With many companies, the main concern is the BOTTOM LINE. Now, while it’s obvious that the bottom line is crucial to creating a sustainable business, I am also interested in something else, how the company is creating GOOD. In a sense, having a positive impact – serving as more than just a mechanism of consumption. That’s why I’m enamored with companies that mirror the TOMS 1 for 1 model, companies like Fortuned Culture.
Founded by Azie Tesfai, Fortuned Culture is a jewelry company with the best of intentions. Tesfai, a woman of Eritrean descent, sells locally made jewelry with Ethiopian flare. She wants to remind consumers that they can make a difference with every dollar they spend. Why not buy something beautiful and help feed a group of children in the process? Her health bracelet, priced at $30, vows to give one child, in an Ethiopian school, 65 meals. Tesfai has selected charities that are close to her heart, in an effort to help women and children from various countries (currently Ethiopia and Mexico). All of her hard work caught the attention of TOMS. Fortuned Culture is now a part of TOMS Marketplace – an initiative working to change the consumer’s perspective on spending.
Have you ever listened to someone and immediately felt inspired? That’s what happened when I spoke with Tesfai. Read about what’s inspired her and how she hopes to change the world, while connecting hundreds of cultures.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did you have an idea for a venture and then work to tie in the social impact or did you want to make an impact and then find a way to utilize your interests, connections, and strengths to form a company that could do so?
I had designed jewelry my whole life – for myself and for friends. In a weird way, it’s kind of meditative to do. It relaxes me and I enjoy creating things. But, it was the charity that came first. I’m Eritrean and my family is in Ethiopia. I was working with a non-profit school, for some of the most underprivileged children in Ethiopia, and their meal program got pulled. The founder of the charity (The Fregenet Foundation) and I had lunch and he told me they were having a really hard time. You can’t educate hungry children. They’re not going to be able to focus, especially elementary age. So I thought, OK I’m going to help. I have enough friends. We’re going to raise some money to take care of the meal program, for at least a year, until they can figure something else out. I had a really hard time getting money. I’d get a donation pledge from a friend, then I wouldn’t hear back from them. I thought, this isn’t really a long-term way to help.
Around that time, a girlfriend called me and asked me to make a bracelet I’d made for another friend’s birthday. I thought, why don’t I charge her for it and give the money to the charity? That’s how the idea formed. Why don’t I make it a really personal give?
So, I came up with this idea of the health bracelet. It gave 65 meals to one child and it was a really simple pendant with, at the time, a wax cord. I’d sell it for $30. It would show my friends that so little goes a long way, and they’d have something tangible to show for it – this bracelet. And it worked really well. Then I thought, they need school supplies, books, uniforms, and help with salary for qualified teachers. It grew from there. It started with the extreme need and grew into a business.
What’s been the most difficult part of running Fortuned Culture?
For me, it’s been design. Because it started as a charity, the bracelets and necklaces are all supposed to be a part of a message. You wear it, and you’re telling a story of what you’re giving. These last couple of weeks have been kind of cool because I’ve run into people I don’t know and they tell me what the jewelry is for. And that was my point. I wanted them to talk about the children and the charities. With that, I also want to make it accessible for people to buy and give to their friends. So I made everything unisex, made everything one size fits all, and I tried to keep my price points really low, because I don’t want to exclude anyone. That’s really difficult when you’re designing new pieces. You have to make it for guys and girls. So a guy with a big wrist and a girl with a smaller wrist can both wear it and not look ridiculous.
What have you learned from this venture?
I’ve learned that so many people have really good hearts. Being, myself, from a third world country and Los Angeles and traveling between the two, I knew people wanted to do good. In founding this company, I’ve just come across people who have such huge hearts and want to help. That’s been such an inspiring realization. So many people want to do well for others and that’s been the most exciting development.
How did your relationship with TOMS develop and how has their structure informed or helped you with Fortuned Culture’s operation?
TOMS has been amazing. A couple of the employees were wearing necklaces and bracelets around the office. It was great because a few of the girls that worked there were buying pieces for gifts. I got an email asking if I would come in and meet with them. At the time, they weren’t saying it was Marketplace because it’s a huge undertaking for them. I told them what I did and they take it so seriously. They really look into your giving, your numbers, where you make the jewelry, and the materials you use. I mean, TOMS has worked so hard to make a good brand, they really want to make sure whoever they give the stamp of approval to is ethically in line with them.
They’ve been so supportive. Everyone there has been really fantastic.
What’s your process when selecting future beneficiaries?
This is the thing that I probably spend the most time on. The first charity (The Fregenet Foundation) I’d worked with for years. The second, Corazon de Vida, I’d worked with for a long time as well. A lot of my close friends had been very involved – going (to Mexico) multiple times a year. They were both super close to me and I knew both founders very well. The founders have inspired me so much. I just thought, I have to help and get their stories out.
I do it based on the founder, the charity, their cause, and then also on their giving. Both charities, and I have a couple more coming up for spring and summer, give me all of their numbers. I need to see what and how they give. If I’m going to bring a charity on board, I’ve done all the research for you and I’m co-signing it. I’m saying, this charity gives a huge amount of donations towards their cause and the founders are on-site working with the children. Vetting takes the most time by far. I go on site and meet with the founders. It literally takes me 6 months to make sure that this charity is the right cause.
Ultimately, what’s your hope for Fortuned Culture, and what do you need to make that happen?
My dream, and it’s a very visual concept, is to be able to go to the website, click on shop, and I want there to be hundreds of flags (now there are two for Mexico and Ethiopia). You can click and see hundreds of countries, go to the country you want, and find a charity associated with it.
The whole idea of a “Fortuned Culture” is to get as many cultures involved in this movement as possible. I’ve always been a fan the motto “one world.” I like the idea of having a place where all these countries come together and help each other. Each country will have a new charity and a new collection.
Any advice for entrepreneurs looking to make a social impact?
Start with your passion. For me, my mom’s family is within blocks of the non-profit that we’re working with in Ethiopia. So it was super close to me. I knew the kids very well and that was my passion. Starting a business or charity is hard. It’s alot of work. So, you have to be super passionate about it. If the cause is close to your heart, you’re going to make it happen. If not, you’re going to quit. I know the moments where I wanted to quit, the only reason I kept going was because I knew these children. I knew they needed certain things. I couldn’t let it be that they wouldn’t get these things because I quit. You have to be connected to the cause and the people who will benefit. Make it something that you’re super passionate about.
I am thankful that I was able, by a crazy series of events, to be raised in the United States. When I was born, I was the only one of my cousins who was not born in Ethiopia. So, I feel like that twist of fate is such a source of gratitude for me and why I feel I need to give back. There’s a reason why I was born here and my family is in East Africa. I’m thankful to have the opportunities I have. We’re so blessed here. We live in a land where you’re able to do whatever your heart desires, and that’s not true in most places.
If you’re looking for a fabulous gift idea for this holiday season, be sure to visit Fortuned Culture. This is another chance to change the way you shop.
For more about TOMS Marketplace: