How to Change the World, with Bethany Tran, The Root Collective

The Root Collective sells comfortable, handmade shoes and accessories that create jobs for people who need them.

Bethany Tran, The Root Collective

Bethany Tran (right), The Root Collective

Bethany Tran, the founder of The Root Collective, knows how hard it can be to start up a business. “Most businesses fail in the first 18 months,” she says. “I think it’s less about money, and more about how much it’s going to rip your guts out.”

Bethany knows something about perseverance. Five years ago, she started a business working with artisans in the poor neighborhood of Colonia La Limonada in Guatemala City. Starting out, she didn’t get it quite right. “When I first launched the business, I tried to do way too much way too soon,” she explains. “I launched with shoes, bags, scarves, jewelry… I was working in Guatemala and Africa.” It was a painful experience. The first 100 pairs of shoes she received did not meet her quality standards. She had to get on a flight and go to Guatemala to confront the artisans she was working with.

“The first 18 months in business showed me the value of the advice I received early on: Do one thing and do it well. I ended up scaling back on the products we sold and stuck with shoes because that’s what was working well for us.”

She continues to persevere through challenges even today. “We have struggled through the challenges of working with small artisan workshops. We’ve had the same quality issues over and over. We’ve had to let go of relationships that couldn’t grow. We’ve had an empty bank account. I’ve wanted to quit regularly. Setbacks are a part of growing a business, and I’ve learned so much about the value of perseverance. Remembering why you started, and why you’re struggling through every day is so important to be able to get out of bed each morning and keep going.”

Bethany shares the biggest insight from her business. “Hard is normal. Being able to perceiver through that, that’s how the world changes.”

“Hard is normal. Being able to perceiver through that, that’s how the world changes.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet

A Heart for Service

Bethany grew up in a lower-middle-class family in eastern Pennsylvania. “My parents instilled a strong Christian faith, where loving our neighbor was a key part of that,” she says. “I was very conscious of right and wrong from an early age. Ethics and morals were something that was instilled in me from birth. I equate my desire for justice in the world to that early sense that wrongs needed to be made right.”

Bethany Tran with shoe maker, Otto

Bethany Tran with shoe maker, Otto

Around the time Bethany was 30 years old, she had what she calls “my second quarter-life crisis.” She was a successful marketing executive working on the 40th floor of a building in downtown Philadelphia. “I was miserable,” she admits. When a friend of hers moved to Guatemala to work in La Limonada, Bethany spontaneously volunteered to visit her. “I’m a person who has to sit and process things,” she says. “I’m a processor. I don’t make snap decisions. And the second she told me she was moving to Guatemala, I said, ‘I’m coming to visit.’ It was immediate. I was supposed to go.”

This trip would change her “It was my first time to come face-to-face with extreme poverty,” she says. “When I made my first trip to La Limonada, I realized very quickly that the traditional model of focusing on education was only a part of the solution to poverty. You could educate a kid all day long, but if there were no job for them, nothing would change. The cycle of poverty continues over and over, from generation to generation, simply because if there’s no job… the problem hasn’t been solved.”

She decided to create jobs by employing artisans and selling products online. She admits that she did not know what she was doing. “I had no background in product development, product design, international development, business administration, or cross-cultural differences. 97% of what I needed to know I learned through doing. It’s still a struggle every day.”

To fund her business, Bethany and her husband drained their savings account. “I have a very supportive husband who allowed me to drain our savings account to get this business started. We’ve managed to stay self-funded for our entire existence, turning a profit every year.”

To get the word out for her new business, she turned to social media. “I looked for existing groups of people who I knew would be interested in our mission and want to be involved and I targeted them on social media through hashtags. This is still a key tactic for us.”

Conscious Consumers Lead the Way

Bethany has tapped into a growing trend in conscious consumption. “We gave a simple story for our customers to tell and share with their friends. Our family of customers love being able to talk about their shoes. They love having that story. They love inspiring other women to be world-changers. Our customers are the only reason we are still here.”

Bethany finds inspiration from her customers. “Watching the light bulb go on for so many women when they realize how much impact they can have with how they spend their money…I’ve watched families change their entire spending habits to be more conscious of where their money is going. I’ve watched women change the world. And that is incredible.”

Watching her customers gives her the inspiration she needs to persevere. “The world needs you to solve that problem that keeps you up at night. It won’t be easy, but it will be so worth it.”

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Bethany Tran:

“We are a footwear company that is dedicated to providing jobs to people who need them.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “It was ten years ago this fall when the wheels started turning.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “The gangs were trying to recruit these kids because they were on their own.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “If there are no jobs for these kids after they graduate, nothing has changed.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “There’s this big hole, and it’s jobs.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I came back from that week, a very different person.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I had left so much of my heart there and just had to be there.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I had made it, according to America’s standards. And I was miserable.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I was sitting in my bed, bawling my eyes out, and thinking ‘I have no excuses anymore.’” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I started working on the things I knew I could do from here.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “One of my biggest rookie mistakes was, I tried to do everything at the beginning.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “Social enterprise wasn’t a common term at the time.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “The shoes took off because they were unique.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I had no idea how technically complicated shoes are.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “As consumers, we’re controlling the world.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “Trillions of dollars are controlled by women.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “Humanizing the fashion industry is so important.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “It’s easy to know how much something costs you, but do you know how much it cost the person who made it?” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “It’s less about money and more about how much it’s going to rip your guts out.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “For a year and a half, I went through my dark night of the soul.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “I’ve learned a lot about what it means to walk through hardship.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “In our age of Pinterest perfect, Instagram perfect, everything has to look beautiful and shiny all the time.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet “Nobody talks about how hard it is.” Bethany Tran, @IHeartTRC Click To Tweet

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

 

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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