Start somewhere. You are never going to have done all the research, be an expert, have the best ideas, but you are going to need a place to start from. Don’t wait until you’re ready, you will learn as you go. As you do learn, you’ll get better. What you’re doing in your second year of business may be completely different from what you did in your first year. Be flexible and adapt to what you find that’s working
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mandy Nagel.
Mandy Nagel is the founder of the brand I Thought of You, a social enterprise company that was started by being in the right place at the right time. The fateful meeting between Mandy and her first maker group has grown to change the lives of more than 300 people and countless families in 9 countries.
Mandy worked in marketing as an advertising designer, working with big brands like Apple, Dunkin Donuts, Febreze, Microsoft, Harry Potter, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Xbox. It was an exciting career but she felt it lacked something, was her work doing good for people or just creating more noise for consumerism? She needed a break and picked a far destination to get away. After seeing beautiful travel photos she decided Indonesia was the perfect place to free her mind.
Her long journey was met with a genuine welcome from all of the locals she met on arrival. The tropical temperatures were warmer than expected and so were the warm smiles from everyone she met. On the advice of a woman at a small family restaurant, one morning Mandy ventured to a small market featuring local vendors selling handmade crafts. One vendor stood out, a woman selling handmade jewelry unlike anything Mandy had ever seen. After stopping to chat (and to purchase more than 20 of these gorgeous styles), Mandy learned her name was Yulia and selling small crafts is how she supported her family.
Many in Indonesia live on less than $2USD per day and more than 80 million Indonesian children live in poverty, despite this fact everyone walks around with a smile and a genuine love for life. What could a young girl from Ohio do to help these deserving people?
After returning home from a fulfilling journey, Mandy put these beloved new styles for sale — curious to see if others were as captivated by the beauty and craftsmanship as she was. They were, and these pieces sold instantly and so began the path to create a fashion brand for good.
I Thought of You has now been in business for six years and has grown beyond their small team’s wildest dreams. Mandy is able to use her marketing skills to influence for the better, to create a positive change, and drive purpose with consumerism. Yulia’s small business has grown and this brand is making a lasting impact on her and so many more makers just like her.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in a small 1 square mile town with a graduating class of around 90 students (the same school that both of my parents graduated from). As a teenager I dreamed of living in a big town where fun things happened at all hours of the day and night, it seemed like nothing fun happened at home. As an adult, I see what a blessing it was to live in a community where you know everyone on a personal level. During and after college I did move away and found that excitement I was longing for — living in Los Angeles and Burbank, California, then spending a few years in Austin, Texas, but there was always something pulling me back.
When I Thought of You opened its virtual doors in 2014, my small town rallied behind this idea of buying products that changed a life. I had been gone for years but upon returning home it’s like I had never left. Old friendships picked up again without missing a beat. My friends were the first models, showing off these looks in real life styling photos for the website and many in my hometown became my first customers. I credit this unwavering support for giving us a solid foundation from which to begin and I continue to be eternally grateful for their belief in this grand idea.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I Thought of You is proud to work with women in many developing countries to provide consistent work while still allowing the flexibility needed to raise families and tend to their households. Our goal is to shine a spotlight on the benefits of employing women and the value they can bring to society as a whole. Every eco-friendly purchase broadens their opportunity and gives them a voice and a place in their communities.
The Indonesian family unit is deep-rooted in their society. It consists of the man being the primary breadwinner and the woman taking on all of the responsibilities of the home. If a woman chooses to find work outside the home, she is still expected to uphold all household duties. The pay gap between men and women is seen in all sectors of industry and is among the largest in East Asian nations.
The barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce are present, but abstract. Some have described these problems as a “sticky floor” that make it challenging for women to first obtain a job, then to hold and excel in the role. Only around 51% of women in Indonesia participate in the workforce outside of household duties. No matter their situation, women often can only land roles as temporary workers. Women are even more less likely to be hired after they give birth because employers see them as vulnerable, are expected to be absent more often, and will result in a financial burden to the employer.
Providing opportunities to women, especially in countries where these jobs are lacking, is one step in the right direction.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
“When a woman is lifted out of poverty she takes an average of 3 people with her.”
I came across this statistic and it stuck with me because it’s so powerful. Our makers are the heart and soul behind our brand — women in at-risk communities, women who couldn’t otherwise afford to feed their kids, women who are at risk of falling victim to trafficking. We work alongside them as they craft handmade, gorgeous accessories that are eco-friendly. Your partnership supports, empowers, and gives hope to our makers. To put it simply: your purchase changes a life.
These styles started out by providing steady work and a steady paycheck to 1 woman in Indonesia, who was now able to afford to send her children to school and obtain clean drinking water. This story has grown to create a movement which is paving the way to create a world in which we can all have a positive impact.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Meeting our sweet makers is what sparked my initial idea, seeing the reaction of US customers to their product solidified the market need for our brand. As we’ve worked together the years I can consider our makers close friends. As they’ve grown their own businesses and partnership with us, I’ve had the pleasure of growing closer to their families as they’ve welcomed us into their homes. This brand is so much more work than I ever expected but firsthand seeing what we’ve accomplished absolutely makes it worth every ounce of effort.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I appreciate the nod of confidence but I can confidently say I absolutely did not know the steps to start our brand! This was an undertaking I had very little experience in and as we continued to do our initial company setup process, which ultimately took just shy of 2 years, it was a stumbling dance of a learning journey.
For any new small business I’d recommend getting a good accountant that is a good communicator, is reliable, and that you can trust. There are so many legal filings and tax requirements the average person is unaware of that are necessary to get started on the right foot.
The next step I’d recommend is to setup your social media presences. Start small with just one social media account because it’s better to have one strong account than 6 mediocre ones. You’re not going to have 1000 followers right away but start by defining who you’re talking to and what kind of content they’ll find valuable. Keep sales posts minimal, your followers don’t want you to push your products on them multiple times per day. Think about what other kinds of content will compliment your product or service (posts like tips, how to’s, behind the scenes, and inspirational quotes are great). If you’re posting ahead of your official launch, build up some hype and get your followers excited for your grand opening. Once you feel that you have time you can expand to other social media platforms. A small group of followers who enjoy your content is more beneficial than thousands of followers who don’t care about what you post, so grow thoughtfully.
And lastly, make sure you have a website! Depending on your product or service you’ll have different functionality requirements for your website but it should be a clean design, easy to use, and responsive so users can access it from their computer screen or their phone screen.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My biggest cheerleader for this brand has been my dad, none of our impact could have happened without his support and guidance. His background in merchandising was invaluable when it came to shipping logistics (who knew that earrings carved from seashells had to be inspected by fish & wildlife?!)
To minimize our environmental footprint we try our best to place large orders which are shipped by sea cargo whenever possible, as opposed to shipping by air. He continues to help organize our container shipments which typically deliver to a US west coast port, then get the container on a train to make it to us in Ohio.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Our goal is to provide opportunity to hardworking people to help break this cycle of forced labor, unsafe workplaces, and lack of opportunity due to discrimination.
India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. This 3000 year old system divides the population into four main categories that each hold a ranking in society. The upper castes receive special privileges and advantages while the lower castes live a life of less. Women are severely discriminated against and treated unfairly, creating a wider gap in inequality between castes. In a heavily male-dominated society, women are disempowered and considered inferior simply because of their gender.
This same inequality exists in the workforce. The already low wages women receive continues to decrease as they age. In a developing society like India, people who don’t generate economic value, like the elderly, lose their individual value. Women are not presented opportunities to earn a living for themselves starting at a young age and, consequently, their social disadvantages as they grow older only worsen.
India’s GDP would rise by $5.5 billion if only an additional 1% of girls continued to secondary school. Think of the impact that would have on underserved communities, infrastructure, hunger, and quality of life. Of our partnership with 4 groups in India, 80% of our makers are women. We value them because their potential is beyond valuable. We work to create opportunity and help give them a voice in their community while building up confidence within themselves.
The impact we can have on our world as a whole may be small, but imagine the impact felt by one female maker in a community whose future was unclear because she lacked opportunity?
We are so inspired to see big brands beginning to notice these issues. Collectively we are thrilled to contribute to the conversation which will create a larger, more global impact. Though there’s still much change to be had, we’ve been able to contribute to efforts that are shifting this issue.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
My answer may be biased because our entire brand is centered around using natural and abundantly local resources but I think some companies would be pleasantly surprised that sustainable material options aren’t always significantly more expensive than conventional materials.
We utilize natural renewable and eco-friendly materials like fast growing woods (bamboo is one of our favorites), discarded seeds and fruit peels, and even upcycled fabric that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Not only do these materials have a positive environmental impact, we use the story behind them as a selling point. Our customers shop with us because they, too, care about what goes into their products.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Start somewhere. You are never going to have done all the research, be an expert, have the best ideas, but you are going to need a place to start from. Don’t wait until you’re ready, you will learn as you go. As you do learn, you’ll get better. What you’re doing in your second year of business may be completely different from what you did in your first year. Be flexible and adapt to what you find that’s working.
Get out of your own way. It’s easy to get trapped in a negative mindset. Maybe you’re afraid of failing or you’re afraid your business launch won’t be as polished as you imagined it. Surround yourself with positivity, by listening to podcasts, watching motivational speakers, whatever it takes to plant your own seeds that will build you up so you can flourish.
Look up to successful people in your niche (but don’t be intimidated by them). If you’re not sure of something, do the research and figure it out. We all started somewhere and there’s no better time to go after your dreams than right now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway” -Earl Nightingale
Life is only going to give you what you put in. At some point you just need to jump in and go for it because you’re never going to feel 100% ready. You’re not going to achieve a dream until you work for it.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!