Tierra Forte: “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard”

The first reason I’m hopeful is that it is no longer possible for leaders to ignore the childcare crisis in this country. As millions and millions of working mothers and fathers have known for decades, affordable childcare is a prerequisite for a functioning economy. Politicians and people in power can no longer make excuses for […]

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The first reason I’m hopeful is that it is no longer possible for leaders to ignore the childcare crisis in this country. As millions and millions of working mothers and fathers have known for decades, affordable childcare is a prerequisite for a functioning economy. Politicians and people in power can no longer make excuses for not addressing this problem that existed long before the pandemic. The same goes for healthcare. If COVID hasn’t demonstrated that providing access to healthcare for everyone in the country is both a moral obligation and the smart thing to do economically, I don’t know what will.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tierra Forte.

Tierra Forte, Co-Founder and CEO of Mightly, a sustainable children’s wear brand, is an apparel industry veteran and eco-fashion pioneer. In 2006 she launched Del Forte Denim, a premium organic denim brand and later became the VP of Product for Pact Apparel, a eco-conscious lifestyle brand. She was also a leading member of the team that developed and launched Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade Apparel and Home Goods Standard, which has been adopted by industry leaders such as Patagonia, West Elm, and Madewell, and is considered the gold standard of factory certifications.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My backstory looks a bit different from the stereotypical Bay Area entrepreneur. I do not have an Ivy League education or a background in tech. I had my older daughter when I was 19 and raised her as a single mother for the first 12 years of her life. There is no question that being a single working mother prepared me to be an entrepreneur. I became an expert at juggling competing priorities and stretching resources, and I learned the value of simply continuing to put one foot in front of the other, no matter what.

Early into motherhood, I realized that I was not going to be happy in just any job. I wanted a career I was passionate about, that was intellectually engaging and that allowed me to be creative. I studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco and moved to New York for my first job in 1999. I loved being a designer and working with smart, talented women, but I quickly started to notice the industry’s exploitative and wasteful nature. I still enjoyed the art of creating clothes and the thrill of seeing items I had designed come to life on shop floors or on strangers walking down the street, but I didn’t feel good about the impact my industry was having on the planet or on the people who made the clothes I designed.

Then, in the summer of 2005, I traveled to China for work, a trip which ultimately validated my concerns. I remember standing over this wastewater catchment at the factory I was visiting and noticing how beautifully bright blue the water was. Then I started to wonder what happened to that water, which was clearly contaminated. Where did it go? How was it treated? Where did it come from in the first place? When I got back from the trip, I started doing research into the environmental impacts of the apparel industry. I learned that textile mills generate around a fifth of the world’s pollution, that non-organic cotton farming is the fourth largest agricultural user of pesticides, and that the water used to grow cotton is often siphoned from drought-threatened rivers and lakes in cotton-growing regions.

Around this same time, I started noticing that many of the women who were shopping at New York City farmer’s markets were wearing expensive jeans from brands like 7 for all Mankind and Citizens of Humanity. Clearly these brands were tapping into something women wanted, but I knew they weren’t living up to their aspirational names. I was sure that these customers, who were all shopping for local, organic food, would love to have the option of wearing jeans with the same premium look and fit but which were made in an eco-conscious way.

By October of that year I had moved back to California, scraped together $60k from friends and family, and incorporated a company to make premium organic denim. Within 18 months, Del Forte Denim was sold in over 200 boutiques including influential retailers like Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Big Drop in New York City and E Street Denim in Chicago and covered in major publications like Vogue, The New York Times Style Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, People, Nylon and many more. Unfortunately, despite all that success the company didn’t survive the Great Recession. (I could write a whole other article on learning from failure.)

At that point, I knew I couldn’t go back into the mainstream apparel industry. Lucky for me, Fair Trade USA was starting a pilot program to test how the fair trade model, which empowers producers and enables businesses to more transparently support sustainable livelihoods and practices, could be applied to textile products. I joined the team, and got to work trying to convince brands that Fair Trade Certification could benefit their businesses. Together Fair Trade USA and a group of innovative brands, sustainably-minded factories, and other stakeholders in the labor rights movement created and launched a fair trade standard for factories. Included in the standard were rigorous social, environmental and economic standards to protect the health and safety of workers, a required Fair Trade Premium that was to be paid by clothing brands, and a mechanism for delivering worker empowerment and financial impact known as the Fair Trade Committee, which is a democratically elected body that represents all the workers in a fair trade factory and which determines how the factory’s Fair Trade Premium funds are spent. Since its inception, the Fair Trade Factory program has certified over 75 factories in 13 counties, and benefited over 140,000 fair trade factory workers.

I am proud to say that since leaving Fair Trade USA, I have launched Fair Trade CertifiedTM products for two different companies: Pact Apparel, where I was the VP of Product, and now my own company, Mightly, which makes Organic and Fair Trade Certified clothes for kids ages 2 to 12.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

The most interesting thing that I’ve done since founding Mightly has been creating our Advisory Council. I founded Mightly with two co-founders, Anya Emerson and Barrie Brouse. The three of us have varied and complementary skill sets, but we also have gaps. About a year in, I decided it was time to bring in external expertise. In forming Mightly’s Advisory Council, I reconnected with people from just about every stage of my career. I’ve been part of the sustainable apparel community since 2006, and it was inspiring to see what a big impact my former colleagues and mentors are making. People I’ve worked with throughout the years are now leading initiatives like Fashion Revolution, an organization whose mission is to transform the fashion industry into one that restores the environment and values people over growth, and companies like The Renewal Workshop, which is reducing waste in the apparel industry. It was a wonderful reminder of why I’m optimistic that collectively we can create positive change in our industry.

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

In 2020, Mightly was proud to announce two important developments: first, that the company has received its GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standard), which is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain; and second, that 100% of our product line will be Fair Trade Certified by winter 2020.

What these two developments mean in practice is that we can now concentrate on helping the people who make our Mightly clothing get through the pandemic. Our entire supply chain is in India, which has been particularly hard hit by the crisis. Starting with the organic farming cooperative from which we obtain our certified organic cotton and ending with the fair trade factory where our garments are stitched, our supply chain has faced multiple covid-related challenges. Many of the factory workers live in zones where travel is restricted and others are simply afraid to travel on public transportation. As a result, our factory had to operate at greatly reduced capacity. Rather than canceling our orders due to covid or switching to another factory, we have continued to work with our factory — with which I have a longstanding, decade-long relationship — to develop products that are suited to their current situation. For instance, we have begun developing our new 100% organic cotton Mightly face masks, which can be made in the sample room by a small number of workers.

Because Mightly’s products are Fair Trade Certified, we pay an additional Fair Trade premium directly back to the workers who make our clothes for each product we make. Collectively, they vote to spend the funds on projects that address local needs. In response to the pandemic, the factory’s Fair Trade Committee has been able to use its Emergency Premium Funds to address immediate needs during the crisis, including groceries, cash disbursements, household products, and more. In a time where many “fast fashion” businesses have left factories and factory workers in the lurch by canceling orders or refusing to pay for already-produced goods, Mightly is proud of its wholehearted support for our suppliers.

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?

Other than my parents, there is one person whose belief in me has, without question, helped shape the person I am today. Anna Binder, a life-long friend who I first met as a teenager, invested in my first company and is now also an investor in Mightly. I am now a 20-year industry veteran who has already founded a company and been an executive at a successful startup, so her investment in me, and in Mightly, isn’t that crazy. But when I started my first company years ago, I had no business experience and was venturing into an unproved market. Years later, when I asked what she was thinking when she wrote me that check, Anna told me that anyone who could have a baby at 19, complete her education and succeed in a competitive industry while being a single mother, and have the guts to start her own business was someone she would always bet on.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I have a nine-year-old at home who is dyslexic and has ADHD and, like most of us, sometimes struggles with anxiety. Supporting her in school was already a challenge before the pandemic. It has become exponentially harder since she started distance learning. I’m sure some nine-year-olds are capable of sitting in front of a computer all day and independently completing online assignments, but for my child this simply isn’t possible. Someone must be available to assist her throughout the school day, which is also a workday for both her father and myself. The most obvious challenge has been figuring out how to provide the support my daughter needs while still having enough time to dedicate to my fledgling business. But the more fundamental challenge is how do I protect my relationship with my daughter now that I am playing the role of teacher in a learning environment that is completely unsuitable for her?

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Some of the most important things I’ve done to make our lives more manageable during the pandemic are the things I stopped doing. I’m kind of a neat freak, but I let go of the idea of having a tidy house. Her father and I also decided that as long as she continues to progress with reading and math, we won’t worry about the other subjects. And I stopped feeling bad about how many nights we got delivery or had mac ‘n cheese instead of a healthy, home-cooked dinner.

Once I let go, I was able to start focusing on our biggest challenges: that both my partner and I needed time to work and that the lack of social interaction was detrimental to our daughter’s mental health. I knew friends who were forming learning pods with private tutors. We certainly needed childcare, and I loved the thought of my daughter spending time, safely, with other kids while someone else managed her school assignments. However, a solution unavailable to families without financial resources did not feel right to us. Instead, I found a program run by a grassroots collective of outdoor educators. It is a sliding scale program — no one is turned away for lack of funds — and the founders’ commitment to equity is reflected in everything they do. After I stopped expecting my daughter to be on every school video call or to keep up with 100% of her online school work, that opened up the possibility for her to attend this wonderful program that is led by inspiring educators and accessible to all families, regardless of income.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Access to capital is, without doubt, the biggest work related challenge I face as a woman in business, and it persists regardless of the pandemic. Mightly is a fast-growing, inventory-based business, and buying inventory requires capital. And there is no question that it’s harder for women to finance a business. Just to start with, the gender pay gap means women have less money to invest in themselves or in other women. We also have less access to investor networks, and, when fundraising, women run up against bias, whether explicit or subconscious. In a survey of female founders conducted by Fast Company, nearly 62% said they experienced bias during the fundraising process. Research conducted for Harvard Business Review found that,“women are asked different questions than men when pitching to VCs. Across 180 entrepreneurs and 140 VCs at the TechCrunch competition, men were consistently asked more ‘promotion’ questions (highlighting upside and potential gains), while women were asked more ‘preventive’ questions (highlighting potential losses and risk mitigation). Entrepreneurs who addressed promotion questions raised at least six times more money than those asked the prevention questions.”

That much of this investor bias is subconscious makes it particularly challenging to address. And I should emphasize that this isn’t just a women’s issue, but is instead a problem faced by anyone who doesn’t conform to society’s expectation of what a “successful founder” looks like.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

My business partners and I have prioritized finding investors and lenders who align with our values and who believe in the type of business we want to build: a “real business,” not a flash-in-the-pan worth hundreds of millions on paper one day and out of business the next. One of our Advisory Council members, Mary Jo Cook, has been helping us evaluate our funding options. Mary Jo and I first met when we both worked at Fair Trade USA, where she was the Chief Impact Officer, so I knew she would get our commitment to building a triple bottom line business. She recently retired as CEO of Pacific Community Ventures, whose mission is to invest in small businesses and make markets work for social good, so I knew she would be a great resource as we looked for funders who were aligned with our values.

It’s been encouraging to learn that we are not the only ones who think that the current VC model doesn’t work. Any system that awards only 3% of investment dollars to women founders and even less to Black and Latinx founders is fundamentally broken. Thankfully, more people are starting to recognize this, and to develop alternatives. With Mary Jo’s help, we have reached out to a fund that exists explicitly to capitalize founders and businesses that have potential but which may not conform to traditional Silicon Valley expectations. We are also applying to an organization that provides interest-free loans to women-led businesses who are “working on the world’s to-do list.” Knowing that organizations like these exist has made me a lot more excited about fundraising!

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

For households with two working parents, I believe it’s critical to be thoughtful and intentional about how you and your partner split responsibilities during this time. Both parties need to acknowledge that we’re living through exceptional circumstances. Whatever was working before is unlikely to work now. If your partner wasn’t an equal participant in childcare or managing the house before, now is the time for them to step up. There are things we can all do to make working from home more pleasant and efficient, like making sure that all members of the household have their own dedicated work space (even if it’s just a taped off part of the kitchen table). But the reality is that there is no tip, trick, or hack that matters nearly as much as a mutually supportive relationship.

Many single working parents are in an even tougher bind. I’ve been inspired by the single moms I know who have built strong communities around themselves and their children and are able to tap into these support networks. Most working women are continually wondering how to be more efficient and effective. How much more can I squeeze out of myself? But perhaps a better question would be, who can I turn to for mutual support?

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

I’m lucky to live in a place where there are both amazing urban walks and beautiful hiking trails. We try to go for long walks as much as possible, no matter the weather. Getting out of the house for physical activity is our key to sanity. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck inside a lot recently because of the Californian wildfires and resulting poor air quality. So we started playing a lot of board games. It’s been interesting to see how differently the members of my family approach playing. My daughter always wants to make up her own special rules, my partner provides running commentary on his strategy — even for the most simple game — and I get no joy from winning because it means everyone else loses.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

This crisis has the potential to become the catalyst for long overdue changes in our society, changes that could create a more equitable future. If nothing else, coronavirus has illuminated issues that were already a crisis for millions of people, like childcare, healthcare, and the need for a living wage.

The first reason I’m hopeful is that it is no longer possible for leaders to ignore the childcare crisis in this country. As millions and millions of working mothers and fathers have known for decades, affordable childcare is a prerequisite for a functioning economy. Politicians and people in power can no longer make excuses for not addressing this problem that existed long before the pandemic. The same goes for healthcare. If COVID hasn’t demonstrated that providing access to healthcare for everyone in the country is both a moral obligation and the smart thing to do economically, I don’t know what will.

As with childcare and healthcare, COVID has shone a spotlight on racial inequality in a way that I believe is impossible to ignore. In every age group, if you are Black, Latinx, or Native American, you are more likely to contract COVID and more likely to die from it, and communities of color are bearing the worst of the economic impacts. Although there are many overlapping reasons for the uneven impacts of COVID, they all stem from the same root problem, structural racism. Once we, as a society, have the will to say there are no disposable people or disposable communities, we can start addressing inequality in all the ways it hurts us, all of us.

For my family personally, COVID has resulted in a few positive changes that I hope last into the post-COVID world. Above all, our workplaces have become more flexible and accommodating. Flexibility in work not only benefits families with children, but people taking care of elderly parents, people with disabilities, and people who don’t live in major cities. It will also benefit companies by creating a much larger pool of potential workers. Second, since shelter in place started everyone I know is putting much more importance on connecting with and supporting their community. People are going to the grocery store and picking up medication for their elderly neighbors. Parents are creating multi-family bubbles to share childcare duties. Families are going out of their way to shop at local businesses and support local restaurants. There is a new widespread sense of connectedness that I believe will outlast the virus.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

As someone who is very familiar with anxiety, I can share what people have done to make me feel supported. This may be obvious, but start by listening, not giving advice or trying to fix things. Simply listening with empathy and without judgement is often the most important thing you can do to help someone with anxiety. I’ve mentioned the importance of connectedness throughout this interview and I think it’s especially relevant to this question. Simply staying connected, even if it is just by sharing a silly meme or texting a simple “thinking of you” message, can help someone who is struggling with anxiety feel less alone.

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

My favorite life lesson quote is from the poet Anne Sexton, “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” I love this quote because it’s a reminder to listen to one’s intuition. Women are often taught to ignore our intuition, rather than to treat it as a source of wisdom. The best decisions of my life have been choices that didn’t make logical sense, like having a child so young or leaving a stable job to start a company. These were choices I made based on what I intuitively felt was right for me and that I was highly motivated to make work. Blindly following your gut, without being clear-eyed about the challenges, probably won’t work out well. However, intuition plus hard work can be a powerful force.

How can our readers follow you online?

I don’t have a public social media presence, so unless you want to see a bunch of photos of my family and our puppy, the best way to see what I’m up to is to check out our company blog or follow @MightlyMe on Facebook or Instagram.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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