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How Asking A Simple Question Launched A Business That’s Helping The Developing World

Kathleen Wright never wanted to be a fashion visionary, but now she’s taking meetings at Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg.

How Asking A Simple Question Launched A Business That’s Helping The Developing World
[Image: Flickr user Indi Samarajiva]

When Piece & Co. founder Kathleen Wright graduated from the University of Illinois with a business degree, she knew she wanted to work with women in developing countries, but what that looked like wasn’t exactly clear.

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Fast-forward nine years (after a five-year stint in the private sector and four years with a nonprofit), and Kathleen found her calling. In 2012, Wright launched Piece & Co., a Chicago-based company that connects global artisans with brands that source socially responsible products.

Creating Opportunities

The idea for Piece & Co. sprouted from her work in the developing world, when she asked women artisans a simple question: What would help you the most? The answer wasn’t money–it was consistent employment. A shortage of opportunities was the problem. Wright networked with people she’d met while working for a nonprofit and, with her first round of funding, hired an operations team to find and create a process for vetting artisan groups around the world, ensuring quality and fair labor practices.

One of Piece & Co.’s first big orders went to an artisan group in India. “You could feel the mood shift when [the women] knew they’d be working for an extended period of time,” Wright says. When people are working, hope spreads through the entire community, she notes. The artisans are able to put healthy food on their tables, and their children can remain in school, she says. The company’s on track to exceed its goal of creating sustainable employment for 5,000 women in the developing world by the end of the year, Wright says.

In the past two years, she’s partnered with designers Rachel Roy and Cynthia Rowley, as well as Madewell and Toms, to create clothing and accessories, and will collaborate with Crate & Barrel, Nordstrom, and Alice + Olivia later this year. Next spring, brands like J.Crew, Diane von Furstenberg, Tory Burch, Rebecca Minkoff, and Sperry will release Piece & Co. collections. Fast Company spoke with Wright to find out what she learned in launching her startup. Here are her four biggest lessons:

1. Listen to your gut.
When she started her business, Wright says she wished she knew the importance of listening to her gut. Don’t ignore that little voice that steers you to the right opportunities, tells you something’s a risk worth taking, or suggests an employee may not be the right fit, Wright says. You need to learn to follow your gut in a way that’s quick, so you can make a decision and move on, she notes.

2. Cultivate a mentoring team.
Wright says finding a mentoring team was critical to her success, and she has five people she turns to for sage advice in the fashion and entrepreneurial space. This was particularly important, as Wright says she wasn’t a fashionista, nor was she particularly interested in artisanship.

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Whether it’s one mentor or five, Wright suggests finding the right people to be in your corner, learning from them, listening to their advice, and keeping them engaged in what you’re doing.

3. Be authentic.
Last year, a mentor gave Wright one piece of advice that’s really stuck with her: the more authentic you are, the more you attract the right people–whether they’re investors, brands, employees, or customers. Before, Wright says, she was “middle-of-the-road,” and didn’t want to come on too strong, for fear of repelling people.

Since that time, she’s overcome that fear, realizing that Piece & Co.’s biggest customers believe the company can deliver on her mission and business model.

4. Never doubt what you’re doing.
Noting that launching a company is harder than one would think, Wright says she was most surprised by her own “stick-to-itiveness” and resolve, grounded in her belief that her vision was worth it. The work for Piece & Co.’s U.S.-based team of 10 can be stressful at times, but Wright seeks to create an environment where they can manage the inevitable ups and downs of a startup.

For example, Piece & Co. celebrates its victories on a bulletin board. Recently, Wright says she received an email from a co-op in Mexico expressing concern for artisan groups in Africa after news broke of the Ebola virus. Where individual communities’ worlds were small before, now they’re asking about their counterparts around the globe. “[The victories] get you through the tough times,” Wright says. You can bet that email will make the bulletin board.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in Entrepreneur.com, Reuters.com, Today.com, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, BlogHer.com and Fox Business.

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