Reality can be especially harsh for socially conscious businesses -- those that aspire to be sustainable, empower women or indigenous people, or achieve any kind of social or environmental goal beyond profitability. Raw, relentless competition -- the only kind there is, really -- frightens new entrepreneurs. They often hope that their niche will be miraculously overlooked by competitors -- while universally discovered by customers.
So it's impressive that social entrepreneur Harper Poe has just done something that could bring her small firm more competition. Getting her importing company off the ground was such a struggle that she decided to publish an article to show others exactly how she did it. And the move is already bringing her more business.
Poe backed into capitalism-with-a-conscience. Trained as a construction manager, she cycled through design jobs, then into a stint with Habitat for Humanity in South America in 2007. There, she fell in love with indigenous textiles. But instead of simply exporting them, she hit on the idea of developing contemporary designs that would appeal to Americans and commissioning artisans to produce them.
Great idea, but, as it turned out, complicated. Poe struggled to piece together the mechanics of sourcing, collaborating with the artisans, importing, and distribution. She approached Aid to Artisans, which links indigenous artisans to first-world markets, but "didn't know the right questions to ask," so got no answers.
Finally, she discovered Nest, a microfinance nonprofit that sells goods produced by women who live in third world countries. With help from the Nest staff, Poe finally got some traction. By the end of 2008, her firm, Proud Mary, was wholesaling its first collection: textiles from South Africa.
Given the recession, it's taking longer than expected to make inroads with designers, decorators and retailers. But Proud Mary is slowly building a name for itself among design groupies, especially at websites like Designsponge. Now, Poe is established enough that others are turning to her for advice. Therein lies a conflict: could her newly minted capitalist ideals withstand the ramifications of openly sharing her story with aspiring competitors? "I've learned a lot from women sharing about their businesses," she said. "I went into this blind. I wish someone would have told me these things."
So on July 12, she published a primer on importing at DesignSponge. Poe is idealistic but not naÃ¯ve. "I'm sure that some people will come into the space," she said. Likely. But meanwhile, more have come into hers. She is already in discussions with four potential wholesalers who found her through her share-the-wealth post.