Carly Burson always thought her legacy would be rooted in giving children a home. But after spending time at the Ethiopian orphanage where she adopted her daughter, she realized that parents weren’t giving up their kids because they weren't wanted — they just couldn’t afford to keep them.
Inspired by this revelation, Carly began to figure out a way to target poverty in developing countries and keep families together. She eventually founded Tribe Alive, a fashion retailer that employs skilled female artisans to create handcrafted items.
We recently caught up with the ethical entrepreneur to talk about pricing complications and how she calculates a living wage for her staff.
Name: Carly Burson
Business: Tribe Alive
Started: June 2014
How did you create your awesome job?
My husband and I flew to Ethiopia to finalize our daughter’s adoption three years ago. While we were there, we saw birth parents visiting their children in the orphanage and realized that they’d given up their kids because of poverty, rather than because they were unwanted. It was eye-opening to discover that this was the root cause of children being abandoned.
I’ve worked in visual design for Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and J. Crew over the years. I loved my career and the companies I worked at, but coming back after maternity leave was a hard transition. I started to feel like the mainstream fashion manufacturing industry perpetuated poverty and was unethical and immoral. I just couldn’t continue working in a way that wasn’t honoring my daughter’s birth mother.
I'd already heard about the nonprofit Mi Esperanza, which helps women find meaningful employment and provides microfinance business loans and free skills training. After assistance from the charity, women establish businesses, typically using their amazing craftsmanship skills to make and sell high-quality jewelry, bags and other accessories. Their goods are predominantly sold to volunteer groups coming into the country.
I saw an opportunity to work with Mi Esperanza and other nonprofits like it. I decided to use my fashion experience to help local women create designs that were more on-trend and sell their products. That was the start of Tribe Alive!
I registered as an LLC, created the brand and designed the first collection two years ago. We now partner with nonprofit organizations in Honduras, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Haiti and India.
What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?
Recognizing that I have the skills and experience to make a difference, and how easy it was to change people’s lives for the better.
Our artisans can now afford to send their children to school and improve their futures. Education is how you truly eradicate poverty.
How do you price your products?
The issue with ethical fashion is that it’s more expensive to make and buy, but we wanted to create something different that’s accessible to everybody.
We have smaller margins, almost half of the mainstream fashion industry’s markup of 6x to 10x the production cost. We aim to sell in large quantities, and our prices range from $12 to $350.
To break down the numbers, we add the cost of our sustainable materials to the living wages we pay our artisans. Then, we research the market value of our products by looking at brands we consider our competition and compare their prices to ours. Our standard markup falls in line with the ethical fashion’s industry standards, although sometimes it’s a little higher or lower.
Calculating the living wage is vital, and we collaborate with our artisans and nonprofits for advice on this. A living wage isn’t the same as the Fair Trade wage, which has become irrelevant.
For example, we recently moved our jewelry studio out of the countryside and into the city because gangs were becoming a problem in the area. Now, some of our women travel five to six hours a day to get to work. Transportation costs a third of their income, so we’re revisiting their wages. Our prices always increase because our people need to earn more money, so it’s a constant and evolving conversation.
What is your most effective means of getting new customers?
We’re a small business with a budget to match, so we don’t spend a substantial amount on marketing. We plan to grow our marketing strategy this year, though.
We’re active on Instagram and Facebook, and we dabble in Twitter. When we buy sponsored posts on Facebook, our online traffic always increases. We also partner with like-minded brands to share their good work on our platforms and vice versa.
We can’t just rely on social media and brand collaborations anymore to grow our online presence, however. We’re constantly looking to get our name out there, increase hits on our website and work with large mainstream brands to tap into their following.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
We launched before we’d fully established a brand identity. Our first collection’s aesthetic wasn’t as cohesive as our lines are now.
If I could go back in time, I would have given us extra time and launched a more focused range.
How do you juggle other responsibilities and interests outside of your business?
I jumped into this business starry-eyed and didn’t really understand the life of an entrepreneur and business owner. I had no work-life balance for the first year and a half, and I sacrificed my relationships and responsibilities to my family.
It's a constant juggle, but I’ve learned to respect rules and boundaries so I can engage with my family and be present. My phone gets turned off at 7pm, and I don’t start work again until my daughter goes to school in the morning. Saturday and Sunday are family time, and I’ll get back to work Sunday night.
What would you like to learn today from a community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
It’s important for me to hear that I’m not alone in my failures! I’d like to know if other small business owners feel like they’ve achieved their goals and made it, or is owning a company a daily challenge?
What was the turning point where you felt like your company would be sustainable in the long run?
Do *you* have a story to share?
If you, like Carly, find it helpful to know that you're not alone — we hear you!
Share your own story below, and tell us more about your goals and challenges as a small business owner or self-employed professional.