The Tote Project is based on a friendship, on a shared dream. It is a shared passion for empowerment, for restoration, for freedom. Fay Grant and Michelle Chavez founded The Tote Project because they believe that there is hope for the millions of victims of modern day slavery worldwide, and they want to do their part to support recovering survivors pursuing their dreams.
What do purpose and profit mean to you?
Above all, sustainability to me means the planet and people are not harmed by your product. That is why we use organic cotton, all of our colours are water-based, no harmful chemicals in them and we want to continue doing that with all of our products. Even with our packaging, when we mail our orders, we use a company that makes bags that look like they’re made out of plastic but they’re not, they’re biodegradable material. This way we’re not contributing to landfills. We try to ensure that every part of the supply chain is clean. Every company has an opportunity to give back in some way, whether it’s the one-for-one model or whether their products are made ethically.
How useful was attending university in starting a company?
Michelle: In my case, I got my undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Then I went to Grad school and I got my Masters in Management. The way the project is set up, Fay handles most of the artistic side – she is really talented at painting and graphic design so she makes all of our designs. She also handles the shipping. We collaborate on some of the marketing stuff. But I handle more of the business logistics. It works great because she’s more on the creative side and I’m more on the business side. Everything that I learnt in school has been so helpful – from Accounting, to Finance, to Marketing, to Management. As a startup, I’m managing this as well as having a full-time job. You know we’ve had interns here and I’ve had interns at my other job so it’s a lot to take care of and I definitely feel School prepared me for that.
Would you recommend starting a company with a co-founder?
Yes. It really worked out for The Tote Project because I have zero artistic talent and Fay is incredibly talented in that area so I don’t even try and get involved there, I leave it to her and trust that it will turn out amazing. Same for the business side of things, she leaves the management to me and if there is any big decision we talk about it together but in terms of the day to day stuff, we do complement each other.
How do you get through the rollercoaster of running a startup?
In our case, Fay and I are best friends, so we put that first and it’s great because when things get difficult like I got married 6 months ago and Fay was amazing, she answered the day to day emails and talked to stores. She was able to help out in my absence and now that she’s pregnant and due to give birth, I’m going to be covering for her, not in terms of designs but we will set it up where I will handle shipping. One great thing for both of us is that we both work from home as both of us have full-time jobs so it allows us to stagger our work across the entire days.
Any wins, failures or special stories from your time before The Tote Project that prepared you to start a company?
Michelle: Before Fay and I met, we were both passionate about giving back and fighting human trafficking. Me personally, when I was in school, a few friends and I I opened a chapter, stop the traffic, based in the UK. In the club we wrote about fair trade, human trafficking and ending slavery which was great as because of that, I had the opportunity to attend a lot of seminars and benefits. I started to meet a lot of people involved in that world.
At the time, when I graduated from College, I was really excited and passionate about devoting my time to only working at a nonprofit but then that ended up being really difficult because I had student loans to pay. A lot of non-profits don’t pay very much. All the options at the time weren’t going to pay my bills so I had to go in a different direction. I initially had gone to school for music business so I ended up getting a job as a Music Director. Around that time Fay, came to me with the idea to start The Tote Project and it was great – we both agreed it had to be fair trade, we couldn’t sell products to raise awareness of human trafficking if it was made by slaves. From my experience in school, I had a great network to reach out to and get advice from.
I remember we actually spent a month looking for a factory that was fair trade certified. A lot of these factories were using the term ‘fairly traded’. We went through the process of pricing our products and then we would learn that they were not actually certified and we had no way of knowing whether they made their products through slavery. After a month of searching, I reached out to someone in the club and asked her for her advice and she said “funny you ask me, I work a factory that is fair trade certified and they make Tote Bags specifically and they hire women that have been rescued out of slavery and they’re helping provide jobs for these women.” That was an amazing moment and unexpected because without her we probably would not have found them.
There isn’t much support available around product pricing. How did you decide on the pricing for your totes?
We started by looking at other tote bags, ones that were not ethically made and looking at the really expensive ones to just see the range of prices. We learnt that there is a science to it. I have a great friend name Hailey who has a fashion line in LA. We got together for coffee and I picked her brains about a few things. She was so sweet and made a whole grid of exactly what I needed to do. I’m really grateful for that because that helped us immensely.
How important is it for companies to ask for help when they need it?
Female entrepreneurs are able to do more with less. Typically, male entrepreneurs end up receiving more in startup capital so they end up getting investors and VCs investing in them whereas women entrepreneurs end up using their savings or taking out a loan and doing as much as they can with the little that they have. Especially with the wage gap. I think that due to the fact women are very relational, maybe in someone else’s case, they would probably pay a consultant to help with pricing or find a factory whereas we just reached out to our friends as that is what we’re used to doing. We’re not afraid to ask for help and friends are always willing to help. Now we pay it forward, a lot of people ask us for advice and I always try and hop on a call and help them as we would not be where we are today without the initial network.
How did you onboard your first customers?
We actually started with an Indiegogo campaign. We didn’t want to take out loans and we didn’t want investors in the beginning so we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. Fay’s full-time job is music- editing and I had the Music Director background so we both ended up knowing a lot of people in music. One of our friends, Steve, who is a huge journalist, helped us get well-known artists to sign our tote bags. We got some samples from our factory and Fay got her friend to ask the cast of Glee and a bunch of big name celebrities help us with the launch of our product. And this was all because of the help of great friends. So when we launched our Indiegogo campaign, we noticed it was a lot of our friends and family that contributed for sure. But the artists, shared the campaign on their social media pages so we got some customers from there and after the campaign, when we finally placed our big order and fulfilled all of the requests from the campaign and just started selling via our website, we noticed that Instagram was our biggest way of connecting with new customers. Almost overtime someone reaches out, they say oh we found you on Instagram. So for now, that’s been the most successful.
How many Tote bags have you sold to date?
We have sold over 5,000 Tote bags to date.
Can you tell us about the impact you’ve had because of this?
Our fair trade products are sewn in India by women who have made the choice to journey out of sex trade and into freedom. We donate 20% of our profit to a charity called Two Wings in Los Angeles which uses education, life coaching and mentoring to help human trafficking survivors pursue their dream. They pair the girls up with people who can help them achieve their dreams by providing job skills etc. They are really amazing. We did a limited edition design for another nonprofit where we donated 50% of the profit to their nonprofit.
Where do you hope to see The Tote Project 5 years from now?
Ideally, 1) we want to be doing it full-time and 2) sell our bags in a major chain like Anthropology or Whole Foods. That will really help us hit the sales number we need to meet to grow. At that level, we will be able to support our nonprofit partners every month. Though we’re giving a significant donation every month, we want to do more and through this we’ll be able to help their programme grow and we’ll be able to hire more women at the factory.
Any key influencers that helped you start a social good company instead of a conventional one?
In the beginning, we were trying to figure out if we should be a nonprofit or if we should just be a normal business that has women survivors making the bags. But, we read Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie and it was really influential because we had not heard of the other view of combining nonprofit with business. The fact that we could run a business, be successful and use it for good really resonated with us as a business model. That was a big turning point for us. Also, we were fans of the Krochet Kids and some of the brands that were first in the social enterprise space.
What have you found to be the most difficult part of your entrepreneurial journey?
In some ways, the toughest part has been working full-time and running this on the side. If we had 100% of our time to donate to The Tote Project, it would be amazing and we probably would be able to make it grow faster but currently, we’re working with limited resources and time. Once it gets to the size where we can do it full-time and we can earn an income from it then it would be great. Until that time, there are lots of late nights and early mornings.
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs starting social good companies?
Never be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to people close to you. Also, pay it forward. Don’t take favours for granted, that leads to bad relationships. A lot of startups tend to ask for favours and then burn people when it goes the other way. Be gracious. Surround yourself with people with skills that you don’t have. If you try to do everything on your own, it might not turn out as good. Be passionate about it and that will make it easier to get through the tough times.