Naomi Neilson: “Cherish the challenges”

A mediocre employee can become a star if given the right coaching and opportunity. We have had several employees, both in leadership and staff positions, absolutely transform after finding the right niche for them in the company. Sometimes it takes years to figure it out. To me, there is nothing more rewarding than this. As a […]

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A mediocre employee can become a star if given the right coaching and opportunity. We have had several employees, both in leadership and staff positions, absolutely transform after finding the right niche for them in the company. Sometimes it takes years to figure it out. To me, there is nothing more rewarding than this.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Naomi Neilson, founder, CEO, and chief visionary of Native Trails. Founded in 1996, Native Trails was built on the foundation of Naomi’s passion for artisan tradition, sustainability, and fair trade practices to bring the work of undiscovered artisans from central Mexico to living spaces throughout North America. Combining age-old artisan traditions with contemporary design and sustainable materials, Naomi broke new ground with Native Trails’ iconic, hand-hammered recycled copper sinks and helped to introduce copper as a mainstay material for the kitchen and bath. Under Naomi’s effervescent leadership, Native Trails has expanded far beyond copper sinks; its artisan-made product lines have grown to include its groundbreaking NativeStone® concrete sinks and bathtubs, vanities made of reclaimed wood and other sustainable materials, and a range of home decor products. Today, Native Trails leads the industry in handcrafted, sustainable products for kitchen and bath design, sold in over 1,300 showrooms throughout the United States and Canada.

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

As a child traveling to central Mexico with my family, I was always fascinated by the marketplaces in the small rural villages. I was particularly struck by the creativity and talent I saw in many artisans, and also by the often poor living conditions. I started to dream about how their lives might change if they had access to a broader market, where people would really value their work and their traditions.

We started in the villages of central Mexico, the same ones that inspired me as a child. I found these incredible coppersmiths who made cooking pots using centuries-old techniques and recycled copper, and together we created our line of hammered copper and nickel sinks, bathtubs, and mirrors. As Native Trails began to grow, I started looking for other materials that might have an undiscovered second life to live, and I found local craftspeople right here on California’s central coast who share my passion for sustainability. We partner with them to turn old fences and structures of the past into beautifully textured bath furniture. We also work with local wineries to turn their waste — high-quality oak from the wine-making process — into unexpectedly luxurious bath furniture and mirrors.

We work with highly skilled craftspeople in Vietnam to create our NativeStone Collection of sustainable concrete sinks and bathtubs, and we have artisans for smaller product lines in other regions as well. From the beginning, our focus has been on creating beautiful artisan-crafted, sustainably-made products.

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

As a working mother who travels for business, challenges sometimes arise that are not exactly anticipated. When my daughter was still breastfeeding, I once had to leave her home while I went on a short trip abroad. As I passed through airport security in rural Asia, my bag was targeted and searched. A group of men gathered around it, inspecting the little machine inside with great suspicion. When they demanded an explanation and I attempted to describe the electric breast pump’s function through hand motions (you can only imagine), their suspicion turned to agitation, as such a contraption was unknown to them and they were utterly confused. Finally, a very nice woman came over and whispered to them. They quickly dropped the pump in my bag and, red-faced, sent me on my way.

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?

In the early days, I would drive my van down to Mexico filled with donated clothing and shoes to give to people, especially children, in remote villages. Call it naivety or maybe an overabundance of confidence… I would bring 10,000 dollars in cash and stop on a particular street in Guadalajara where the exchange rate was really good. I’d stop in front of the exchange house, run in and exchange my dollars for pesos, and run back out to my van before driving off to continue my journey. Once, I stopped afterward a few miles away and parked at a little shop that grabbed my attention. I had left the envelope of money under the driver’s seat, but I had second thoughts before entering the shop — I turned back and put the 10,000 dollars in my purse to bring it with me inside, locking the door of my 12 year old van full of used clothing and shoes piled inside old computer and TV boxes. Five minutes later, I walked out to find that the van had simply disappeared. I assume someone had followed me from the exchange house; I was extremely grateful that they didn’t get my cash, which would have devastated me at the time. I definitely learned a lesson that day, and I then made the effort to learn more secure ways to manage my money on my trips. As upset as I was to lose my van, I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought that the thief would find it void of cash and rather than brand new electronics, they’d open the computer boxes to find a bunch of used clothing and shoes!

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

I believe that we stand out because we are a company that truly cares about people, as well as the planet. There are many companies who talk about that, but our philosophy of giving back and creating happiness is simply who we are. It’s what we live and breathe and what inspires us every day. We’re not perfect — it’s a journey, and that’s why we decided to seek out and secure the B Corporation certification. We can measure our impact, and inspire ourselves to do more, to give back more. After all, the act of giving back rewards the giver as much as the recipient — that’s why we have such a fabulous team at Native Trails. Morale is high and we all feel good to be a part of a company with a purpose beyond profit.

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

We’re working on a new line of artisan crafted sinks, which we are really excited about. I can’t disclose the details yet — stay tuned! I will say that we are always looking for ways to support the continuation of artisan traditions and help artisan families to flourish. When we find a new material that fits our niche, we can make a pretty significant impact.

We are in the midst of our “Native Trails Challenge,” during which every hour our team members spend exercising outdoors is matched by a donation to charity. We have several goals with the challenge — to get outside and get healthy, to bond together during group hikes, to increase our appreciation for our beautiful outdoor environment, and of course to make a positive impact by donating to a cause we believe in. Our goal is to raise 10,000 dollars for environmental charities through the initiative.

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

Look for opportunities to help your team feel inspired. People need to feel safe in the workplace in order to feel inspired, and feel that their well-being is important to their employer. Also, people may not know the joy of giving back to the community, and to open that door for an individual can be a tremendous gift. We offer two days of paid volunteer time each year, per employee, and we strongly encourage people to use it by creating group volunteer events during the workday. From a business standpoint, all of that creates loyal, inspired employees who feel proud to be a part of the organization and are happy to put the company’s interest first — invaluable!

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

Having the right people in key leadership positions is essential. Leaders who understand the core values of the company, care about people and know how to help their staff succeed. Having leaders who can bring the best out of their team members is absolutely invaluable, and can easily be the “make or break” for a company.

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?

People often ask how I was crazy enough to hop in a van and drive all around Mexico at 21 years old. Well, I had some help. When I started out, I had just returned from a year abroad in Spain, and my boyfriend from over there joined me on my first few adventures in Mexico. Being a native Spanish speaker and as adventurous as I was, it was a tremendous blessing to have him with me as I learned how to travel and be safe in Mexico. The goal was to search out talented artisans. The reality was that as we explored remote villages and drove thousands of miles every week, we changed flat tires and other car parts, learned how to deal with corrupt officials, survived a horrible car accident, and soaked up the nuances of the language and culture throughout the various regions of Mexico. We made memories to last a lifetime while building the foundation of Native Trails, and I will always be grateful for his support during those pioneering trips.

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

Native Trails uses the traditional craft techniques of artisans to create products that fit the needs of the U.S. marketplace, while honoring their cultural legacies. We work with artisans to improve their living conditions and further the continuation of their artistic tradition.

Our other passion is sustainably-made products — and assisting artisans to improve in the environmental impact of their work. We took on the challenge of B Corp certification in order to publicly hold ourselves accountable and ensure that as we grow, we stay on track with our ideals. We see it as an opportunity to be better corporate citizens of the world. The process is really a useful — and to us, inspiring — guideline for improvement. We feel it’s one of the most important things we’ve done as a company to keep us focused on being a better steward of our resources, people and the planet.

Our Community Trails program is a way we work with nonprofits to make a difference through volunteerism and matching employees’ charitable donations.

Finally, our products bridge cultures by bringing to homes a piece of artisan heritage that contributes to a sense of peace and connection.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Trust your gut about hiring mistakes, and take action quickly. In other words, have the courage to fire fast. I’ve had multiple situations where I’ve allowed a poor performer or an employee with a mismatched set of values to continue on, believing or hoping that things will improve…this mistake has brought us close to destroying entire departments.

  1. A mediocre employee can become a star if given the right coaching and opportunity. We have had several employees, both in leadership and staff positions, absolutely transform after finding the right niche for them in the company. Sometimes it takes years to figure it out. To me, there is nothing more rewarding than this.
  2. Beware of group-think — and embrace healthy conflict. Hire people with the confidence to critique, ask hard questions, and assert differing opinions. Encourage that behavior in everyone. Otherwise, group-think takes over, and the opinions and suggestions of the most assertive individual or of the group leader become the unquestioned belief or plan of the entire group. Critical thinking and dialog is essential to digging into issues and really making progress.
  3. Cherish the challenges. We have learned more as a company and as leaders through the most challenging times. The housing crisis and market crash of 2008 could have devastated us, but we stayed positive and found ways to take advantage of the slowdown. We were forced to become more efficient and methodical, and we had time to step back and improve our processes and really think through how we were doing business. We became a much stronger company, so much so that in retrospect I am actually grateful to have had the experience.
  4. Prepare, then empower. Trust and empower those motivated employees who have the expertise and ability, and those who excel at planning and managing deadlines. Allow them the freedom to take ownership, whether it’s over a single project or an entire department. Empowerment is a process that requires a lot of training, time, and overall preparation, but once an employee is ready it’s a beautiful thing to see in action. This is not an easy skill for most entrepreneurs to learn, but once we do it is not only incredibly liberating but also highly effective at bringing a company to the next level. Every department in my company is run by empowered leaders, and within their teams are empowered individuals. Some are just starting on the path and others are farther along, yet we always strive to not only delegate but to entrust our people with responsibility and independence.

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. 🙂

Speak up for good! When you see or hear something rude or hurtful, question it. When you see or hear something kind or thoughtful, praise it. When someone needs a hand, offer it. Look for opportunities to speak up for good every day.

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

“Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” This philosophy is what makes me proud to be who I am. I have always done things a bit differently. Not everyone will agree with everything I do, but I am open and honest because I know that I make my decisions and live my life not to project an image, but in alignment with my own core values — whether or not anyone else happens to notice. I strive to always do what I believe is right, and I encourage others to do the same.

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 🙂

I would love to meet Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her story of perseverance, courage, and personal integrity that took her from the projects of the Bronx to the highest court in the nation I find very inspiring. She is making a difference on so many levels, from being a role model for Hispanics and women, to taking a stand as Supreme Court justice on issues of great importance, to helping kids gain confidence in being their authentic selves through her children’s books and speaking events.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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