Starting a company with a cause
By Connie Mabin
By Connie Mabin
AKRON, Ohio — The tiny beads look delicate: shades of pale pink, blue and green hand strung and sewn together to form dainty straps for lingerie.
But they're stronger than they appear, much like the women who spend hours hand making them in South America for Strappity-do-da. The fledgling business is a labor of love started by a woman desperate to help her husband's family get out of poverty in Colombia, a developing nation with a bloody, violent history marked by drug running and guerrillas.
From her home in Bath Township, Ohio, Shelli Styles has joined a growing number of entrepreneurs with a purpose beyond profit.
Starbucks buys fair-trade coffee to ensure producers get adequate pay, and supermarket chain Giant Eagle sells herbal teas marketed by a company that sends money back to its African producers. A number of Web sites sell socially conscious goods, from chocolate made with rain forest-grown cocoa to hot sauce made in Tibet, and whose sale benefits poor children in the Himalayas.
Styles' mission is more personal: She aims to educate and empower the struggling women in her husband's homeland.
"The whole reason that we're doing this is to build the women up, starting in this one little community and to grow that out," she said.
The operation began last summer, when Styles asked her sister-in-law in Cali, Colombia, to help fix a fashion flub — bra straps that show under tank tops and other shoulder-baring shirts.
A master of beadwork, the woman took a half-hour to make two adjustable beaded straps that could be attached to a strapless bra with built-in tabs. The straps are meant to be shown.
Styles, 42, wore them on the flight home and was stopped several times by women who wanted to know where she bought them.
Styles had been haunted by Colombia's poverty for years. In Cali, a city of 1.6 million, her sister-in-law's home overlooked a river filled with sewage, garbage and rats.
But in the straps, Styles suddenly saw the chance to change things, at least for a few women.
Since then, Web and trade show orders have steadily grown. Styles' husband, Octavio Gaviria, and an employee help pack $29.99 pairs into tiny white boxes to fill Internet orders, and the straps sell in some high-end boutiques. So far, they've sold about 2,000 pairs.
Each box has a tiny card that explains Styles' effort, also explained on her Web site. She wraps the tale of her mission to help the family in every sales pitch, including online: "Their spirit lit a fire under me to find a way to help."
Now, Styles and partner Christine Kett are trying to get the attention of a large retailer such as Victoria's Secret.
Styles, a lifelong saleswoman of everything from orthopedic shoes to makeup, said the beaded straps are easy to sell because customers want to support her cause.
From major corporations like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. to mom-and-pop operations like Styles', changing the world is increasingly becoming part of business plans, said David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Cooperrider, who heads the Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western, has been studying corporate social responsibility since the 1980s.
While doing good can help companies market products or services, Cooperrider said studies show it also has become a trait many consumers seek out when making purchases.
"Customers will invest and make choices based on the positive ecological and human impact that these businesses have," he said.
The key for entrepreneurs like Styles is to do a good job telling the story of the problem they are trying to solve and how sales benefit the workers, sell products unique to the region they come from and keep prices competitive, said Boston College management professor Sandra Waddock. A visiting scholar at Harvard University, Waddock has studied the issue of social responsibility in business and is co-founder of the Leadership for Change Program.
"People want their money to go to something good," Waddock said. "But they don't necessarily want to spend a lot of it and some people can't afford to spend a lot."