News

14Feb
Blog

People laughed at my business idea. Now I run a global brand.

When I started soleRebels many people laughed and said I was crazy. “Your plan is to remake the barabasso into a global footwear brand leveraging the artisan talents in THAT community? What kind of business idea is that?”

To tell you the truth, sometimes I felt like we were crazy.

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By Bethlehem Alemu - soleRebels / Garden of Coffee | Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women

When I started soleRebels many people laughed and said I was crazy. “Your plan is to remake the barabasso* into a global footwear brand leveraging the artisan talents in THAT community? What kind of business idea is that?”

To tell you the truth, sometimes I felt like we were crazy.

You see, I grew up in two worlds. The world that I knew of - one of rich culture, creativity and skill, and the world that society told me I was part of - one of poverty, incompetence and hopelessness.

I was born and raised in the Zenabwork/Total suburb of Addis Ababa, one of the most impoverished and marginalized communities of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, I grew up steeped inside Ethiopia’s rich artisan heritages. I saw my mom hand spinning raw cotton into fine threads that were then used by our talented family members to hand-weave into amazing textiles like Gabbis** and Netallas***. I saw her hand-picking coffee beans for our ancient coffee ceremony and roasting them into the most amazing elixirs I have ever sipped. I saw my family and neighbors constantly creating and improvising inside these cultures. And yet, Ethiopia had plenty of charity “brands”, but not a single global brand of our own.

With all the incredible culture, history and talent around me, how was it that we were receiving charity instead of benefitting from our own talent and resources?

So I set out to change that. I knew that my project had to be truly business-oriented to overcome the complacency and dependency charity had created. I wanted to give our community the opportunity to feel the pride that comes with financing ourselves instead of waiting for handouts. In early 2005, fresh out of college in Addis Ababa, I founded my footwear company soleRebels to provide solid community-based jobs. Tapping into our community’s and the nation's rich artisan wealth and heritages, I started re-imagining what footwear could be.

People kept telling me that I must be crazy. Nothing world-class had ever emerged from our community. What did I know about shoes anyway? I was scared. I didn’t have anything backing me up if I failed. I was from this community and I needed to make this work as much as the people I was working with.

And so, I set up a workshop on my grandmother’s plot in the village of Zenabework with five other workers. Despite the humble surroundings, we had a grand idea and vision.

We aimed from day one to create, grow and control a world-class footwear brand that would craft creative and comfortable footwear while generating more jobs and growing prosperity for our workers; and all this from our own community by leveraging its artisan skills and the natural resources of the nation. We wanted to show people that it is possible to be local and at the same time globally successful. Our vision created an intoxicating sense of motivation and ambition among our team who stayed rack focused on creating something world class. I am proud to say that since 2005, we have been building strong, vibrant, creative communities by delivering world-class footwear.

But why is our story so important? I believe that the best road to true and lasting prosperity lies in communities that produce world class products that leverage local talents and resources. Ethiopia, and Africa in general, desperately needs more trade and not aid or charity. Only then, with sufficient financial resources evenly spread, can we begin to bask in the self-satisfaction that comes from financing the solutions to our own problems and not having them financed from outside.

So here we are. They laughed and we scaled our brand. Pair by pair we became the first ever direct to consumer brand to emerge from a developing nation – selling our brand via ecommerce before ecommerce was huge, and opening branded retail stores around the world.

So when they laugh, pull that knot out of your stomach and let it be your strength.
When they laugh, let that tingling sensation, that one that might tip you over into tears, turn into a torrent of power that courses through your mind and body and soul.
When they laugh, TURN away and DO THAT BIG THING they laughed about.

When people tell you to stop dreaming big, stop and remember that girl from a small neighborhood no one ever heard or cared about. Then smile, turn around and dream EVEN BIGGER than before. Then go and make that dream real.

* the traditional used tire sandal
** Ethiopian Blankets
*** Ethiopian Shawls


soleRebels www.solerebels.com | Garden of Coffee www.gardenofcoffee.com
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07Feb
Blog

Forget Perfect: Get Off Your Own Back and Own Your “Enoughness”

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If you’re like many women I meet, you’re probably pretty tough on yourself and often focus on what you haven’t done, or didn’t totally nail, versus all that you have done and did nail!

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By Margie Warrell - Bestselling Author | Founding CEO, Global Courage | Forbes Columnist

Many women can be exceptionally self-critical; often far harder on themselves than on anyone else. It’s why, despite our best intentions to be our ‘best selves’ we often feel we’ve fallen far short of them. If you relate in any way, you’re not alone.

In fact, you’re in the company of a legion of amazing women who often feel they don’t measure up on some parameter; that they are not enough in some way.

Not successful enough… organized enough…confident enough… slim enough… talented enough…experienced enough…thoughtful enough… capable enough.

Let’s face it, we live in a society that bombards us 24/7 with messages, urging us to live up to some idealised image of success, brilliance, beauty and got-it-all-togetherness. And while most women intellectually understand that no one can be at their best all the time, we are masters at using our fallen moments as a baton to beat up on ourselves. (If you’re a working mother, double it!)

It’s why the best self-help must always begin with self-compassion; accepting that no matter how hard we may try to be forever generous-spirited or brave-hearted or ‘insert-virtue-here’, we will inevitably fall short.

And that’s okay.

Research has found that it’s not self-esteem or optimism that helps people handle life’s challenges best, it’s self-compassion. It may sound counter intuitive, but when we are kind to ourselves, embracing our fallibility and accepting our flaws, we don’t lower the bar and retreat to our couch to binge on ice cream. In fact, just the opposite! We expand our capacity for action, connection and contribution and recover faster from life’s myriad of hardships and disappointments.

So if you often feel like you are not measuring up and have grown a little (or lot) jaded by the endless advice on how to be your ‘best self’, my best advice (yes, no irony lost there) is to cut yourself some slack, get off your own back and give yourself permission to be fabulous and fallible, innately worthy and wholly imperfect…. All at the same time.

My last six months have been fertile ground for practicing self-compassion and embracing my own fallibility. During that time, I’ve packed up my life in Australia – teenage children in tow – and replanted in Singapore. Let me assure you, I’ve had more than my usual share of fallen and decidedly ‘uncomposed’ moments where I’ve felt anything but my ‘best self.’

Yet, as challenging as some days have been (and there’s been many… just ask my husband whose career has brought us here), I’ve come to appreciate that our greatest growth and deepest fulfilment doesn’t flow from the parts of us that are flawless or the times when life is easy. Instead, it flows from the parts of us that we’ve been wrestling with our entire life and that dial up a notch or ten when plans go awry or life presses in on us (like moving country with teenagers). It is embracing our raw moments that makes us real, relatable and allows us to forge the most authentic connections with others.

Life has taught me that we are not so much human beings as ‘human becomings.’ It’s in the space of giving up on perfection that we open a window to a deeper dimension of living in which we can experience more moments of genuine joy, connection, gratitude and fulfilment.

Just imagine what possibilities could open up for you if, every day (or just as often as you can manage it), you stepped out into the world with the deep knowing that you don’t have to be more or less of anything in order to be ‘enough’ — to be ready enough, good enough, successful enough, smart enough, worthy enough.

Imagine, if instead of continually striving to be the woman you think you should be, you embraced the innate adequacy of the woman you already are?

As the most pressing problems in our world seem to grow larger, it’s vital that we stop talking ourselves down and waiting until we feel we are ready enough, deserving enough, brave enough before we dare to try. By being as kind to ourselves as we are to others we liberate ourselves of the perpetual need to impress or prove or please.

So back yourself more, doubt yourself less and get off your own back. Not only because the best self-help is self-compassion, but because when you embrace your humanity and choose to show up as the ‘flawsome’ human becoming that you are, you give others permission to do the same. What greater gift there is?

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04Nov
Blog

Maternova’s Zika fashion solution

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How an ingenious fashion solution is revolutionizing Zika treatment

Maternova was founded by Meg Wirth, 2011 Cartier Awards finalist from the United States and has since brought on Allyson Cote as cofounder. Maternova combats maternal mortality in childbirth with a web-based marketplace for products, tools and information and by aiding clinicians in the field.

By Leah Hardenbergh - Intern at Maternova, Inc.

Maternova is a marketplace for maternal and newborn health innovations. If there is one word to summarize working in the sphere of maternal health, it is dynamic. The issues we address are vast and constantly evolving with the changing health risks worldwide for mothers and newborns. Due to the nature of the industry, we are constantly searching for innovative solutions for the latest threats to mothers. This is what led us to our project currently underway: a line of mosquito-protective clothing to protect mothers and newborns from Zika.

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Maternova was founded by Meg Wirth, 2011 Cartier Awards finalist from the United States and has since brought on Allyson Cote as cofounder. Maternova combats maternal mortality in childbirth with a web-based marketplace for products, tools and information and by aiding clinicians in the field.

By Leah Hardenbergh - Intern at Maternova, Inc.

Maternova is a marketplace for maternal and newborn health innovations. If there is one word to summarize working in the sphere of maternal health, it is dynamic. The issues we address are vast and constantly evolving with the changing health risks worldwide for mothers and newborns. Due to the nature of the industry, we are constantly searching for innovative solutions for the latest threats to mothers. This is what led us to our project currently underway: a line of mosquito-protective clothing to protect mothers and newborns from Zika.

WHO declared Zika a public health emergency in February of 2016. It has since been proven that the Zika virus is the cause of microcephaly and other severe brain defects in infants. Active Zika virus transmission by mosquitos has occurred in Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands. Person-to-person transmission and other cases of Zika have been reported in a number of additional countries and regions. Zika is a general public health threat, but with its especially profound effects on pregnant women and newborns, we knew we had to dive in and act fast.

The first step was to research existing options for Zika protection for women. We found a number of solutions in different phases of development, including ways to trap mosquitos, set up bed nets for protection, spray around the household, use personal liquid repellents, and develop a vaccine.

While a variety of approaches exist, there are shortcomings and gaps in full coverage. Vaccines do not emerge overnight, and we did not want to sit around and wait for one to be developed, tested, and distributed. Personal liquid repellents are expensive and give off a strong odor, which discourages use. Bed nets and household sprays have promise, but can only protect women in their own homes. But what about the rest of the time? Women in poor areas of Brazil, Colombia, and other countries where Zika is emerging spend much of their time outside the home, including selling products in the market and washing clothes in the rivers. What novel mechanisms could be employed to offer protection?

Then we thought: mosquito-protective clothing! It is the perfect way to protect women outside the home in day-to-day life. So, we went back to researching to see what was out there that we could bring into the Maternova portfolio.

Much to our dismay, the options were scarce. Out of the few things we did end up finding, none of it seemed like clothing women would actually choose to wear (unless they were dressing up as a beekeeper or astronaut). Our solution? Create our own line of clothing to protect pregnant women from Zika.

The underlying force of our product is mosquito-repelling nanotechnology that is embedded in the fabric. The nanotechnology binds the repellent in a molecular structure that keeps it active for longer, meaning it can withstand 50 washings without losing effectiveness. It is environmentally friendly and proven safe for pregnant women. With a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, we were able to set up a clinical trial in Eastern El Salvador to test the use of this fabric, through a program where Zika mother kits were already being distributed.

Meanwhile, we are working with a Brazilian designer whose hometown was hit especially hard by Zika. She is designing pieces that can be adjusted throughout pregnancy. Most importantly, this is protective clothing that women actually want to wear. A garment that is stylish, comfortable, and protects you and your baby from disease – what more could you ask for? These pieces will be distributed anywhere and everywhere for women at any level of risk at any stage in their reproductive journey.

We are excited by the potential of this project for mothers and newborns everywhere. At Maternova, we are always striving for practical solutions for threats to maternal and newborn health, and cannot wait to see where this path leads. Although this began as a reaction to Zika, the scope of the effects are not limited to Zika – any mosquito-borne illness could be addressed with this innovative solution. We hope that you will continue on this journey with us to see how far this can go in the dynamic world of maternal and newborn health!

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09Aug
Blog

The skill of asking questions for customer interviewing

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8 practical guidelines to prepare for a customer interview

By Mary Cronin - Cartier Women's Initiative Awards coach and CEO of Thousand Seeds

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." Voltaire
Asking and framing questions is a skill. There are many benefits derived from good questioning techniques. By asking the right questions we can gather the maximum amount of information in a shorter timeframe and assess what is going on more effectively. As part of developing our business and doing customer development we want to understand customer problems and needs as opposed to pitching "our" solutions'.

When preparing for a customer interview prepare about 5 questions. The estimated interview time should be about 30-40 minutes. Be clear about the purpose before you start i.e. is it a problem assessing or a solution interview? Here are 8 guidelines.

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By Mary Cronin - Cartier Women's Initiative Awards coach and CEO of Thousand Seeds

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." Voltaire
Asking and framing questions is a skill. There are many benefits derived from good questioning techniques. By asking the right questions we can gather the maximum amount of information in a shorter timeframe and assess what is going on more effectively. As part of developing our business and doing customer development we want to understand customer problems and needs as opposed to pitching "our" solutions'.

When preparing for a customer interview prepare about 5 questions. The estimated interview time should be about 30-40 minutes. Be clear about the purpose before you start i.e. is it a problem assessing or a solution interview? Here are 8 guidelines.

1. Ask open-ended questions
Open questions deliberately look for longer answers. They require the customer to think, reflect and give opinions. 'What' questions are more effective and less intrusive when you need to ask a series of questions. 'What', 'how', 'describe' helps us to probe and understand the problem in more depth. Keep questions short and unbiased. Don't embed the answer into your question e.g.:
- What are the main challenges you face?
- Describe the first time you became aware of this problem?
A closed question can be answered with a single word, short phrase e.g.:
- Did you like our product? Answer could be yes or no
- How is our product working out? An answer could be 'fine'
Avoid these, as you are not getting any valuable information. They also can make your customer feel as if they are being interrogated.

2. Practice active-listening
To sit in the seat of our customers and understand their problems, we need to actively listen: the customer should be doing 90% of the talking. In customer interviews we want to listen, which is a difficult task as opposed to pitching our ideas or solutions. Listen and observe what people don't say.

3. Avoid telling, counseling or interrupting
Avoid saying to your customers "Have you tried?" or "Let me tell you?". More than likely they have tried the obvious solutions. A simple, open question, that gathers information example is "What have you tried to solve this problem?"

4. Understand the power of silence
Silence is a great communicator. It gives both people time to think. Don't rush to fill the space. This is a valuable skill that can be learned. By listening and being present as opposed to thinking about what you want to say next, you're in a better position to understand. Get comfortable with silence.

5. Ask follow-up questions
Drill down and follow up comments with "tell me or "describe". Often you don't get to the real challenges or the root cause of issues until you drill down. This is also known as the 'Five Why's'. This is one of the Toyota techniques now used in Lean Startup. Asking 'why' five times. A better way is to see it as a learning opportunity. Avoid the temptation to comment on everything.

6. Be specific in your questions
General questions can lack context, hence they are not met with the same energy. Make questions more specific. Focus on examples and a more recent time frame and you will get more valuable actionable information that you can derive insight from. A characteristic of better questions is specificity. By moving from general to specific, you generate a higher level of engagement with the listener. Specific questions often cause more thoughtful and detailed responses which is necessary to gain the INSIGHT you are hoping to get.

7. Be aware that people may not tell you their information in a sequential way
They may jump around so you will have to piece it together later.

8. Discerning Information and Knowledge to gain customer Insights
Information is just many bits of data.
Knowledge is putting all the data together.
Wisdom is transcending this information and knowledge to gain INSIGHTS. As well as the information and knowledge from the interview we want to gain INSIGHT – have "aha" moments.
To do this you need ask incisive questions, use active listening skills and read between the lines. If you don't, you can be led into a false sense that your product or service is doing a good job. By digging deep for specific examples of satisfaction and frustration you can determine the real standards you are being measured against and then you can develop a strategy to meet those.
Your customers are a great source of information. They can help you improve your business, gain a better understanding of your market and the competition, and bring you referrals. If you already talk to your customers, that's great. That's smart. If not, you need to.
Are you asking insightful questions to your customers?

If you would like to know more email me on mary@thousandseeds.com or keep in touch through twitter @marylcronin @thousandseeds.

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09Aug
Blog

What is your growth strategy?

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How are you creating growth in your business?

By Mary Cronin - Cartier Women's Initiative Awards coach and CEO of Thousand Seeds

Lean thinking, customer development and business model innovation frameworks are transforming how new products are built and how growth strategies are developed. These help organisations design products that customers need.
Lean offers ways to cut work time and eliminate waste whether you are an established or an early stage business. Customer development takes a customer-centric approach to understanding customer needs and problems. The term ‘business model’ means the design of a business. Business model innovation (BMI) looks at how a business reinvents itself in order gain competitive edge and stimulate growth. An important part of business design involves being customer-centric.

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By Mary Cronin - Cartier Women's Initiative Awards coach and CEO of Thousand Seeds

Lean thinking, customer development and business model innovation frameworks are transforming how new products are built and how growth strategies are developed. These help organisations design products that customers need.
Lean offers ways to cut work time and eliminate waste whether you are an established or an early stage business. Customer development takes a customer-centric approach to understanding customer needs and problems. The term ‘business model’ means the design of a business. Business model innovation (BMI) looks at how a business reinvents itself in order gain competitive edge and stimulate growth. An important part of business design involves being customer-centric.

Many businesses focus on products and solutions versus understanding the problem they are solving for customers. Competition is not just about your products but understanding your customers’ needs and your business model.
Steve Blank, the father of Lean start-up, talks about the big idea, which is really simple: “Get outside your building and talk to customers”. This framework is called customer discovery. Talking to customers is nothing new and is a simple concept, but we don’t do enough of it to validate and find new opportunities. Too many assumptions are made about customers’ needs.

These frameworks have different stages and characteristics including: 

- Understand what is the problem you’re solving and for whom

- Establish a series of core hypotheses
 and validate assumptions
- Determine the product/market fit
- Build a minimum viable product
- Feedback, insight and rapid iterations based on data and metrics are key

In practice, talking to customers is hard. There is a big difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. Customers may tell you they are excited about your product, but their buying behavior might be different. Actions speak louder than words. Customers don’t always know what they don’t know, so it’s through observation that ‘insight’ is gained. Customers asked Henry Ford for faster horses but created the car. He applied ‘insight’.
The path for longer-term business survival will be in understanding how you develop growth strategies in your business model. Hence, embracing methodologies like lean, customer development and business model innovation are important.
So, what is your growth strategy?

If you would like to know more email me on mary@thousandseeds.com or keep in touch through twitter @marylcronin @marylcronin.

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