A Social Entrepreneurship Story. Shelley Jones. Owner. dignify
From stay at home mom to social entrepreneur, Shelley Jones is the owner of dignify an online store selling “kantha” blankets- unique quilts, hand stitched in Bangladesh by women who are recovering from or vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Witnessing a better way to do business early in her career, planted the seed that profit and purpose can coexist. What started out as a meaningful wedding gift for a friend turned her from a stay at home mom to social entrepreneur. We love Shelley’s honesty about the challenges of staying motivated after the initial adrenaline of starting wears off and her advice for other aspiring social entrepreneurs.
When did you know you wanted to work in ‘social impact’?
Volunteerism has been very important in my family, and I’ve long experienced the value of more traditional social impact via non-profits. But, it was my job working for a local grocer that really changed the way I saw “business as usual” in the corporate world. It was a small chain of grocery stores and lunch markets, but really it was a big family business, vertically integrated “from farm to table.” One brother raised cattle and feed, another focused on pigs. A third brother began a processing plant to deal with the meat, while youngest brother began a grocery arm to be a retail outlet for customer sales.
We sold all of the usual things a grocer would sell, but there was also a market café; produce that was beginning to be “undesirable” was pulled from the shelves (as all grocers do), but instead of going to the dump, it was made into soups, roasted veggies for pizzas, orange juice, etc. to be sold as lunch & dinner offerings. It was the first time I saw how creativity and thoughtfulness could both improve the social impact (less waste, more affordable freshly-made food) and work positively for a business’s bottom line (multiple streams of income, less wasted goods).
“It was the first time I saw how creativity and thoughtfulness could both improve the social impact (less waste, more affordable freshly-made food) and work positively for a business’s bottom line (multiple streams of income, less wasted goods). I left that job for a maternity leave, but it planted the seed in me that there were ways to accomplish both a successful, profitable business and fulfill social goals, as well.”
I left that job for a maternity leave, but it planted the seed in me that there were ways to accomplish both a successful, profitable business and fulfill social goals, as well.
What inspired you to start your company?
I had heard about kantha quilts from my husband in 2011, as a classmate of his in his was working with women in Bangladesh who had left the sex trade and were hand-stitching these blankets.
It certainly didn’t occur to me at the time to begin a business selling them; retail sales wasn’t my aspiration, much less entrepreneurship! But, I was a stay-at-home mom with two daughters, aged 3 and nearly 2. I guess I thought my life was getting manageable again and I needed a challenge!
What really inspired dignify was purchasing a blanket to give to my friend, Kathy, who had been widowed (while pregnant with her 3rd child) and was remarrying. It was such a perfect, meaningful wedding gift; I was delighted to give it to her, and the other gals at the wedding shower were crazy for it. My husband made an off-hand comment that maybe I should start selling them myself. I began daydreaming about the name and what the logo might look like, how the website would feel. Because of my marketing background, those parts came together very quickly, and I was very excited to give it all a go.
Our first shipment had 60 one-of-a-kind kantha quilts, and by the end of our launch weekend, I had placed an order for more. By the time they arrived 2 weeks later, I had only one blanket left in stock! That was all great affirmation that we were on to something.
What’s been the greatest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to pursue your social impact job dream?
One big challenge has been pushing through the grind of work, once the adrenaline wore off. I would say the first 1-2 years of entrepreneurship were really, very exciting, and I was motivated to work on dignify in any of my spare time. But, as the years went on, things shifted from “how much can I do with this side project/lark?!” to dignify becoming our family business and primary source of income.
“There is a myth of the “dream job” being so enjoyable that it isn’t even like work. I love my work, and it is the perfect job for me. But, when I take a break and go on vacation, I don’t want to work another day in my life!”
There is a myth of the “dream job” being so enjoyable that it isn’t even like work. I love my work, and it is the perfect job for me. But, when I take a break and go on vacation, I don’t want to work another day in my life! There is still the relentlessness and the pressure of continuing to enable the employment of vulnerable women. It is a challenge to keep up the intensity and passion, when the other needs of life (like my three kids) continue to press, or when the ‘Starter’ in me just wants to move on to something shiny and new.
How did your previous life or work experiences prepare you for a social impact career?
My personality has always tended more to be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. It was sometimes frustrating, growing up in a culture of passion and deeply investing in a certain area, whether that was focusing on a specific sport or a certain skill set. I often felt like I wasn’t doing it right, or I was missing out.
As it turned out, being able to do a little bit of everything has been an invaluable asset as an entrepreneur. A little bit of math, little bit of photography, graphic design, sales, import/export, website coding, shipping logistics, customer service… the list goes on and on!
I am also very thankful that I cut my teeth in a very small marketing department. In a larger department, or at a firm that specialized in marketing, I would have had a much narrower job focus. When it’s a team of three for a multi-million dollar enterprise, you get your hands into a little bit of everything.
What advice would you give to a social entrepreneur who’s just starting out or an aspiring social entrepreneur?
My advice is to make sure the product/service is desirable on its own in the market. Having a great, social, meaningful backstory is wonderful, but will only take an enterprise so far, if the product is just ok. If you have passion for a cause, without an excellent item to sell as a social enterprise, I would suggest working as a fundraiser instead. Sales is a grind, and if your product doesn’t sell outside of people who are passionate about the cause, it will be very wearying.
“My advice is to make sure the product/service is desirable on its own in the market. Having a great, social, meaningful backstory is wonderful, but will only take an enterprise so far, if the product is just ok.”
What’s the first website you visit in the morning?
Oh, man. Nothing exciting! A mix of some of the usual suspects: our Shopify store admin, Pinterest / FB ad analytics if I have a campaign running, Instagram, Gmail… I really like reading The New Yorker, but I try to stay away from it (and Facebook) in the mornings, because the rabbit hole is way too distracting!
What are you reading or following that has expanded your understanding of the impact sector?
I am very inspired by people doing things differently, using well-established avenues but making it work in a new & exciting way. I always love seeing what Scott Harrison & charity:water are up to, or businesses like Sugru, Floyd, or Color Cord, who change the way I think about consuming & creating.
On the homefront, I just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which really got me thinking about food impact & local sustainable agriculture. I have the blackest thumb, but I was definitely inspired to buy more from our farmer’s market! 😉