisely the right time — it was 2006, about 2 years before a journalist coined the phrase “Going Green.” Had I been less careless and carefully nurtured my domestic market (Australia) first before venturing out into the big wide world, I may have missed that opportunity as being one of the first reusable bag companies to launch in the USA.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, it wasn’t really funny, I actually told this huge whopping great lie. I had just started Envirosax, and this was back in 2005. I fronted up to the government department in Australia that helps companies export overseas. Back then, a website was not considered a crucial part of branding (hard to believe!) and was an expense I couldn’t afford at the time. I had a one-page brochure and told the gentleman who was interviewing me that I had orders for all the major department stores in Australia and was export ready. I hadn’t even done my first production run — I didn’t have the finances for that!

This lovely older man who was interviewing me and later became my mentor could see straight through me. He was so impressed with my utter belief in myself and my business idea, he allowed me to participate in the Toronto Gift Fair on the Australian stand. I secured my first overseas distributor, and with the profit raised from this first order, I was able to fund my own production order. From thereon in it was a matter of a unique product that arrived on the scene at the right moment in time and started selling like hotcakes.

Would I recommend anyone else do this — No Way!!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Right now, it’s our Giving Back initiative. In the past, I’ve given to various charities, but this is the first time that I have created a brand that supports a Giving Back program, not the other way around. In 2013, I self-funded my first water bore in Malawi and learned so much about what fresh water actually means. Before, I hadn’t really given it much thought — just supplying clean water so that people (usually women) don’t have to walk miles to obtain their daily water. I hadn’t really considered deadly cholera and how cholera enters the water system and how important it is to construct a water bore properly to stop the chances of cholera entering the same water table as the water bore uses. It’s been a real learning curve. But my most satisfying learning curve for sure.

When I sold my interest in Envirosax, I wanted to keep going with the water projects. But I couldn’t afford to self-fund and raising money for charities wasn’t really my cup of tea. So I thought about making a brand that would sell and provide money for the projects. The idea of November Rain came about when I remembered the factory workers wearing remnants of Envirosax fabric draped over them like ponchos when riding home on their motorbikes in the rain in Shanghai. Considering that rain and freshwater kind of go together, this idea to provide rain ponchos as the brand behind the funding seemed like a logical idea.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve actually got about 5 projects on the go — in various stages of development! Every time I dream up a business idea, I go and secure a domain name or two for later. I have several parked domains!! My latest baby is another reusable bag company. But this one is a little different, it’s aimed at the corporate sector. It’s called Corporate Green and actually launching officially tomorrow (at the time of writing). The tag line is Zero Waste through Corporate Giving. It’s a business model that supplies companies with branding opportunities using items (such as reusable bags) that are meant to be used over and over again and not end up as landfill. I have yet to decide on who the business will support, but we will be Giving Back to some disadvantaged sector. On a personal level, I mentor people locally where I live, on starting and maintaining a business. My focus here is women, especially those who are struggling or do not have access to the same opportunities that the more fortunate do.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I believe it is having an understanding of your personality. And why you act the way you do and also how you interact with others. I think I learned this a little late in the game. So many people in leadership positions don’t consider that there are in fact, loads of different personalities — and every one is unique and wired a little differently. Out of the 16 personalities, I’m a Logician personality. Having an understanding of my own nature helps me to understand the best way for me to interact with others and therefore bring out the best in them.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Above all, think about how you communicate. Your most important professional relationships as a leader of a large team are those with your management team and to get the best from them, you need to be able to communicate well. And don’t be afraid to seek out and be accepting of feedback. This is actually one of my weaknesses and something I have had to learn along the way. Management is not actually one of my favorite undertakings, and I really have to work hard at getting it right. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have strengths that many others don’t possess, so I’m not ashamed to admit this “limitation” of mine. So I’ve learned to surround myself with people that can do this job and embrace the art of delegation.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It would have been that gentleman way back when I first started Envirosax who gave me my first break. Having someone believe in you and your idea is one of the most valuable ways in which you can be supported. He spent hours with me teaching me the in’s and out’s of starting a business and I really couldn’t have got where I am without him. If you are reading this Vince, Thank You.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think my ability to provide water bores and sanitation in developing countries such as Malawi and Zambia is what is closest to my heart. Being able to help communities where clean water is miles away means so much to me. I even like the idea of going further and providing women in these areas with tertiary skills to be able to improve their living situations. We all live in a bubble where fundamental rights such as medicine, water, shelter, food, etc. are obtainable. For many, this is not so. And this is where my heart is.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Not having a plan is a plan to fail. We see variations of this on quotes throughout social media, but never a more accurate word spoken (or written). There have been times in my career path that I have, for want of a better term, drifted — with no clear plan — hoping for the best. During those seasons, things sort of went pear-shaped. It wasn’t until I sorted myself out with a direct plan, adjusted my sails, and stayed on course until completion that I was able to meet success.

Have the self-confidence to know when you are right and be able to trust your intuition. I made a very big mistake once by going against my intuition. It cost me dearly. That gut feeling you get? It’s there for a reason. Use it.

Learn to let go of your ego. We all have an ego to some degree. Co-operation must exist between your conscious and sub-conscious mind so things can work harmoniously in your favor. If your ego is at play, this synergy doesn’t work, and your perception can distort reality. Humble yourself and trust your management team. Let them be the best that they can be.

When an employee is talking to you, physically put your phone in your pocket, or face down on the table/desk. This tells your employee that the conversation you are having right now is way more important than any possible interruption. I think it is so incredibly rude to check out who the caller of an incoming call or text is, while you are a midway conversation with someone else.

Address the importance of leadership skills. They are not natural to everyone, and for some, these skills need to be habituated. I think once you build on these habits, management becomes more comfortable and therefore, something you enjoy. And that will always bring out the best in your team. Am I a good manager? I used to have a real aversion to being a manager, and I had to train myself to do way better. I’m getting there (smile).

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The whole social media thing really worries me with the younger generation. It scares me to see how young people judge themselves. And there’s no room for mistakes. We are all human and we all make human errors. In the olden days — as in 15 years ago, if you made a mistake, it was forgotten about fairly quickly. But now people’s dirty laundry is aired out for the whole world to see, even people who don’t know them personally. It’s just not fair. And the list goes on, cyberbullying, etc. etc. My heart breaks for some of these kids.

I’d like to see a movement where people don’t rely on social media so much. Especially young people. Imagine a world where it was cool for young not to be on social media, and there was no such thing as FOMO. I think I’m lucky to be one of the last generations to grow up with the only technology being a telephone stuck on the wall of the kitchen or hallway. Life was undoubtedly less complicated.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Take the higher road”. Things don’t always go in your favor. Do not take it personally, adjust your sails, and move on. If you have been wronged, the universe will sort it out — karma, final judgment, whatever your belief is. You do not have to be the one to seek revenge. Take the higher road. I’ve let things go in the past, and it wasn’t until I forgave and moved on that I was able to move forward.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Hmm maybe not — I hear Queen Elizabeth has only just posted her first ever Instagram post. But I would absolutely love to have lunch with her. In my mind, she truly is a great leader. On more local soil, if I could get Sarah Jessica Parker to wear one of my rain ponchos, I would be over the moon! I have a media shot of her carrying one of our Envirosax (the robot bag!), and I would consider that a wonderful compliment if she could do a November Rain poncho as well! But also I think Jessica is such a lovely person with a smile that lights the room. She just seems so genuine, and I really do think I could have a laugh with her.

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