If you’ve ever wanted to know the behind the scenes life of a model/entrepreneur, today is your lucky day! Megan pulls back the curtain and gives us a serious tour of her heart and her life.
Let’s get started!
It’s hard for many heart-centered female entrepreneurs to step up to be the face of our companies. We want all the attention to go the cause, to the people we seek to serve. What’s that journey been like for you?
When I first started Tuli, my instinct was to remain behind the scenes, operating Tuli out of sight and focusing on the cause and the growth of the company. That was largely because I wanted our cause to be the forefront of the company, not me.
It was also just more comfortable for me to keep quiet and not draw any attention to myself.
But as time went on, I realized how important it is to step up sometimes to show people who Tuli is a genuine company with sincere people working behind it. That kind of trust is crucial to consumers, particularly when they’re shopping for ethical brands. When people see the passion and struggle behind Tuli, they’re more likely to in turn become passionate about the brand, and that’s a very effective way to spread the mission and help our cause.
Would you tell us a little about your personal story?
My fiancé, Chris, and I live in Tokyo, where I work as a model and a freelance journalist/editor in addition to overseeing Tuli. I’ve always wanted to live overseas, and I’ve come to love Japan, its culture, and its people. Chris and I love to travel, so exploring Japan and its neighboring countries has been an incredible opportunity for us. Aside from Tuli, I love to read and write and to listen to music.
What were you doing before you started Tuli?
I was working a journalist when I started Tuli, so going from that to starting a business was a huge shift. I’ve always loved to write, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a journalist focusing on politics and social justice. I hoped to use storytelling as a way to prompt social change. So, after graduating from college in Seattle, I moved to Florida to take my first full-time writing job. The more I learned through my experiences reporting, the more I started to consider starting a social business.
In addition, I worked as a fashion model to help pay for college, so I’d seen firsthand how powerful fashion brands are for communicating a message.
I thought, What if that message were social change?
I also learned a lot about the industry, about what goes into producing a photoshoot, and how to market a product – all by accident. I paired that knowledge with what I was learning as a journalist, added in some intense reading about business, and started trying to piece a business together. Even though Tuli is so different from journalism, I learned so much that was crucial to starting Tuli through my experience in the field. (I also met my fiancé in Florida, and that alone makes it all worth it!)
Tell us about the moment you knew for sure you had to do something.
There wasn’t really a specific moment when I decided that I needed to act.
While I’ve hoped to work somehow in global development or social justice for as long as I can remember, I never expected to take such an active approach to doing so. Rather, I think the various experiences I’ve had mingled together and pointed to Tuli. Even though my experience in fashion, journalism, and non-profit work were all remarkably small — they were fleeting glimpses of each field at most — they gave me a minimal foundation of understanding about both the fashion industry and global issues, and from those unique and separate experiences, the concept of Tuli grew.
Tell us about your give-back model. How do you do good?
Every product we sell puts money directly into the hands of the Ugandan women who make our products.
We have a great relationship with our partner artisans, so for each new product, we talk with them about what a fair price would be. We also ask them about their living costs so we know how much monthly income they need to survive. Jane, my co-founder, takes the lead role in setting prices for each product, because as a Ugandan woman, she understands living costs better.
We pay the women on a per-product basis, although we are sure to set prices that do not require them to work overly long hours. We also allow them to work in their homes – which is important because almost every one of our partners is a single mother with little access to childcare. The women we partner with were living in extreme poverty, making only a few dollars per month by working odd jobs or selling jewelry at the market, before meeting us.
We work on an empowerment model, meaning that we give our partners the money they earned and allow them to spend it as they see fit.
For example, Lilian buys her grandmother’s diabetes medication each month, while Evelyn first spends her money on school fees for her children. Much of the impact Tuli has is on the reliability of our wages: for the first time, our partners are able to save money, which is imperative to rising out of poverty.
Our impact extends much further than the monetary payment of one product.
When you buy a Tuli product, you are not only giving money directly to the woman who made your jewelry, you are also contributing to her sustainable, improved lifestyle.
Describe your support system through the evolution of your business.
My family and Chris have been incredibly supportive.
Not only do they know how to keep me on track when I get discouraged, but they give me the honest and nuanced criticism I need to make Tuli as good as it needs to be. My friends have also been so supportive — not only do they put up with me talking about Tuli all the time, but they offer advice and help whenever they can. I’m lucky to have so many resources for help, because starting a business is a daunting and overwhelming thing at times.
That said, Tuli has put some strain on a few of my relationships.
A startup is hard enough, but a bootstrapped startup? One where nobody gets paid, and instead you spend sleepless nights working after finishing your day job? It’s not an easy position to be in. I’ve had to learn to be picky about who I bring on board and to make sure that our team members have the right drive, motives, and extra time to devote to Tuli. As uncomfortable as that part of running a business is, my dedication is to our partners in Uganda and in doing whatever I can to create more business for them, as well as to Tuli’s customers.
People buying our products trust that we’re making every effort to fight poverty, and I need to ensure that their money is effectively used.
I’ve also made more new friends than I can count through Tuli. I’ve connected online with other owners of ethical businesses, brand ambassadors for Tuli, and I’ve met a lot of amazing store owners and models in person. It’s been such an incredible experience to see how many people there are who want to make a sustainable difference in the lives of others.
It’s also been so nice to have people — even people I’ve never met in person — who I can reach out to and ask for advice about running an ethical business. Although some may view other ethical businesses as competitors of Tuli’s, I don’t: We’re all in the fight against poverty together. I love having a support system with other ethical business owners. It’s been one of my favorite parts of running Tuli.
Have there been moments you second guessed that you made the right decision?
Oh boy, have there been. Usually, those moments come around when I realize the enormity and the difficulty of what I’m trying to do. For example: the first time Tuli had more than 50 items to process in one day. They all needed to ship in the morning, and I got home late after working 12 hours that day – first at my part-time editing job and then at a modeling job. At the time, I was still shipping everything myself, so I put on some coffee and got to work. We also didn’t yet have customized packaging for our products, so I had these boxes that needed to be assembled and decorated in attempt to make them look branded.
All that is to say, it took a LONG time.
Having that many items to process in one day was an enormous milestone for Tuli. But I could barely enjoy it, because I was too worried about getting everything boxed, addressed, and to the post office on time. Around 4 a.m., I started to really freak out and started asking myself why I ever thought this was something I could do. “Sure,” I told myself, “it’s all good and cute when you’re learning to build a website and designing jewelry for your silly little photo shoots, but look at how easily this tiny number of orders brought you down!”
I was torn between lack of confidence in myself and the realization that 50 orders is nothing compared to basically any other company out there, which made me feel even more incompetent.
It’s funny thinking about it now, because really, what should have been an exciting night turned into a miserable one for me. It’s important for me to realize that with any business, you have great days and you have days when you can’t remember why you’re doing any of it – but it’s how you handle those bad days that’s important.
I stayed up all night, but I got all those orders out on time.
And then I took a nap.
Have you experienced negative feedback along the way?
I’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback, from people questioning my ability to do something like this, to people asking if Tuli isn’t just a glorified sweat shop, to people pointing out that poverty is a huge, rampant problem, and that I must be naïve to think I can solve it myself.
I don’t, of course, but if I help just a few people, that’s worth it to me.
I handle the negative feedback by remembering my days in Uganda. I met some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known there. I spent a month sitting with them each day, developing our line of products together.
They were so resilient, so kind, and so happy, despite facing such hardships. I’ll never forget giving Evelyn her first paycheck in person. Her eyes filled with tears and she said it meant so much to her and her children.
It’s hard dwelling on negativity with that memory to hold on to.
What advice would you give someone, like me, who feels guilty about not buying everything from socially responsible companies?
I don’t either!
It may not be impossible to buy only from socially responsible companies, but it’s pretty hard, both because of access and because of price. That’s why it’s so important to support social businesses when you can. I’m so encouraged to see how many socially responsible businesses there are and to read about how consumer habits are changing for the better: people are more likely to buy socially responsible products, and are willing to pay more them. Companies are listening to this — not just social enterprises like Tuli, whose goal is social good above profit, but also big corporations like Target and fast fashion brands like H&M.
Supporting socially responsible companies, even if it’s not all the time, helps propel that trend.
Feeling guilty isn’t a very productive emotion, so I encourage people to turn that guilt into positive action by doing research when possible and telling the companies you purchase from that ethics are important to you. Companies spend so much money and time trying to appeal to you, their customers — so make it easier for them and tell them what you want!
What would you say to a woman who says, “Sure. But you had money, experience, relationships, etc. . . You’re brave. You’re fearless and I’m risk averse, I’m … (fill in the blank).” The woman who is subconsciously letting herself off the hook.
I didn’t have any of those things when I started Tuli! I was working in a different career, which took up most of my time, and making a journalist’s salary (let’s just say I didn’t have much extra to invest in my new company). While I was lucky enough to have a solid support system, in all honesty, I heard more criticism than anything else in those early days.
And, I’m not brave.
Starting Tuli was (and is) a terrifying undertaking. But it’s also exhilarating, rewarding, and a ton of fun.
There’s really nothing that sets me apart from other people aside from my stubbornness. I decided to do everything I could to make this happen. In the spirit of doing that, I worked during every spare moment I had. When I wasn’t working, I was learning, through reading books and articles on business and through studying what successful fashion companies were doing.
When the web designer who’d promised free services fell through, I learned to build a website. When photographers were hard to come by, I picked up a camera and figured it out. When potential disasters arose, I handled them. It’s not that I’m talented, smart or wealthy.
My initial attempts at everything were disastrous.
I’m learning as I go, but honestly, Tuli only exists because I haven’t given up.
Perseverance is key.
Do you feel like the same person you were when you first started your company?
I’ve changed a lot, mostly because of Tuli, but also because starting Tuli coincided to my move overseas. Living overseas and working in Uganda have been immensely humbling and have helped me practice compassion in a much more real way.
At the same time, I also feel much more capable and confident.
I’m a very self-critical person, so when I look at Tuli’s website or impact, hundreds of ideas for improvement spring to mind. But when I think of it, a lot of hurdles had to be overcome to get Tuli to where it is today. I never would have thought myself capable of handling them, but I’ve learned to take things one day at a time, one problem at the time. I know there will be greater challenges in the future, but I’m learning to be excited to learn and grow instead of to be fearful of everything that will (inevitably) go wrong.
How can we best support you?
I love it when people share Tuli with others!
A personal recommendation is more effective than any ad ever is, and one of Tuli’s biggest challenges is letting people know we’re out there. Of course, purchasing products is the easiest way to make an immediate, tangible difference for Tuli and for our partners in Uganda.
I also love it when people, whether strangers or not, give me suggestions.
We’re currently working on a new line of products inspired by customers’ requests, and I’m so excited for it. My main job is to give customers what they want so that our partners in Uganda can continue to earn income, so if people tell me what they want, that makes my job a lot easier!
I’d love for you to share the message that, Tuli fights poverty by creating sustainable jobs in Uganda through sales of our handmade jewelry. We believe in long-term solutions rather than temporary aid efforts, and in empowering our partners by giving them the thing they want most: a job.
Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Megan! You are wise beyond your years.
Now let’s go show her that what she’s doing matters to us!
To more love,
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(This one’s my favorite!)