Doing Good in Heels: The Tote Project

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The Tote Project

Hello lovely StilettoGals.

I am very excited to be part of this team and to have the opportunity to share the stories of so many amazingly talented and driven women who have taken the leap into social responsible entrepreneurship

Every month I’ll be sharing the stories of women who have dared to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams while being mindful to use their success as a means to benefit others as well. I hope this series inspires you to dream even bigger and find your own unique way to use your success to benefit others.

Kicking off the series are Michelle Chavez and Fay Grant of The Tote Project. This month, they share how a shared passion to end modern day slavery grew into a lifelong partnership.

Brooke: You both have been very socially conscious from early on in your life, long before you even met. How did you discover this shared interest in ending human trafficking? It doesn't seem exactly like the typical get to know you” conversation.

Michelle: The first time Fay and I hung out one-on-one it was anything but typical “get to know you” conversation.  We discussed every subject you’re not supposed to talk about when you first meet someone and I credit that with why we formed such a fast friendship. I don’t remember what specifically prompted the conversation, but I have a vivid memory of drinking wine on her couch and agreeing that we needed to volunteer together one day when we had time – time being the key element. Both of our schedules were so chaotic when we first met that our wine and Trader Joes pizza nights were typically all we had energy for.

 Brooke: Where did the idea for The Tote Project initially come from?

Fay: When I moved to North Carolina, we knew that it would be even more difficult for us to find a time to volunteer together. I started sewing clutches and bags out of up-cycled vintage fabrics and donating a portion of the proceeds to organizations that were working to end modern day slavery. Each piece took a long time to create, so I started brainstorming ways to make a bigger difference in a shorter amount of time. One evening I called Michelle about an idea I had to sell similar designs on a larger scale so more survivors could benefit, and sure enough, with Michelle’s background in business and an equal passion to end human trafficking, The Tote Project began to take shape. We make a great team and our friendship helped pave the way to a successful business partnership.

Brooke: When you decided to turn Fay’s original idea into the Tote Project, how did you go about dividing up the responsibilities?  Was this a natural division? Or one that helped grow your relationship?

Michelle: It really was a natural division. I have zero artistic talent and I like to call Fay a virtuoso because she’s blessed with the ability to excel at any form of art she tries. (She’s modest but I love to brag about her!). This made it easy to figure out who would be the creative director. 😉 I went to business school and worked in just about every department of a tech startup, so it was easy for me to take on the business side. Neither of us like doing the shipping, but we have both taken turns depending on what made more sense financially – Fay has taken that on most recently. A lot of it we try to do together whenever possible, because that’s the best part of running a business with your best friend!

Brooke: The two of you have created a very unique partnership and managed to continue to grow The Tote Project each year, despite living on opposite coasts. How do you keep something this big going while living on two different sides of the country?

Michelle: Fay and I have been through a lot together and our friendship has a firm foundation of mutual love and respect.  On top of that we are both type-A and passionate about helping survivors of human trafficking, and I think that combination contributes to our success. We text and email every day, try to talk on the phone a couple times a week and visit each other a couple times a year.

 Brooke: Sage advice from any entrepreneur is to always be willing to let go of your original idea and embrace what your vision eventually becomes. What has been the most surprising change from where you started to where you are now?

Fay: That’s great advice! To be honest, we always had a vision that we would spread hope and awareness, but who knew that our small idea would evolve into a dynamic platform for true change, and that it would bring hope to so many?

Brooke: After working closely together to create and build The Tote Project, what kind of benefits have you seen from consciously choosing to make this a partnership, rather than creating a solo project?

Michelle: Although we have so much in common, it’s our differences that make our friendship incredibly special. At the core, we both have a huge passion for helping others, and that made for the perfect foundation to our partnership — but it’s really our unique talents that make The Tote Project what it is. We are the perfect mix of creativity, logic, determination and heart, and we bring such different, and necessary, things to the table. More importantly, we allow each other to grow and encourage one another to be the best we can be. It allows us endless creative freedom within the partnership, which makes it way more fun! We both were aware of the risks of starting a business partnership with a best friend, but we respect each other and communicate about absolutely everything, and that’s what keeps our friendship and company going strong.

Brooke: Was the decision to ensure all parts of The Tote Project be in line with all fair trade regulations and slavery free one you made from the beginning? Or one that came about as you began your initial research? 

Michelle: We were both fair trade advocates for many years before starting The Tote Project. As neoabolitionists we learned that one of the best ways to combat human trafficking is to buy fair trade products. Slavery exists in part because of the demand for inexpensive slave made goods, and part of our mission is to raise awareness about fair trade and create demand for ethical goods instead.  A product that exists to support human trafficking survivors has no room for slavery in its supply chain.

Brooke: You mention encountering several potential suppliers who either pretended to be properly certified or could not provide the proper verification as an ethical manufacturer, during your early searches. What are some insider tips on the smart questions to ask for those looking to either be a fair trade retailer or be more purposeful in purchasing only from fair trade vendors? 

Michelle: If you want to only sell fair trade products, you would start by asking your potential suppliers what fair trade certification they have. If they are not certified they are not technically fair trade. However, there are many amazing companies that follow fair trade principles, but never try and obtain certification. These companies still protect the environment, provide safe working conditions and pay their employees a fair wage. In these cases I would recommend starting with contacting the company and asking them direct questions to find out more about their production -- what factories they use, if they have any other sort of certifications (for example they may say they carry organic products but are they certified organic?). As a consumer, learn to identify the fair trade labels so that when you are shopping you can easily recognize fair trade certified products. This link is a great guide to help with that: http://www.fairtradewinds.net/guide-fair-trade-labels/

Brooke: Your commitment to creating a product that supports the movement to end modern day slavery is two fold. The women who make your products have made the decision to transition out of the sex trade and a portion of your profits support Two Wings, an organization in Los Angeles that works with women recently out of the sex trade and helps them pursue their dream vocation.  This dedication does drive up your costs. How have people responded when they learn the story behind your price points?

Michelle: It’s easy to find a tote bag for $10 or less, but you get what you pay for. Cheap products are poorly constructed out of low quality fabric that can contain harmful chemicals.  Oftentimes those products are also unethically produced. Our totes retail for $29.99 but we use 100% organic cotton, eco-friendly water based inks, and our manufacturers pay a fair wage.  The most common response we hear from our customers is that they wanted to support us because of the cause, and when they received our totes they were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the bag. (It can be hard to tell how sturdy our totes are just by looking at pictures!) Meanwhile we have seen designer tote bags sell for over $45, so we feel comfortable in the price point we’re in. The markup in fashion is high, but using the industry minimum markup we’re still able to donate 20% of our profits and have a successful business without raising prices too high.

 Brooke: What are some of the creative ways you have been able to share the story behind your products while getting your products out to the market?

Fay: A few years ago we were invited to share our story at SoulFest, a social justice festival in New Hampshire, and got people involved by handing out Freedom Balloons and asking them to sign a Freedom Board. We left our freedom phrase open (“Free to _____”) and had people fill in what freedom meant to them. It was a really great way to spark conversation about modern day slavery, and allowed us to share the stories of the brave women who sew our bags. As people learned more about human trafficking and all we do at The Tote Project to empower survivors, their interest in our products naturally followed. People really resonated with our freedom statements and wanted to support what we were doing to make a difference.

 Brooke: How did you go about selecting all of your partners – from Freeset and the women who make your bags in Calcutta to your partnership with Two Wings?

Michelle: Both partnerships came about serendipitously – they were meant to be! As we mentioned earlier, our number one priority was finding a fair trade factory to manufacture our totes. We reached out to a lot of potential suppliers who either pretended to be certified or could not provide any proof to back up their claims of ethical manufacturing. It became exhausting because every lead we pursued was unfruitful.  I finally reached out to an old college friend for advice (we had not been in touch in years but used to volunteer together) and her answer was, “I work at a fair trade factory that makes tote bags.” It turned out she was working for Freeset! We knew we wanted fair trade but we never dreamed we could hire trafficking survivors to sew our products, so we knew right away that they were the perfect fit for our company. For Two Wings, we had been researching local non-profits and since we were just starting out, we wanted to support an organization that could actually use our help and grow with us. During the vetting process on two separate occasions people we just met recommended Two Wings to us out of the blue. After hearing about them the second time we contacted them to learn more and were incredibly inspired by the work they were doing.

Brooke: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone looking to follow in your footsteps and adding a socially responsible initiative to their entrepreneurial endeavors? 

Fay: Don’t underestimate yourself, because the smallest action can create a world of change. When I look back at the start of The Tote Project, I think that a lot of our success came from the fact that we never doubted that we could make a positive difference. We never stopped and questioned how far we could go, or how big that difference would be, because it didn’t matter. What mattered is that we would do whatever we could to help survivors of sex trafficking recognize their worth and potential. We would dedicate ourselves to empowering them to follow and achieve their dreams. At the end of the day it came down to the fact that we never stopped believing in ourselves or each other, and most importantly, we never gave up hope.

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