I was inspired to join the Anka Cooperative after serving as a diplomat in Turkey and coming literally face to face with this heartbreaking crisis everyday for two years. Together we have built a sustainable model whereby…
The purchase of ONE RUG will employ and empower ONE REFUGEE for up to ONE YEAR.
Reflecting on the journey of any venture and you realize all the mistakes made, all the pitfalls that should have been avoided, all the time wasted. Maybe we really should have launched six months back, or maybe everything was meant to be and now is our time.
What I do want to spend time reflecting on is how much I learned from this experience and incorporated from the tech and startup communities across the globe.
Defining the problem
The first recorded Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey in early 2012. Earlier this year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined that over 3 million desperate men, women and children have sought refuge in Turkey. This is the population of my hometown of Chicago, Illinois.
What problem would we try to solve? Food? Shelter? Education? Housing? Transportation? It’s completely overwhelming to contemplate all the issues that need solving.
We decided to start with jobs. Jobs give refugees a dignified way to support their families and a sense of purpose. In addition, excess time leads to idle hands — leads to increased risk of extremism — leads to … really bad things.
I had heard that the entire carpet weaving industry of Pakistan grew out of the Afghan refugee camps in the 80’s, and Turkey has an excellent tradition of weaving fine carpets — I thought this could be a place to start. I partnered with an American company who has been producing high quality carpets in Southeast Turkey for over 35 years. And my co-founder already had experience working in refugee camps.
People ask me, “Isn’t your project just a drop in the ocean given the massive crises facing Syrian refugees?” Yes, in a sense. But like any startup, we have to find traction first and then scale. The Empowerment through Employment model is one that can be easily replicated to other locations and other social enterprises. My hope is that this model grows to make a difference in the lives of thousands in dire need.
Making progress (and avoiding shiny objects)
As a talk-thinker, or think-talker, I find it helpful to have a sounding board for ideas. I spent months talking with people about our project. So many constituencies wanted to support and contribute, but soon they would ask the inevitable questions: “This sounds great, but where is your website? When is your launch?”
Our team of volunteers works in 5 countries and was looking for leadership. I struggled to provide that from 7000 miles and 8 time zones away. And if you think social enterprises are immune to shiny objects — “Ooh a new Slack Plugin!” — think again.
We got distracted by what XYZ celebrity said about a cause, and whether we should hire another lawyer to check on our first lawyer. We wondered if we should be applying for grants, or if we should open a new workshop.
We actually had to ‘lay off’ unpaid volunteers because too many people and ideas became counterproductive to making progress.
We needed to become a lean startup and trim the number of meetings to keep our core team focused on the immediate task. For us, our immediate task was selling rugs and raising awareness about our empowerment model. To do that we needed:
- An ecommerce website
Fundraising vs. bootstrapping
We spent months and thousands on legal fees looking into starting a non-profit. The proposed structure would have required multiple boards and entities set up in different countries — so more paperwork, legal issues, translation, etc. And not once did this get us closer to our immediate objective of sustaining our effort through sales.
I then reviewed our existing inventory closer. We have on hand over 500 rugs made by refugees. The market value of these goods was well over $3 million. We did not need to be chasing $30,000 grants.
We need to position our efforts to be sustainable for the long term. We need to sell. We’re a social enterprise. We’re a For Purpose organization that aims to donate the proceeds from our sales to charities that can reach refugees in a way that we can not.
Knowing when you’re ready to launch
Six months ago I climbed to the top of the diving board and looked down. I realized we weren’t ready, so I made the call to postpone our launch.
This is a tough call for any leader to make. For me, it came down to the pictures — they sucked. We have the best story and copy and website and video editor, etc. But the pictures failed to tell our story and show our products in a visually compelling way.
This turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult problem for us to solve.
We had to find a professional photographer, who spoke English, and was not afraid to enter a refugee camp, and who was a woman. After months of searching we found Elie — An American living in Istanbul. Our new pictures are amazing (you see some of them scattered throughout this post). They capture emotion and drama and hard work. For what we’re doing, this was imperative.
Asking for help
While at CES 2017 I met some guys from Kickstarter — they were immediately supportive, and we were intrigued by how Kickstarter can help organizations like ours. Kickstarter solved two problems for us. First, we could use the money raised to expand. Second, it was just the promotional bump we needed.
But I’ve never launched on Kickstarter before, so we went looking for help. We eventually found the amazingly talented and professional team at Vann Alexandra to help us coordinate our launch.
With six days left in the campaign, things are going wonderfully. We exceeded our $20,000 goal quickly, and passed our stretch goal of $50,000. As of today, we have 558 backers and over $80,000 pledged to help us expand into a third refugee camp and impact the lives of 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Two years after we conceived this project, and several months of work behind us, we’re ready to ship product and impact the lives of thousands. We’d be honored if you would join us.
Are we ready this time? Time to jump into the water and find out!