Carly is one busy lady. If you see her, it was probably a blur running by you. That’s beacuse she’s committed to making such a beautiful impact on women around the world through fashion. If you can stop her long enough to chat, she has a beautiful and open heart. That’s why I’m thrilled to share a little bit of her behind the scenes with you today.
She’s a woman, just like us, with insecurities and doubts, but she shows up everyday anyway and does her part.
Today, meet Carly Burson, founder of Tribe Alive.
Big hug to you Carly. I’m so happy we met. I learned so much from your calm, collected, generous style that first day and then this interview has inspired me all the more! 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 and the people we seek to serve. What’s that journey been like for you?
My story has always been personally rooted in the cause which has made it easier for me to connect with the women Tribe Alive seeks to serve. I spent a great deal of my early life working with women in the developing world and in those experiences never once developed a sense of pity but instead a burning rage over the injustice women face.
Volunteering in Honduras, working in Thailand, starting my career off in social services, and adopting my first child from Africa all shaped my opinions and approach to serving women. Early on I recognized that the only factor that separated me from the women we work with are the opportunities I was given as a first-world citizen. The belief that it’s my obligation to work to ensure that these opportunities are available to all are genuine and sincere and allow me to connect with women with lives opposite of mine.
I know that ‘I’m for real,’ and that has always been enough for me.
Would you share with us about your personal life? Where you grew up, went to school, spouse, children, pets?
I grew up in Massachusetts where most of my friends and family still live. I have always been extremely proud of where I come from and view my home state in such high regard (my Texas born husband would say I’m a little over the top). Over the top or not, I’m grateful to have been raised in such a progressive place which I feel shaped who I am and instilled in me an important set of values.
I went to college at The University of Massachusetts – Lowell, and there I met my husband. We both attended on soccer scholarships and spent 4 years competing collegiately. We’ve been together for nine years and now live in Fort Worth, Texas with our beautiful daughter Elie and sweet pup Remy.
Tell us about what you were doing before you started your company?
I was working for J.Crew as a Market Visual Director where I contributed to the company’s visual and store presentation team. I loved working for J.Crew and felt proud to be a part of such an innovative and creative group of people who set the standard for so many in the industry. It was very difficult for me to leave a job I had worked so hard for and to say good-bye to a team that felt like family to me. I will always be grateful to J.Crew for how valued they made me feel and for the experience I gained while there.
Tell us about the moment you knew for sure you had to do something. How did you muster the courage to actually do it?
The adoption of my daughter changed everything. I always knew that her coming home would alter the course of my life but never imagined it altering the course of my life’s work. I viewed adoption as an opportunity to support an individual child and a way to contribute to the orphan crisis in the developing world. I always saw it as a solution to the problem, and believed that we’d solve the issue if only more families were willing to invite children into their homes. Once our daughter came home I couldn’t stop thinking about her birth mother; a young woman I had never met and only read about on a piece of paper, yet the privilege and the tragedy of her child calling me mommy was never lost on me.
I was struck with a desire to address the core issues of child relinquishment, mainly the economic insecurity women face, and saw fashion as a platform to do just that.
In January of 2014, 5 months after we finalized our adoption, I returned home from a family volunteer trip in Honduras and couldn’t shake the experience. I had been to Honduras over a dozen times before, but this trip felt different. It was the first trip I had brought my daughter on and I remember feeling proud that we were able to expose her to such an experience at such a young age. It was shortly after that trip that I realized that my daughter’s birth mother’s story was not far from the women we introduced her to in the barrios of Tegucigalpa and decided that I could no longer stand by and live a life that did not honor women like her. I first cried to my husband and told him ‘I have to do something,’ and he responded with ‘then go do something.’ So I did, and Tribe Alive was born 6 months later.
How did you decide on the specific products you have now?
Our product selection has evolved a great deal. It took us some time to establish a brand identity and connect with the right artisan partners who have the skills to produce the quality of goods we were looking for. In the beginning we started with very simple designs to meet the level of our first artisan partners, but now that we have connected with a range of makers all over the world we’re able to design what we want and source the designs out to the right place. Our first few collections took on the identity that most fair-trade brands do and displayed an ethnic and global aesthetic. Though the early product was beautiful, it wasn’t my long-term vision for the brand. I decided to start designing to my own style and current trends while keeping in mind the handiwork of our artisans. I’m interested in a collection that highlights fewer, better designs and speaks to a non-fuss, minimally inspired woman. Lots of texture, neutral colors, simple patterns, clean lines and organic materials.
How did you get started? Where did you get the funding?
I started slowly. I spent a year balancing my full-time job and building Tribe Alive. In the beginning it was very hard. I worked all day at my paying job and stayed up all night to build my dream job. At first my husband and I used our own savings but quickly realized that we didn’t have what it would take to really get the brand off the ground, so we made the decision to crowd fund for the rest of the start-up costs. After about a year of no sleep, little time with my family and a growing resentment toward my never-ending list of to-dos, I decided that the time had come for me to leave J.Crew. We sold a home we owned in Colorado, I traded my car in for something less expensive, I gave up my ‘fun money,’ and cut every no-need expense down to the bare minimum. When the numbers added up right and we felt confident that my husband could support us, I gave my notice, cried for a few days and then never looked back.
What keeps you up at night?
I think the world is full of women lying awake at night worrying. I worry about everything.
I want to be so many things to so many people and often fall short of my own expectations. There’s so much that contributes to my lack of sleep, but mom guilt has to fall at the top of that list. My work requires a lot of travel and the time I spend away from my family is hard on me. My daughter misses me, my husband takes on far above his share, and I constantly question my worth as a mother. My family has to sacrifice so much so that I am able to do what I do and that weighs very heavily on me.
How has your decision to to give your life to this affected your family?
Finding balance between work and family is my greatest challenge and one that I may never quite overcome. I often allow the business to be all-consuming and have the tendency to work non-stop. My husband has sacrificed so much so that I’m able to live out my dream, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the travel and the long hours creates space between us. We now have to work extra hard at our marriage. We schedule in our alone time together, agree on boundaries, commit to technology shut downs by 8pm (he says 7pm, I say 8pm), and make efforts big and small to show our appreciation for each other.
There have been big fights, periods of resentment, times when we don’t feel connected and disagreements over the direction of the business. Deciding to give so much of myself to my company has had a great impact on our marriage, but through it all we’ve realized that our love and commitment to one another is stronger than we ever thought.
Our marriage isn’t perfect, and it isn’t easy, but it’s ours and we’re both willing to evolve in whatever way necessary to be together.
What is the hardest negative soundtrack in your mind, you have to overcome? What’s the thing you’re most afraid of?
That I’m not enough. That I’ll fail. That I’ll let people down. These negative thoughts can be all-consuming but I surround myself with positive people who validate my dreams, believe in my ability and lift me up when I need it.
Failure is always my greatest fear.
The mission of this company goes far beyond my own investment and we have a lot of women counting on us to succeed so that their opportunities will continue to grow. The obligation I feel to keep these women working is my main motivation.
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
I’d put my family first. In the beginning I poured all my energy into building the brand and neglected my obligation to my husband and daughter. I made a lot of mistakes early on and forgot about what was most important. I never want to do that to them again.
What brings you the most joy?
Being home in New England surrounded by my entire family.
Tell us all about your give-back model. How do you do good?
At Tribe Alive we don’t believe in ‘give-back’ models.
Often we’re asked what we ‘give’ our women, and each time our response is the same. We don’t ‘give’ them anything. We simply offer them opportunity and they do the rest.
We are not content to ‘give a fish,’ or even to teach someone how to fish and will not rest until we feel we have completely changed the fishing industry and inspire other businesses to think like us.
The beauty of social entrepreneurs is that we offer new approaches to supporting women in the developing world.
We create our own context by starting a business or a movement that addresses social problems in a creative and profitable way. We are not a non-profit or a charity or a handout. We’re simply a business utilizing our platform to provide women with life changing opportunity. We strongly believe in a woman maintaining her dignity, and no woman has ever been empowered through a hand out.
What advice would you give to someone, like me, who feels guilty about not buying everything from socially responsible companies?
We are all human. We all make decisions that negatively impact people and the earth and most of us do so knowing the ramifications. We all need to do better – myself included. The fact that you feel guilty is a start. Most people do not care about where their clothing comes from nor do they have regard for the human life who makes them. If we all make a conscious effort to recognize that all lives equally matter (those in this country and those in others) our approach to consumerism will change. When we support cheap, fast fashion we support the devaluing of a human life. For me, there is no fashion steal worth that realization. The only advice I can give is to challenge yourself to make small changes. Research the companies your buy from, (there are great social good rating websites that will rank most fashion companies in regard to ethics), avoid fast fashion at all costs, support companies with ethical platforms, buy fewer but better designs, and just commit to slowly making a change.
What’s your favorite of all your products and why?
Our Weekender Bags from Guatemala. I travel constantly and whether I’m away for a long weekend or for two weeks, I always only pack in this bag. I love the story behind them, knowing that the textile was hand-woven by a co-op of women working from home. The production of these bags not only provide sustainable employment but they’re also a part of preserving the art of back-strap weaving which is incredibly important to Maya culture. To me, it’s so much more than just a bag – it’s a beautiful love story.
What are you the most passionate about regarding Tribe Alive?
We believe that women ‘hold up half the sky,’ and that we can not move forward as a culture when half of us are left behind.
Investment in female education is known to yield the highest-return on investment available in the developing world, and we feel that we can no longer afford to ignore the crucial role that educated women will play in the future of combating global poverty. We’re most excited to be a part of that revolution. One that will not only effect this generation, but generations of girls to come. We don’t want to change a life.
We want to change the world.
And change the world you are Carly, one life at a time. Thank you for opening up your heart and sharing what it’s really like for you behind the scenes. I know I can relate to so much of your story and our readers can too.
to more love,
If you want to meet Carly and buy some of these products from Tribe Alive’s beautiful collection in person, she’ll be joining us at Fashioned for Freedom in Dallas on November 5th. Come see us and get ready to get your shop on at our pop-up Shop by HeartStories! But get your tickets quickly! Last year’s show sold out completely a week in advance and we are only two weeks out friends!