When Nicole Snow left the Air Force in 2005, the 32-year-old New Jersey native struggled with depression. She worked for a few months at a paper supply company, but was soon fired. Her manager even advised her to never to work in a small business again.
“Looking back, I had a chip on my shoulder,” says Snow. “I was working in this office environment with antiquated computer systems. I’m the type of person that likes to take out extraneous steps and then move onto the next thing. In a small company that’s not keen on continuous improvement ideals, it’s perceived as rocking the boat…big time. I remember building a great program that took a multi-hour process and turned it into a 20-minute task. I was stoked and I was trying to get buy-in.”
Snow admits that she handled the situation the wrong way. “I wasn’t asked to do it. I saw a need and did it. When I didn’t get buy-in, I got pissed and got cocky. My attitude got me fired.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story for Snow. Ten years later, she runs an award-winning company that she says provides sustainable employment to hundreds of women in countries such as India and Nepal. Darn Good Yarn, which recycles silk for crafters in the U.S., has grown enormously since Snow founded the company in 2008. That year, she made $16,000 in sales–and in 2014, “we did a little over $500,000″ in sales, Snow says. “This year we are on track to do 1.2 million.”
“For me, the business [became a] creative reflection of who I was,” says Snow.
Snow’s road to success has been long and circuitous. She has been obsessed with the arts all her life–but majored in business and eventually joined the Air Force. While that career offered some job security, it ultimately didn’t work out for her. “It didn’t fit with who I was and who I was starting to become as a woman,” Snow says.
Despite her former manager’s advice, she opened an online general import store out of her home, Around the Om, which sold a range of products, from rugs to incense to women’s clothing. She also dedicated much of her spare time to crafting, which helped her deal with her depression. “Making my own art through crafting helped me through some dark times,” she says. “I understand from firsthand experience how important art is.”
By 2008, Snow had gained enough confidence to try to merge her business and her hobby, and to employ her skills as a crafter by founding an online store dedicated specifically to crafting. Following in the footsteps of her first business, much of her product came from overseas.
But soon she had a serious problem on her hands. A third of the Indian and Nepalese silk yarn she purchased for her online store was unusable: The colors were muddy and the yarn smelled really bad. When she followed up with her supplier, she learned that the yarn was created with recycled remnants of high-end silk rugs. The yarn was made by poorly skilled women working in co-ops. These women could only find employment for a couple of months out of the year, and were living in abject poverty.
“Then I realized that Darn Good Yarn had to be about something bigger than yarn. That’s where I shifted, in my mind, from being a yarn company to being a conduit to supply year-round employment to these women. They were living on less than $2 a day. Now many of them make around $13-16 a day,” Snow claims.
One way she says she helped raise the workers’ wages was by traveling to Asia and training the women to improve the quality of their products. She visited India and Nepal a number of times over the years and organized trainings for the women, micromanaging details such as how much twist the yarn would have or how it would be packaged.
Another way she says she helped raise wages was by engaging her customers and drumming up more demand for the product, which in turn helped create full-time employment for the women in India and Nepal who make the yarn. Snow says she engaged her customers by offering free patterns and tips to aspiring crafters and by listening and responding to customer feedback. She communicates vigorously with customers over email, through her blog, and on social media platforms such as Facebook.
Snow markets Darn Good Yarn as a socially responsible business, a fair-trade crafting store–and she says that message has helped build her reputation. She posts frequent updates about the women on her blog. “I connected my supply chain to my customers. And that’s, I think, what really made us successful, and it’s made the story very compelling for my customers.” By selling these products and writing about the people who make them, Snow sees herself as facilitating an important connection between the workers and the first-world crafters who buy most of their yarns. That connection comes in handy when hard times strike her workers’ nations.
“In the tragic events that struck Nepal, last week we donated 100% of our profits to go for relief to the women and families that create the items we carry at Darn Good Yarn,” Snow says. “The outpouring of support from our customer base was overwhelming.” She adds that some of the workers’ homes were destroyed in the quake–but fortunately, none of the women were seriously hurt.
Snow adds that she tries to break up her orders so that women in the co-ops she uses have regular work, but aren’t excessively strained at any given point. At first, her company (which she started humbly, with two boxes of yarn and a couple thousand dollars) grew slowly and cautiously, which she attributes in part to low self-confidence–but this slow pace helped develop her supply chain more gradually and carefully. “Always have respect for the supply chain,” she says. Building her supply chain was a big process. She hired people with export licenses on the ground to buy and ship the yarn to her. She established a close business relationship with FedEx, eventually working out shipping deals with the company.
Snow hopes that the rest of the crafting industry will follow in her footsteps. “Where we have fair-trade coffee and fair-trade chocolate and all these other industries have taken on this idea that yes, we can do a lot with our purchasing power; crafting just hasn’t reached that place just yet.”