I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Honegger, the Founder and co-CEO of Noonday Collection, a socially responsible business that uses fashion to create meaningful opportunities for people around the world. Honegger launched Noonday Collection in 2010 as a fundraiser for her she and her husband’s adoption of their son from Rwanda, but the brand soon grew into a multi-million dollar business that today impacts 4,500 artisans across the globe. In 2015, Inc magazine named Noonday Collection the 45th fastest growing business in the US. Honegger shares the full Noonday Collection story and challenges women to get out of their comfort zones and go scared in her new book, Imperfect Courage, available now.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
So happy to be chatting with you! My story starts in San Antonio, Texas, where I grew up in a beautiful tight knit community. Sometimes tight knit communities have tightly woven scripts and the script for little girls in my community expected young women to follow a very specific path: a debutante party, followed by marriage, followed by life as a stay-at-home mother and wife. Despite those expectations, I always took after my Texas spitfire of a father and shared his entrepreneurial spirit — from the jewelry stands I set up to hawk my handmade wares to the summer camps I set up for younger kids when I was in junior high to earn money for a new bike.
When I traveled to Kenya at age 16, I experienced the realities of global poverty for the first time. I also met a woman who was the recipient of a microloan and was changing her reality through entrepreneurship. It was then that I first realized that business had the potential to change the world.
A series of winding career moves later, including a stint training midwives in Bolivia and a house flipping business, I founded Noonday Collection in 2011 to help my husband and I fundraise for our adoption. Today, Noonday Collection is the world’s largest fair trade accessories brand, and our collective impact reaches over 4,500 artisans and 20,400 family members worldwide. In keeping with our founding story, Noonday Collection has also donated over $600,000 to adopting families here in the US to help them bring their children home.
What is your definition of success?
When I consider whether or not I’m succeeding, the question I ask myself is: am I walking this journey in a way that’s aligned with my values? Values like love, peace, generosity, courage, and compassion? Am I using what I have been given, or stressing about what’s not mine to do?
I like to think about life as a song, where we all have specific notes to hit and parts to play. The important thing is to focus on hitting your notes, and not trying to play a part that’s not yours to play. In other words, success for me is about being faithful to own my gifts, my own impact, and my own influence in the world — and letting go of the results I can’t control. Success isn’t about arriving at a destination, it’s about the journey that got you there.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I started Noonday Collection, we were about as scrappy as it gets. Case in point, we officed out of my guest bedroom, and due to a funky 1960s bathroom floor plan, my business partner’s desk sat in the bathroom. In addition to that, the office was situated right next door to the room where my two toddler boys would take their naps, and every afternoon, like clockwork, a familiar stench known to all mamas in the diaper-changing stage would waft into the makeshift warehouse bedroom. The smell didn’t exactly boost staff productivity. “Jessica, come change these diapers!” my long-suffering team would yell. It became clear that we needed a real office space — due in part to the odor and in part to my kids’ growing fatigue at being told approximately one million times a day to “stay out of the guest room,” which was now ankle deep in boxes, packing tape, and those marvelous kid toys known as box cutters. We were thrilled when we secured our first official office space — but I’ll never forget that first year of “make-it-work” hustle!
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Man, it’s hard to give a quick answer to this one — because I am of the opinion that if you’re not failing, it means you’re playing it too safe. So accordingly, I’ve had my fair share of failures along this CEO journey!
In my book, Imperfect Courage, I tell a story about one of those failures that seemed like it might sink my company. A few years ago, after meteoric growth, we hit a very unexpected slump and found ourselves with way too much inventory, which resulted in us not being able to place as many orders as we had anticipated with our artisan partners across the globe. I was having a lot of sleepless nights, because I was thinking about how we had let down the people who trusted us the most. The people who were counting on our orders to be able to pay their artisan employees and keep providing dignified work to people who needed it.
Things seemed pretty dire. But, this failure actually turned into an experience that taught me the power of vulnerable leadership. As my co-CEO and I thought about how to communicate these challenges to our salesforce of Noonday Ambassadors across the country, we knew we had two options: put on a brave face and downplay our mistakes, or come clean and admit where we had failed in a spirit of transparency and trust.
Anchoring on our commitment to fair trade principles like transparency and accountability, we opted for the latter, much more vulnerable approach. In a live call, we owned the planning mistakes we had made, asked for grace, and laid out a plan to fix things. The community responded to our honesty and transparency, and we were able to walk through the challenges we were facing as a united front. It was a great reminder for us that sometimes what feels like way down is really the way up and out.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There is so much about what Noonday Collection does that makes us stand out! When I started this business in 2010, this space of fashion that does good just didn’t exist in the way it does now. It was sometimes a tough sell getting people to understand that we weren’t a “give-back” company — rather, we were all about creating sustainable work by paying fair prices up front and building strong partnerships with our artisan partners. Today, we continue to disrupt across several industries: in the fair trade space by designing on-trend, stylish accessories that can compete in the wider market; in the direct sales space by empowering women to not just earn an income, but make a meaningful impact; and in the fashion space by bringing consumers styles that tell a beautiful story of transformation.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
My most exciting project of late has been the launch of my first book! I wrote Imperfect Courage in part to share my winding, unlikely journey to founding the world’s largest fair trade accessories brand, and in part to empower women to trade their comfort zones for lives of meaning and impact. We all want to make a difference, and to be part of something greater than ourselves. My hope with Imperfect Courage is that it will encourage women to stop letting fear ground them, and instead move towards their goals; one imperfectly courageous step at a time.
Is your company working to be more sustainable? If so, how?
As a certified B Corp, Noonday Collection is committed to growing and developing sustainable practices across every aspect of our business.
On the supply level, the Artisans who create our collection utilize handmade techniques wherever possible. For example, to create our Guatemalan textiles and bags, our Artisan Partners use manual weaving techniques instead of machine-based techniques that burn fuel or use electricity. We also use sustainable and local materials in our accessories whenever possible. For example, to create our beautiful leather bags from India, we partner with a group that uses a special vegetable-tanning process they developed as a way to make the process cleaner for both their Artisans and the environment! Our Ethiopian styles are made from upcycled artillery shells left over from former conflicts, and our Ecuadorian pieces are carved using sustainably gathered local seeds.
In our home office here in Austin, Texas, we have worked to reduce our energy consumption by 20% in the past two years. To help us save water, we have installed low flow faucets and toilets, switched to non-toxic janitorial products, unbleached and chlorine-free paper products, and more environmentally friendly office supplies. And one thing I really love is that we’re getting involved with sustainability efforts in our city by enrolling in Austin’s wind energy program, so all of our energy, save gas, comes from low impact renewable energy!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think one key approach to helping employees thrive is to not make assumptions about what is motivating them. Just because a bonus or a title change may be incredibly motivating to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way to motivate your team to stay the course. Take the time, through open conversation as well as more formal assessments, to find out what makes each member of your team tick. It could be status, pay, feeling like part of a team, mission, responsibility, independence, etc. Then empower your managers to incentivize their team members in the ways that mean the most to them.
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?
My first business mentor was my dad, a gregarious man with an entrepreneurial spirit who was always up for adventure. Growing up, I soaked in so many life lessons for him, not least of which was the oh-so Texan “Money talks, bullshit walks.” My dad has experienced a lot of business successes in his life; but he’s also had his fair share of brave failures. Through him, I learned that there’s no reward without risk, and that safety isn’t what’s going to get us where we want to go.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Ever since I took my first trip to Kenya at age 16 and witnessed how business could help alleviate poverty, I have strived to harness my yen for entrepreneurship to impact people living in vulnerable communities. Noonday Collection was founded with the express goal of using fashion to create meaningful opportunities around the world; and with the support of our loyal customers, Trunk Show Hostesses, and world changing Ambassadors, that goal is being met. Today Noonday Collection supports fair and dignified work for over 4,500 artisans, impacting 20,400 family members.
Noonday Collection started as an adoption fundraiser to bring my son Jack home from Rwanda; and in keeping with that special story, Noonday continues to donate to support adopting families through Adoption Trunk Shows. In total, we have donated over $600,000 to help adopting families bring their children home.
We’re not stopping there though! Our vision is to build a flourishing world where people have jobs, women are empowered, children are cherished, and we are all connected. It’s been a wild ride so far — and I can’t wait to see where the next ten years take us!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
1. Empower others. Sometimes you have to be willing for something to be 80% right and done by someone else, instead of 100% right and done by you. Leadership is about stepping aside and making space for others to step forward. It’s saying, “I’m going to withhold my power in order for someone else to exercise their power.” That might come at the expense of having it be precisely the way you wanted it, but it’s worth it because it builds team members who feel empowered to exercise their gifts.
2. Along those same lines, listening is more important than being right. This is true in relationships and in business. What people want most is to be heard, and when you put your need to have things done the way you want them above your team’s need to be heard, you cause people to feel diminished, like cogs in a wheel. I know that on my CEO path, I have stumbled in this and ended up communicating “This is what I want, and that’s that” instead of “I acknowledge that you have something to bring to the table,” which in the long run is going to keep your team healthy.
3. A third piece of advice that’s changed me on this journey came from brilliant author and thinker Andy Crouch, who talks about the importance of having rhythms for your life and holding yourself to them. That includes not just having rhythms for working and being productive, but for rest, too. I’m a future-oriented person, so it’s hard for me to make space for rest. I am always thinking ahead to the next thing I could be doing. But by committing to a life rhythm that includes space for rest and holding myself to it, I’m able to remember better that life is not all about the hustle. And, ultimately, that rest is going to allow me to keep going for the long haul.
4. I think it’s essential that as leaders, we are operating from a place of abundance and faith, instead of fear and scarcity. When we operate out of a place of fear, anxiety, and “not enough”ness, we go into crazy mode. We try to control everything. We don’t empower our teams to use their gifts. In a word, we drive them nuts. But when we operate out of a place of abundance, knowing that there is enough [fill in the blank] for everyone, it frees us up to be generous — with our time, our resources, and ourselves. It allows us to assume positive intent in others, instead of assuming the worst. And it helps our team members feel empowered and trusted.
5. “It’s Lonely at the Top” is a myth. Or at least, we can make it a myth. Especially for women CEOs and leaders, it is so important to have a “brain trust” of other successful women at various stages of their careers to build you up and give you feedback. And, within your organization, its essential to build trusting equal partnerships with your leadership team. Bring people on that have a high ownership mentality, and confide in them. This CEO path can feel so lonely at times; but we have the power to create a culture of collaboration instead.
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.
If I could inspire any movement, it would be a going scared movement. In my book, Imperfect Courage, I talk about how I believe all of us long to live a life of purpose. But fear holds us back. The movement I hope to inspire is one where women, in particular, learn how to move through their fears and embrace a life of impact and meaning. It’s not about banishing fear entirely; we all know that’s impossible. Rather, it’s about recognizing those fears and deciding to go anyway.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Take the long view.” This wise advice was given to me during a particularly hard season as CEO of Noonday Collection. After a period of crazy growth, during which we were named #45 on Inc’s list of fastest growing companies in the country, we had hit a slump, and I was struggling to see beyond our immediate challenges. I shared this with a friend, a successful figure in the investing world. He looked at me and said, “Take the long view. Let all of your actions now be about where you want to be years from now.”
Noonday Collection had been such a fast-growing success that I hadn’t stopped to think about what taking the long view meant for my day-to-day decision making. That advice shifted my mindset, and helped me realize that sometimes you need to choose short-term pains on the path to building a long-term foundation.
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 I could have lunch with anyone, I would choose author and activist Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that confronts racial injustice, advocates for equality, and creates hope for marginalized communities. He is also the author of the world-shifting book Just Mercy. I would choose to spend time with Bryan because he is disrupting the social justice space by getting us to see our justice system differently. His work is helping America deal with our past history of injustice so we can address it, reform it, and move beyond it into a different kind of future. He is literally saving lives, and I have so much respect for his gracious and empathetic approach to advocacy.