The sun shone brightly overhead in the cloudless blue sky. The streets were filled with busy holidays shoppers the day before Christmas 2015 in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Although temperatures were hovering around the mid-forties (in Fahrenheit or between six and ten degrees Celcius), the sharp wind that whipped around Hayley Besheer Santell's bare legs made the cold feel like sharp pricks.
Hayley was standing on the busy shopping street in her underwear to highlight how vulnerable domestic violence victims felt. She is the founder of MADI Apparel, a sustainable retail brand that donates underwear to a woman at risk with every item purchased from their store. The social entrepreneur learned that underwear is the most needed item at women's shelters because they need to be new and can't be donated used. Many of us take for granted this essential item of clothing in our closets. Yet, for victims of domestic violence, underwear represents dignity. This small piece of clothing represents protection not just in the literal sense of shielding her body but also taking the first step in protecting herself from further harm from her abuser. Almost a third of women globally report that they have been victims of physical or sexual abuse by their intimate partner. They tend to be financially dependent on their partners, making it harder for them to leave and get back on their feet.
Teach Them to Fish
I wanted to speak with Hayley not because she stood outside in her underwear but because she is tackling both the immediate and longer-term needs of survivors of domestic violence and also for other women at-risk. Women at-risk also include women who are dealing with homelessness and addiction. Through MADI Makes the brand provides seamstress training for at-risk women and pays them a fair living wage upon graduation to produce MADI products. So when you purchase a MADI product, it is not about how much the materials cost. You are enabling a woman to secure training and gainful employment so that she no longer has to fear for her safety. I had many questions, including the many challenges that retail and fashion brands face—scaling production vs. staying sustainable—balancing cash flow vs. growing the brand quicker. One easy answer to these challenges would be to make trade-offs. Hayley could source production in New York or Los Angeles, where production would be cheaper, but there may be no guarantee of a living wage for the seamstresses. She could produce using less sustainable fabrics and dyes to lower costs.
Grow Patiently and Intentionally
But these were not options for Hayley. She described MADI as a cause-based brand. She wants everything related to the brand to be intentional. From the fabrics used and the wages paid, each part of the business is intended to impact the community and the environment positively. Even with the interns she hires, she invests her time and asks, "What do you need in this internship" and "How can we help you grow?". I asked her why not grow the business through external financing. "We don't want to use money that we don't have.. We could go after a loan today and bring on five full time employees and see a lot of growth… but (we want to be) good stewards of resources… and use the small steady growth to our advantage", she replied. Indeed the benefits of staying small are getting the product and brand right, building solid relationships and foundations within the team and business partners and suppliers, and ensuring that operations can remain sustainable. This was not a question of whether they could grow faster (they could) but whether MADI should or wanted to (they don't). In short, MADI is doing the opposite of “move fast and break things”. They have organically grown their customer base and sales at 25 percent annually since they started. The brand has achieved this by being creative and practical. They pay down their debt, restock materials at bulk and discount when cash becomes available, conduct pre-orders and custom dye products in-house. MADI has grown while staying focused on their cause because they also remember their financial responsibility and discipline.
Don't Be Afraid to Pivot
When MADI first started, the brand only sold women's underwear. Almost a decade later, it has grown to a retail brand that sells men's and homecare products. Hayley advised, "Always remember what's the mission, and not being afraid to pivot and to try new things … go after every single sale, every single partnership, every single coffee meeting … that mindset. It's helped us really grow a lot over the years." She described that the brand has gone through rebranding as the brand became more consumer-focused. While some founders may find it difficult to move away from the original idea or aesthetic of the business, Hayley advised that it is crucial to listen to the market and understand what consumers want. Being stubbornly stuck on the original concept could result in missed opportunities. The changes need not be significant shifts. Little steps every day could lead to more significant pivots. It is important to "not be afraid to see the bigger picture for the future, and for future growth". This mindset has enabled MADI to go from six essential underwear products to more than twenty different types of products under their brand. Their sales "have grown exponentially as opposed to if we were stuck in this hole of only making women's underwear and selling only to women."
Include Men in the Conversation
Opening up MADI to include men's products was an education moment. MADI became a men's brand that stood for a women's cause. "It helps us let men in this conversation. Why do women need underwear donations… why are the women in this situation?" This is an opportunity for men to understand the problem and to see how they can help. While underwear remains an immediate need at the shelters, the goal is to help at-risk women get back on their feet. Be vocal about providing safe and inclusive employment by doing job fairs at shelters. Stay open-minded and look beyond the experience that she has—ask, what opportunities could be given to her? Donate professional clothing, help with photography, anything to make them feel more confident about themselves.
I wondered aloud as to why people hesitate from helping. Hayley paused and reflected that part of the hurdle comes from not knowing much about the situation or problem. Second, that people don't always realize that they can do more than they think. A financial analyst or advisor could help by teaching about opening a bank account, saving money, and advising how to get financial independence. "Most of the time the organizations are so busy fundraising, trying to care for the people staying with them, that they love any support."
When Hayley reflected on that Christmas Eve, she wanted to understand what it felt like to be vulnerable. She believes that vulnerability brings its reward—asking "What do I know nothing about?" can help you learn something new.
In terms of immediate needs, when donating underwear to shelters, remember to be intentional about where the underwear is made. Look for environmentally friendly and ethical products. MADI makes products from bamboo because it is biodegradable. As consumers, we have a responsibility to check that what we buy does not stay in the environment.
Finally, be intentional about every purchase. Hayley sets our audience the challenge to buy only from small businesses for a month, where you know where the products are made and who makes them. She encourages each of us to think about everything that we buy and support brands that are building for the long term.