This girl. If you know her and don’t love her, you have a heart of stone. She is hysterical and kind. She’s brilliant and creative. She’s one in a million.
Meet Bethany Tran.
Bethany! What a joy it is to tell your beautiful story! Thank you for pulling back the curtain for us.
We’ve talked about how hard it is for many heart-centered female entrepreneurs to step up to be the face of our companies. We want the attention to go the cause and people we seek to serve. When really, people are looking for someone who will say, ” I’m the one who cares enough to do this. It’s not easy, but I’m not giving up.”
What’s that journey been like for you?
Gosh, being the face of my passion hasn’t been easy! I don’t at all see myself as any kind of a hero or visionary. I just saw a need that wasn’t being filled and finally got the guts up to say “yes” to scary (and don’t for a second think it wasn’t anything but terrifying!). I’ve had so many people tell me that I need to step up and be visible, since my natural reaction is to hide behind the faces of our partner artisans. But as I’ve done it more and more, I’ve had other women come to me and say that because of what I’ve done, I’ve inspired them to be brave too.
That bravery is going to be the thing that changes our broken world.
The Root Collective was in business for over a year before I finally started putting myself out there as the face of the brand, and I’m so glad I did! It still makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable sometimes, but in those days where it all just seems impossibly hard, and I get a message from someone saying that I inspired them… it makes it all worth it.
Will you tell us a little about your personal life?
I grew up the second oldest of four girls in a lower-middle class family in Pennsylvania. I actually shared a room with all of my sisters until I was about 15, and then it felt weird having my own room. I was homeschooled all the way through, and then went on to college. I was an education major for 2.5 years, and then thankfully realized that was not my calling, and switched over to media communications.
I’m in an interracial marriage with my sexy hot Asian husband, Thanh. We recently relocated to Durham, NC and love it so far! Except the bugs. Not so much on that part. We have three furbabies, our kitty Bella, a lab/husky mix Chloe, and our most recent hound mix rescue Piper. Piper has been with us for about a year and a half now and still hasn’t figured out that Bella will never (ever) be friends with her. She has better luck with her doggie sister.
What were you doing before you started The Root Collective?
I was living the dream! I worked in marketing since college, and had recently landed a job with Comcast. I was working for one of the biggest corporations in the country, and I had never been more miserable.
It’s amazing how running from your calling can torment you until you decide to follow it.
Tell us about the moment you knew for sure you had to do something. How did you muster the courage to actually do it?
I had recently turned 30 and was going through my second quarter-life crisis in five years. I started working at Comcast just a few weeks before my birthday and I was mis.er.a.ble. The company was actually great to work for, but I just wasn’t doing what I knew I was called to.
I’d spent time in the slum of La Limonada in Guatemala, the largest urban slum in all of Central America, and also one of the most violent in the world. Guatemala has the fifth highest homicide rate, third highest rate of femicide (gender-based homicide) and the sixth highest rate of chronic child malnutrition.
I didn’t know any of this!
I spent a week visiting the slum when a friend of mine who helped found Lemonade International (a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting just this one slum community) moved to Guatemala for a year. I came home realizing that all of my expectations of poverty had just been demolished. I had no idea just how complicated of an issue poverty really was, and the kind of social stigmas and violence that keep people in their same circumstances.
When you hear people talk about the cycle of poverty, it’s a real thing.
So, here I was. Newly 30 years old, and a few months into a new job. The Half the Sky documentary aired on PBS… and I was once again wrecked. I had been back to Guatemala several times and each time I returned with one question: “What now?” And here I was, watching a documentary on women who were doing something. They weren’t just bystanders and accepting of their circumstances. They were being warriors and blasting through expectations.
I wanted to be like them.
I called the executive director of Lemonade International, Bill Cummings, the next day and was like, “Bill…. We gotsta talk.” I spilled my heart to him while hiding in a conference room at Comcast so I couldn’t be heard (no one wants to let a current employer know that their eventual goal is to leave). The Root Collective was born that day, though it took a full year to get it off the ground.
How did you get started? Where did you get the funding?
My first days looked pretty much the same as my days now. I worked like crazy. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pull 16 hour days, working fulltime at Comcast while managing my business in all my free time.
We funded the business out of our savings account (that sexy husband of mine is very supportive!), and I dumped every ounce of energy that I had into building it. I actually just left Comcast about a month ago! I worked for over 2.5 years at a fulltime job while growing The Root Collective.
(Huge congratulations! That’s such a big deal. I’m so excited for you!)
How did you decide on the specific products you have now?
It wasn’t on purpose. Trust me, if anyone said, “hey, you’re going to run a shoe company, and actually be designing shoes” I would have heartily laughed in their face. I got all of my relationships with my partner artisans through nonprofit relationships, Lemonade International being one of them. Those conversations went something like this:
“Hey, who do you know that makes stuff?”
I’m not even kidding. When we launched, we carried jewelry, scarves, bags, and shoes. I didn’t fully understand how crazy it was to do shoes, but I’d connected with Otto through Lemonade and just loved where his heart was. He was a former gang member with an amazing story of redemption. His entire business plan is to train and hire former gang members to give them the opportunity to leave the gangs and do something with their lives.
I wanted to be a part of that.
After we launched, it became pretty clear that the shoes were going to be the best selling item. As a confirmation that this was the direction we were supposed to go in, the other artisan relationships because to fold, due to various circumstances. The shoes continued to do well, so that’s what we’ve turned our attention to for the present.
The new smoking shoes have my heart. It may be because I’ve worn nothing but ballet flats for the last two and a half years (since that’s all we carried!), so I’m really excited to branch out into a new style!
The Millie in Gold Spiral has my heart right now. I mean, metallic threads? Be still my heart
What keeps you up at night?
I chuckled a bit at this one. I wake up often thinking about shoes. About potential issues, potential solutions, potential designs. I wake up feeling certain that I’m going to fail. I wake up wondering if this is ever going to get easier, or if running a business will always be so hard.
Tell us about your support system on this journey.
My husband was my first cheerleader, and has remained so! My family has had my back from the beginning. I’m pretty sure I’ve gained the reputation as the craziest daughter because of all of my risk taking with this business.
I’ve also found that cheerleaders come from unexpected places.
I have people who have become my biggest supporters who I either was only an acquaintance with prior to opening the business, or met along the way. This has definitely opened up some incredible new friendships. I’ve met so many women (and men!) who have come along side me and kept my chin up when I wasn’t able to do it myself.
What’s something you learned the hard way?
Seriously, this has been the hardest lesson to learn. It’s so easy to start something and think that you’ll be the exception. That even though it takes other retail businesses 5 years to be profitable, somehow, you’re going to be the one that manages in in a year.
It just doesn’t happen.
I’ve constantly battled my own expectations and what I thought would happen. No one ever warns you how hard this is. Experts say that 80% of businesses fail in the first 18 months. I truly believe that’s because it can torture your soul so much to start something. It’s hard not to take it personally when people choose to not purchase something, especially when you know how much that could affect a life, or keep a bit more of your own sanity in tact.
What’s the driving force of your business?
The men and women who make our shoes.
Just seeing how hard they work, seeing their dedication, seeing their hopes and dreams for their communities… it’s enough to keep me going.
How has your decision to give your life to this affected your family?
Let me tell you, it affects relationships big time if you’re not careful. I tend to go full boar into something, and I’m not great with boundaries. I am a bit of a workaholic, and it’s definitely caused strain on my marriage.
It’s a constant battle to remember to keep some time for my husband. It’s not that I don’t love him and don’t want to spend time with him, it’s just that there is so much to do. All the time.
It’s a big struggle.
Were there people who didn’t see the vision along the way? How have you handled that?
A few months after The Root Collective launched, we were featured on Zooey Deschanel’s HelloGiggles, which was so encouraging for me! Until… I see the comment on their Facebook page saying that The Root Collective was taking advantage of the poor. I did not anticipate that to happen so quickly.
Honestly, I don’t think I expected it to ever happen, but dealing with that within 4 months was rough.
It’s happened a few times since, and I’ve tried to handle those situations with grace. I’ve outright offered to share financial information with those people about how much our artisans are getting paid, and the pricing models I use to determine pricing. It became clear to me pretty quickly that I’d need to get some kind of certification that gave us the third-party stamp of approval that we’re doing what we say we’re doing.
We became a certified B Corporation this year, which was a doozie of a process but I’m so proud of the fact that we have it. We’re also joining Made In A Free World in September as a partner brand.
I think like most people, it’s the fear of failing, and doing that publically. I struggle with feeling like I’m not good enough or smart enough to do this job. My cheerleaders definitely help me during these times, and I have a good group of people that I know I can go to for prayer during the really rough times.
What would you say sitting across the table from another woman who says, “Sure. But you had money saved up, a spouse who can support you, a business degree, a support system, a platform, etc... You’re brave. You’re fearless and I’m risk averse, I’m … fill in the blank.”
Excuses are an easy way to keep you planted right where you are. I had a bajillion different reasons why I couldn’t start this business and all of them were completely valid. I “joke” that you really need to know about 17 million things to run a business, and I came into it knowing about three.
I had a ton of catching up to do.
But I often think about how, if each one of us was brave enough to go after the calling on our hearts, oh… how the world could change
What advice would you give to someone, like me, who feels guilty about not buying everything from socially responsible companies?
Take baby steps.
Starting the journey to shop ethically is a tough and overwhelming one. The rule that I started with was “do I need this?” If the answer was “no,” then I’d consider not buying it. We live in such a consumerist culture where we tend to just buy too much (this probably sounds weird coming from someone who owns a retail business!).
Start by buying less, and when you do need something, consider taking the time to research a bit. It can be really challenging to make the switch over to being an ethical shopper, but I truly believe that we each can make such a difference in the world if we spend our dollars in mindful ways.
Is there a quote you have on your desk, your wall, or just stored in your heart that keeps you going or lifts your spirits when you’re down?
I have a print on my desk that says “Today matters.” It’s just a good reminder that every day is a gift and that I should make the most of it.
Do you feel like you’re the same person you were when you started The Root Collective?
I’m not even close to the same person!
I’ve learned so much about the fashion industry and it’s really ignited a huge passion for supply chains, business, and economics. I used to look at business as American corporate greed, but I’ve come to realize that it is only a bastardization of a beautiful system. I’m so grateful to be a part of redeeming business and supply chain practices!
How can we support you?
I love this question!
Tell our story. We have such an amazing story behind our shoes, and I’m always so grateful to anyone who tells others about our mission.
Thank you so much for opening your heart. I’m still wiping tears from the parts of your story I personally resonate with so deeply. Your humble, vulnerability is such a beautiful gift. Thank you. …. I’m your cheerleader girl! I think you just met a few more today as well.
We’ve got your back sister. Keep going!
To more love,
Click the big red button to shop all the fun styles from Bethany and The Root Collective. Purchase with Purpose today.
Here’s a sneak peek at a few of the styles available for fall: