CEO Joy McBrien of Fair Anita is beating the sales plan, you might say.
Fair Anita merchandises jewelry and fashion made by disadvantaged women through artisan collectives in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
McBrien, 28, is a University of Minnesota business school graduate and was a finalist in the social enterprise category of the Minnesota Cup entrepreneurial sweepstakes in 2014.
She expects to post sales of $500,000 this year. In early 2015, she projected, modestly, that she would only hit $350,000 in 2018.
“We’re a profitable business, not a charity,” said McBrien, who, after consulting with her accountant, hopes to raise her draw to $30,000 or so this year from just $6,000 last year.
McBrien, who lives with her parents to save money when she is in the Twin Cities, also was able to quit a part-time job. She’s added an operations manager and a couple of part-time employees. Her mom is a volunteer at the rent-free office at Colonial Church in Edina.
“Joy has incredible passion for her cause and the women she represents and she has wonderful products. And the customers love them and to learn about the women who make them,” said Jason Phillips, a CPA and Colonial Church member who advises McBrien. “Joy also puts her money where her mouth is. She pays for half the orders when she places the orders. She pays the rest when the [makers] send it. Growing is hard when you buy your inventory well ahead of when you get paid [retail] by your customers. She’s kept that focus on the women, her suppliers. At her own personal expense.”
McBrien, a victim of sexual assault while a student, had intended to start an organization for women to overcome sexual violence. The Fair Anita idea came to McBrien while on a self-designed study-abroad trip to Chimbote, Peru. It wasn’t exactly a bank internship.
McBrien helped a social worker named “Anita” to start a safe house for women who had been abused or shunned because of disabilities. She spent three summers in a patriarchal region where two-thirds of women report domestic abuse.
“But these women … weren’t behaving as victims,” McBrien said in 2015. “They are leaders of families and communities. They persevere.
“And there was a clear need for economic opportunity. The women [said] if they were earning [an] income, they could potentially leave an abusive partner or at least be seen as having worth in their homes. Then, the abuse levels tend to go down. They use the money to care for their children.”
McBrien recalled that she was impelled to start a business that would create “dignified jobs.”
McBrien, who also has worked in retail, has an eye for what the women can make and sell. It also helped that Sunrise Banks issued McBrien a $25,000 line of credit this year that helped smooth cash-flow issues.
Last year, Fair Anita provided thousands in income to artisans in collectives in a dozen countries, including Peru, India, Ethiopia, Chile, Egypt, Guatemala and Ecuador. Fair Anita sells scarves, necklaces, earrings, purses, shirts and dresses. Prices range from $18 to $65.
McBrien is proud of the women, some of whom taught one another sewing and jewelry making. They have succeeded in achieving some measure of independence by cracking the U.S. market, albeit modestly.
Fair Anita achieves 50 percent of its sales through a network of 150 independent retailers in 32 states who sell fair-trade products; 30 percent at art fairs and pop-up shops, and 20 percent online at fairanita.com.
McBrien has been honored by industry, human rights organizations and the Obama administration’s conference on the “United States of Women,” and even participated in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s conference on overcoming social and economic exclusion, also attended by Pope Francis.
She and her small staff work closely with the artisan groups on design and business development.
McBrien has plowed back thousands of dollars in profits and awards and speaker fees she has earned into growing the business.
She is motivated by “Ana,” a Chilean woman she met in a Santiago slum who was earning a bare existence selling jewelry on the street. Fair Anita now is Ana’s distributor and worked with her to establish an art cooperative.
“Ana was selling on the streets of Santiago,” McBrien said. “We have helped her earn several thousand dollars. That’s [big] money.”
Best wishes for record holiday sales to the global stakeholders of Fair Anita.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.