What can a Dubai fashion startup teach you about social entrepreneurship?

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“There’s a story behind the clothes we wear. Do you know what the story is about? More often than not, it’s about modern day slavery, child labor, and destructive environmental practices,” declares Shahd AlShehail (pictured below left). The Saudi-born entrepreneur continues: “Did you know that there are an estimated 200 million people around the globe who are directly employed by the textile and apparel industry? These people often live on a fraction of a living wage and work under terrible conditions that result in catastrophes like Rana Plaza.”

It was this public tragedy that prompted AlShehail — who was in the midst of her Acumen Fellowship in Bangalore, India at the time — and her friend Natalie Grillon (below right), also an Acumen Fellow in Uganda, to give serious thought to the injustices and exploitation in the fashion industry. “I felt there must be a better way, an ethical way,” affirmed AlShehail.

Determined to make a difference, the two women cofounded JUST, a social enterprise that aims to enable a transparent and “values-driven, not value-driven” fashion supply chain by connecting designers and manufacturers to ethical, sustainable suppliers. JUST leverages technology to promote transparency within the fashion supply chain by authenticating suppliers based on their ethical and sustainability standards and presenting them on an easy to use online platform for designers and manufacturers.

AlShehail, who serves as CEO, explained: “Not only does the JUST platform reduce a designer’s procurement costs and build confidence in their sourcing, but also allows ethical suppliers, who are often small and not tech-savvy, access to bigger markets.”

But more importantly, “through QR codes, consumers can know the story behind their clothes and independently choose suppliers that have a strong commitment to ethics.” In AlShehail’s view, JUST enables every party in the fashion supply chain to be fully appraised and engaged, ultimately encouraging a shift in the fashion industry’s ethical standards and consequently boosting economic empowerment of the suppliers’ communities.

The startup has gone from victory to victory since its launch in late 2013, attracting over 50 designers and brands (mostly US-based) as platform users. Further, “we have some exciting designer partnerships in the works but it’s too soon to make an announcement,” she says. AlShehail was also invited to speak at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference earlier this year, and JUST was selected as finalists at numerous prestigious startup challenges, including the forthcoming Innovating Justice Forum and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the latter to be hosted by President Obama in Morocco later this year.

How did these two young changemakers get this far in their entrepreneurial journey? Here are some key insights I culled from my conversation with the vivacious Shahd AlShehail.

1)  Find your purpose in life and pursue it passionately

AlShehail intuitively knew that pursuing the Acumen fellowship was the “right thing” for her to do at a certain point in her professional and personal trajectory. “I was incredibly motivated and inspired upon reading Jacqueline Novogratz’s book The Blue Sweater. It dawned on me that she was a visionary I needed to learn from, that her organization’s work was something I needed to contribute to and be a part of,” explains AlShehail. She continues: “I took some courageous decisions when I realized my purpose in life was not being met through my day job. My advice is to ask yourself…what are your gifts? Why are you here on this earth? How will you make your mark?”

2)   Look before you leap

Budding entrepreneurs need not forego a regular job while working on their startup, according to AlShehail, who also consults part-time for a global non-profit. She reflects: “It’s a true test of your commitment to build your business while you still hold a full-time job. Natalie and I both devoted countless hours outside of our rigorous fellowship commitments to get our idea rolling.”

3)   Two is better than one

“I’m blessed to have such an amazing cofounder such as Natalie,” shared AlShehail. “Our roles play to our strengths, to what we enjoy doing and to where we’re located. Natalie is focused on making sales to designers in North America, I’m focused on relationships with suppliers, strategy, and marketing.” Her advice: “If you are working primarily on your own and intend to be the sole founder, make sure to surround yourself with people who will support you, advise you, and challenge you constructively.”  

4)   Get feedback

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of shaping your idea with solid feedback. You get personally connected to the idea and [without feedback] you run the risk of succumbing to confirmation bias,” vouches AlShehail.

To confirm the viability of their idea, the duo constantly tested the concept not just with folks from the fashion sector but also with their peers and mentors. Recalls AlShehail: “We didn’t put together a traditional business plan; instead we devised a business model canvas, something we learned during the Acumen fellowship. I remember we mounted our business model canvas on an empty wall in an unused room in the Acumen office and asked everyone who was passing by to take a look and give us feedback. And it worked!”

5)   Do your research and be creative

“Given the dearth of market analyses on ethical and sustainable fashion practices, we adopted a creative approach to securing source data to base our assumptions,” shares AlShehail. To understand market growth, AlShehail and Grillon would call various design schools in New York, find out how many designers in the graduating class were in the sustainable fashion track, and then extrapolate these assumptions to develop a projection for their target market. She vouches: “Your research never ends, the marketplace keeps evolving. You need to keep your finger on the pulse and find ways around the lack of information. Call up people or just show up and talk to them directly. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!”

6)   Believe in yourself

Despite some of the cynical feedback from certain members of the fashion industry, AlShehail and Grillon remained steadfast in their desire to launch the enterprise. Recalls AlShehail: “Some brands were very discouraging, saying that consumers were either cost-conscious or brand-conscious, not ethics-conscious. We thought differently and our research supported our view. Clearly, consumer mindsets are shifting when you consider the growing global movement towards organic, ethically produced food.” Tenacity and confidence are crucial, she maintains, so that one keeps their morale up when faced with detractors or difficult circumstances.

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