Fashion Designer Rachel Roy On The Business Of Giving Back

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"Whatever your business is in, whether you work at a library or you work at a retail store, there is a way to incorporate giving back into your everyday work,” says Rachel Roy, founder of the fashion brand RACHEL Rachel Roy and the social enterprise, Kindness Is Always Fashionable.

Roy’s social enterprise partners with local female artisans from around the world to create products that are sold through her website. The proceeds are then donated to organizations that support women and children, while providing a livelihood for the local artisans.

Roy says that providing women with the opportunity to work ultimately creates stronger families and communities. “Not everyone can dedicate their lives to nonprofit or for profit charities but each of us can dedicate everyday moments to giving back. Even something small makes a difference,” says Roy.

In this interview, Roy shares the lessons she has learned building a global fashion brand and how her focus on giving back is at the heart of her success.

Michelle King: How did you come up with the concept for Kindness Is Always Fashionable?

Rachel Roy: When I started Kindness Is Always Fashionable, there was a huge flood in Pakistan and I just wanted to try and get some funds and goodwill over there given the devastation. I am in the business of making things, so I started thinking about what I could make and sell in order to send the proceeds to the children in need. I basically got everyone in my blackberry to sign a tote that we designed. The idea was that when these totes would hang in my partner’s retail space, including Macy’s and Nordstrom, people would see that these celebrities or people in the fashion industry support Pakistan. It is not about anything political, it is about suffering.

King: Why is this so important to you?

Roy: Well I don’t consider it a business, I consider it in tandem with my own business. I consider it as the story of my business and my brand and "the why" of what I do. It is just my way of life.

Some people were born just moments away from living a different life. I love fashion and I love how if it is the right garment, it can make you feel more confident. Normally that is not associated with someone who wants to dedicate their lives to helping others but when you do what you love and combine that with helping others, that’s when you live a full, complete life.

King: What are some of the challenges associated with managing a social enterprise?

Roy: We do have a choice for how we work and where we work, but for a lot of women they don’t. This is a tragedy because work equals freedom. It allows women to get away from poverty or abuse. Early on I worked into the contract with my partners that every season we would produce a product, any product, from third world countries to provide jobs. This was a hard ask as samples developed from countries that are not used to doing this; they can come back poorly made or late and expensive. I had to be patient and work with people who are not trained in order to get the job done. It is not an easy ask but it is well worth it.

King: What is a key business lesson you have learnt as an entrepreneur?

Roy: The business has changed tremendously over the years and what I have learnt is that things are meant to change. Sometimes it is hard to understand because change can be quite difficult – especially when it is not planned.

If businesses don’t change, they get static and cease to be. In the retail business, as the landscape changes, I can either change with it, or ahead of it. But the times I change after it are often detrimental. Having gone through this several times, I know never to make those same mistakes again.

King: What advice do you have for social entrepreneurs?

Roy: Don’t get discouraged. The worst, most difficult times in my life have always lead to change that was beneficial. Now when change comes, there is always that worrying feeling but I almost instantly start to remember the tremendous growth that came with that. The sooner you can get comfortable in the uncomfortable it really does benefit you.

King: You need confidence though, in order to not get discouraged. How have you developed yours?

Roy: My confidence did not begin until I started working in my first job at 14. I always knew I liked fashion so I started out working in a clothing store, and then as an adult I started my own business. I didn’t do well at the beginning but because it was something that I loved and I enjoyed it. This gave me confidence.