It was the summer of 2011. Michelle Blue just finished her sophomore year at the University of Georgia. To further her studies in fashion merchandising and marketing, she enrolled in a study abroad in Ghana, which gave her the opportunity to connect with inspiring, local organizations that empowered girls through education.
Blue immediately fell in love the with the spirit of these girls. Despite their lack of material possessions, they had so much joy and love to give. She called home and shared her experience with her best friend, Sasha Matthews, who was studying mathematics at Florida A&M University.
“Michelle called me and was very emotional,” Matthews shared. “She had met these amazing girls and really wanted to do something to make a difference. She explained the conditions in which the girls were living, and I identified with that.” Growing up in Jamaica, Matthews witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of poverty and how difficult it can be for girls to go to school.
The young women knew they had an important role to play in making a positive and sustainable difference in the lives of these girls. So, in 2013 Bené was born, an ethical fashion and lifestyle brand which is committed to empowering girls in Ghana through education. The company uses its profits to sponsor tuition, books, supplies and uniforms which enable these girls to complete their secondary education and fulfill their dreams.
Blue and Matthews recently shared their advice for launching a successful social enterprise with TriplePundit, with hopes of inspiring other emerging ethical fashionpreneurs.
Follow your passion
The idea behind Bené Scarves was birthed out of a desire to empower the girls in Ghana through education. A fashion-focused, social enterprise simply became the best way to accomplish this goal. For Blue and Matthews, it’s all about the girls. And, “it’s not always easy or glamorous,” they confessed. But at the end of the day, “If you remember why you’re doing the work that you’re doing, it motivates you to keep going,” Blue told us.
At first, Blue and Matthews had high hopes of building a full fashion line. They spent what little money they had ordering samples of elaborate dresses, skirts and tops which in the end only left them broke, overwhelmed and discouraged.
Inevitably, they decided to put their dreams aside for awhile. “But it was still nagging at us,” Blue recalled. “The girls were still there; the needs were still there; and we still wanted to do something.” So, in a wave of inspiration, they came up with the fantastic idea to start small with a simple line of scarves.
“Scarves are one-size-fit-all. We don’t have to deal with complicated patterns and sizes,” Blue explained. “It was important to us to perfect and master the scarves before we moved on to other products.” This decision became the single most effective tool for building a strong foundation for a successful business.
People are your best assets
Starting out as young college students, the young women tapped into the resources that were readily at their disposal. From other budding entrepreneurs to graphic designers, they built a strong, dynamic team from the very beginning.
“You never know who is going to be that person who takes your business to the next level,” Matthews explained. “Outside of capital, people are the most important aspect of your business and your most valuable resource. Be good to people and people will be good to you.”
Capital constraints fuel creativity
The fact that Matthews and Blue began their business while they were still in college forced them to be a bit more creative when it came to building their brand. They developed a healthy relationship with the little money they had early on and proudly boast the fact that they have never needed outside investors. This has enabled them to operate their business without any debt, and they have learned to use their funds wisely.
Keep production close to home
At first, Blue and Matthews attempted to have the majority of their production done in Ghana, working with local seamstresses and artisans. But without a staff member on the ground, communication proved to be difficult, and “was just not where it needed to be,” Blue explained.
Reliable and consistent communication during production was incredibly important to them. And, since they had little experience in developing a fashion brand, they decided to bring manufacturing close to home. This has not only helped them learn more about the process of production, but has also enabled them to have face-to-face conversations with their manufacturers.
They’re currently working with a fashion incubator called Factory Girls based in Atlanta, which offers a variety of resources for budding fashionpreneurs. It has also made them feel more secure about ensuring ethical, cost-effective and fair labor practices.
Slow and steady wins the race
In a society which seems to reward speed and instant gratification, Matthews and Blue attribute their success to starting small, going slowly and acting with purpose. They stressed the importance of doing a little something toward your dream every day. “Send one e-mail, make one phone call, keep the wheels turning and keep going no matter what,” Matthews advised.
In the future, the friendpreneurs plan to expand their brand to feature other lifestyle products like candles and stationary. They also have plans to head back to Ghana to see their first class of girls graduate secondary school. They look forward to celebrating this important milestone with the students and witnessing firsthand the efforts their business has been able to produce.
If you or your company would be interested in making a tax-deductible donation toward making this possible, they would greatly appreciate the support.
The Bené Scarves spring 2015 collection, released in April, features trendy, dynamic prints and vibrant colors. Each design is inspired by the distinct personalities of the girls they support. Named by Mashable as one of the 11 black owned-businesses that are changing the world, we can only expect to see amazing things from them in the future.
Images courtesy of Bené Scarves