“Raven + Lily was born out of my love of design and my passion to empower women out of poverty.”
Today on the blog, we have Kirsten Dickerson, founder of Raven+Lily (an ethical, artisan, clothing, jewelry, accessory line) and future Yellow Conference 2016 speaker (yes. You heard right: 2016!!), sharing about her journey with a company of great design and purpose. We are inspired and excited about Raven+Lily’s work. Here’s what we learned from her…
First, their story (in a nutshell):
I have a dual background in art direction/styling for commercials and music videos as well as 20+ years of experience volunteering and leading various local and global non profit efforts among the poor, namely focusing on women and children. These two passions didn’t seem to blend well, so I often felt like I was changing gears with no clutch! However, in 2007 I led a group of 10 friends from Hollywood to explore ways we could build long term partnerships with 3 non profits I loved in India. On that trip I saw the emerging trend of training women in design skills, and the seed for starting Raven + Lily was planted in my heart. For the past 8 years that seed has taken root and continues to grow!
The women in our global design partnerships inspire me more than anything in the world. Their beauty, grace, and resilience is incredible. I love sharing their stories and I love that our collections reflect their beauty and culture.
When Mother Teresa was still alive, I volunteered at one of her missions in Calcutta. I studied her life and read her books during that summer. It was life changing.
Every good thing takes time and process.
The design process is one of my favorite parts of Raven + Lily ! We currently have 15 long term artisan partnerships in 8 different countries, including the US. We design to the skills of the women and utilize the local, eco friendly materials in their community that compliment their skills. Each season we start with a color story and theme that leads to developing a cohesive collection throughout all our design partnerships. For example, we have seasonal graphics that are used on our recycled cotton paper in India, our up cycled jersey apparel in Cambodia, as well as our batik prints from Malaysia. We always start with a neutral palette and then add pops of color through a few of our partnerships (such as embroidery from Pakistan or beaded jewelry from the Maasai in Kenya). The colors and graphic patterns help us create unique approach to each season. Even though each group represents a different part of our collection, there is an overall connection and story being told through both the incredible stories of the women as well as the designs we are presenting for that season.
Build a strong team.
The process involves many members both locally and globally. I have a talented in-house Design Manager who I work closely with on the development of each collection. She oversees all our apparel partnerships from concept, to pattern, to sampling. Its very labor intensive! She also coordinates our work with contracted designers for our jewelry, leather bag, and graphic design collections. We then have a Director of International Production that communicates all the new sampling requests as well as our orders for all our artisan groups. She communicates with the director of our artisan partnership who is our main point person for that artisan group (many of the artisans do not speak English nor have access to email, etc. The Artisan Director is really the key to having a successful partnership with that group of women. She/he has to be an advocate for the women to ensure they are meeting the holistic, fair trade expectations but they also have to understand high quality, timeliness, and scalability.) Then, in each region we have a contracted Regional Production Manager who makes sure everything goes as expected once we send our orders. That person works with our artisan partnerships on the field as needed to ensure the proper materials and designs are developed to meet the quality and standards necessary for a successful collection. It is quite a process that takes the time and talents of many amazing women. We work hard to help train our partnerships where they need support to thrive and grow with us to empower more women. The artisans work hard to deliver their very best work. They are so proud to know that women love to buy and wear the items they are making. We are so proud of them for the ways they have improved and developed their skills through the years.
The artisans work hard to deliver their very best work. They are so proud to know that women love to buy and wear the items they are making. We are so proud of them for the ways they have improved and developed their skills through the years.
Keep learning. ALWAYS keep learning.
[Social media and technology] is an area that is constantly changing and evolving for us. We are still learning our voice and how to best utilize technology and social media. We have found that certain customers use different types of platforms now, so we have to think about how to communicate effectively through each platform. We are also always looking for ways to improve our website and our systems as we grow. It feels like growing pains often as we have been growing quickly the past 2 years. Its an exciting time, but we find it necessary to look for experts and people ahead of us to help us know how what steps to take next. While many on our team are mentoring emerging social businesses and leaders, we are also looking to those who can guide and mentor us!
It feels like growing pains often as we have been growing quickly the past 2 years. Its an exciting time, but we find it necessary to look for experts and people ahead of us to help us know how what steps to take next.
Develop your own brand and style.
We started with just jewelry and gifts representing 2 partnerships (one in India and one in Ethiopia). The vision to empower women through design has not changed, but the ways to accomplish that have improved and expanded greatly. We have really come a long way from some of our initial design ideas. We’ve better defined our look and branding as time has gone by and we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. Overall, I think of Raven + Lily as a modern bohemian style…more minimal in approach with a love of mid century and Moroccan design creeping into most collections. You could see that instantly if you ever come to visit our storefront or studio in Austin, Texas. I think the key has been to work with really talented designers to help us make the most of the skills the women have in each artisan group. We start small and then grow as the women are able to grow in skill and scalability. We’ve also expanded into leather bags, apparel, and soon home decor! The possibilities are endless really. I love that there are so many talented women, and I love that as our company grows we can develop new partnerships to help provide sustainable employment for the women in that culture. We look for artisans who are using techniques and materials that are unique and would compliment our current partnerships. All the women are connected and the success of one partnerships helps us launch new ones.
Obstacles will come.
I think the biggest obstacles have been to figure out the right timing for expanding our company. That has always meant hiring the right people and taking on investors or other types of funding as we hit different stages as a business. I’ve made some mistakes in this area and had a few set backs because of these mistakes. However, I’m feeling more confident as we’ve hit a new level of growth this year, and I have a fantastic team, valuable mentors, and dedicated investors. Raising funds and growing the company has definitely taken away from the creative side at times. The creative and relational aspects of Raven + Lily are what really energize and feed me, but the CEO role currently requires that I do the other necessary business aspects as we grow and scale. Finding the right kind of investors that can add value to your company (not just $) is so important! When you are a social business, you really need stakeholders who care about the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. I want to be profitable because that means we will have a greater impact for good on people and the planet. It all works together and as CEO I’m looking for like-minded people to help make this possible (that includes our customers, the R+L team, and investors)!
When you are a social business, you really need stakeholders who care about the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.
Stick to your values:
Our highest value is to make a positive impact on people and the planet in all aspects of our company. We haven’t been perfect at this, but its our mission to know the answers to the hard questions behind all our designs: who made this and how has this affected our planet. We are a registered and certified B corporation. That means we are held legally accountable to achieve our mission and prove the ethics of our company through an intense audit. We take our mission seriously and are deeply committed to the values we share as a company.
We haven’t been perfect at this, but its our mission to know the answers to the hard questions behind all our designs: who made this and how has this affected our planet.
Its very exciting to see that the words “ethical fashion” are becoming more mainstream and there is a new movement towards “slow fashion” just like their has been over the past 10-15 years with “slow food.” We are happy to be part of this movement and one of the brands committed to making a positive impact in the world. We recently helped host a screening of the “True Cost” documentary in Austin. I hope everyone will see this when it comes out on Netflix. It will make you think differently about fashion forever. Its a necessary film to really be the catalyst to grow this movement towards ethical fashion.
We’ve also learned that the women really want us to focus on the positive aspect of their stories.
They wanted to be honored in how we share about their life, so we work hard to make sure we are empowering and not exploiting the way we talk about the women and interact with them. They are our sisters, so we want to have a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship. We are also a business, so we set high standards and expectations on both sides to evaluate how to improve our business partnership and grow together. We do a yearly impact report with each artisan partnership, and we also visit each partnership at least once a year to do in person interviews about the women, the business, and the future of our partnership. During these visits we get updates on their stories as well as work on new designs and source new local eco-friendly materials for our collections.
And always be on the move.
So many of the women’s skills lend naturally towards home decor textiles and table top items. We are starting with a few textiles in Fall/Holiday 2015 and then expanding in to much more in 2016!