Businesses that marry purpose with profit shape meaningful narratives, build bonds with consumers and carve out a competitive advantage. An excellent example of a company driving growth through impact is Olivela. Unlike many well-intended brands in the fashion and accessories space that make meaningful contributions, Olivela was designed to put impact first which in turn has accelerated its growth. I had the opportunity to speak with the luxury retailer’s Founder and CEO, Stacey Boyd, about how Olivela exemplifies how a brand can exist to solve a systemic social challenge.
Simon Mainwaring: Stacey, tell us about the origins of Olivela.
Stacey Boyd: Oli stands for ‘all of the trees’ and is a symbol of growth. Vela is Latin for the ‘sails of a ship.’ The idea is that we help set people forward on the right path.
SM: How was the company started?
SB: I was with Malala Yousafzai, celebrating her 19th birthday at the time. Unlike most teenagers, she doesn’t celebrate her birthday by throwing birthday parties. Instead, she visits different places around the globe and celebrates girls who otherwise might not have the opportunity to get an education.
The year I was with her, we went to refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya and Rwanda. Malala, her father and I stepped off a plane in Dadaab and there was an extraordinary group of women in front of us, all of whom were receiving distance education through Vodafone.
I reached in my bag to take a picture with my phone and realized that a fraction of the cost of my bag could have sent one of those girls to school for a year.
At the time, I was running another brand called Schoola, which is about as far from high end luxury as you can get. It’s a gently used clothing company that donates a portion of fund schools.
I called Jimmy Choo’s, Valentino’s and asked an incredible group of brands. I asked, ‘Would you be open to creating a multi-brand retail site that does good with every purchase?’
The response was extraordinary. We launched nine months after that with 12 brands and about 200 skews. Every one of the initial brands I reached out to said, ‘Yes’. I hired Kristen Sosa, who was the former Chief Merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue where she managed a $1.5 billion P and O. She’s grown us from 12 brands to 750 and over 30,000 skews.
SM: Why would they go through another platform like yours and how did you convince them to do it?
SB: You do well with what’s in your wheelhouse. They are extraordinarily talented at selling luxury goods. We are talented at selling luxury goods in service of a cause. It’s definitely not an either/or.
Brands benefit when someone amplifies their impact. It’s easier for us to say, ‘Look at the great things that this brand is doing,’ instead of them beating their own chest. It comes across as more authentic.
SM: Who tells the story about what you’re doing with the brands?
SB: We work hand-in-hand with every brand to figure out the best way to bring them to market and onto the platform. The storytelling varies but it’s a hopeful and empowering story that’s exciting for brands and consumers.
If you can buy the same thing on one of our competitor’s sites or buy it on ours and send a girl to school for 50 days, which one are you going to choose? You feel good knowing you’ve sent a girl to school and still have this beautiful artisanally created product that you love.
SM: Is there any resistance from brands? It must cost them something?
SB: It’s a $350 billion market. There’s lots of room for everyone. They’re used to other storefronts selling their products. The economics work.
SM: How do you cut through the noise of other brands doing impact work?
SB: We started this three years ago, before the notion of conscious consumerism really took hold. It’s built into our DNA. I trust consumers to know and understand what is genuine.
SM: One of the challenges that purposeful companies face is having too many impact areas, so what is Olivela’s focus?
SB: We started with girls education and female empowerment. We have other pillars that we’ve built customer audiences and loyalty around. Climate change is one. Children’s health is another. We’re doing a fourth pillar around social justice. We may have a fifth pillar coming, but I can’t talk about it yet.
It’s about what consumers are asking for. For me, gender equality is very important; however, it’s not everyone’s top priority. We listened to our community about the charities and causes they would like to support, then built our programming around that.
SM: What have you done to respond to COVID-19?
SB: Save The Children has been one of our partners since last year. As COVID-19 took the world by surprise, they partnered with No Kid Hungry. They help make sure that kids that rely on school lunch programs are getting nutrition and food during the pandemic. We launched with them in April and just crossed 150,000 meals served.
SM: How are you connecting around Black Lives Matter?
SB: Right now we’re looking at a number of social justice organizations we’re incredibly excited to be partnering with. One of the lenses we’re looking at is through COVID-19. We’re assessing how to leverage existing partners and looking at it through a new lens.
SM: How do you position yourself in the market to stand out?
SB: I like to say that we’re a bit player. We play a small but important role. We’ve become the platform that everyone can rally around and behind.
We tell the Olivela story to consumers when we share the stories behind each brand and charity we work with. Those stories make up the Olivela story and build our brand narrative.
SM: How do you tell those stories so they resonate?
SB: Storytelling is in everything we do. It is on every page. The causes are highlighted when you buy. We send emails about your impactful contribution. It’s not an add on. It permeates everything we do.
SM: How do you measure your impact and how do you report on that?
SB: We work closely with each of our charity partners in determining what the unit of impact is and what that costs. Then we factor that into every calculation. When you buy something on our site, you don’t just see that 20% goes to charity X. You see the number of meals or books that it’s providing for a child. There’s a level of transparency and accountability that’s important in today’s world.
SM: What are the advantages to creating impact as an aggregator like yourself?
SB: We offer a single platform multi-brand shopping experience that combines the impact message with the core fashion.
SM: What do you do when a brand on your platform doesn’t align with your core values?
SB: It’s important for us that our brands align with who we are and what we stand for. We do regular audits and keep a close eye on both brands and charities.
SM: And how do you vet the charities?
SB: We tend to work with large charities that have been vetted. You can look them up and see their records. We’ve partnered with Saint Jude’s and Save The Children and CARE and the Malala Fund.
Every charity that comes onto our platform goes through a multipronged review process where we’re not only vetting the charity, we’re vetting the board members to make sure they aren’t people that are inconsistent with the values.
You learn a lot about yourself as a brand from the things you say no to. It’s been important for us as a team in understanding and appreciating who we are and what we believe.
SM: How big is your team?
SB: There are about 80 people around the globe on our team. They’re amazing.
SM: What do you do to maintain a distributed workforce and maintain that culture of purpose?
SB: I actually think COVID-19 has taught us how to be more intentional. As opposed to leaving communication to hallways and things you can’t be sure are communicated, we have morning check ins. We talk about what we’re going to work on, what we’re trying to accomplish. We have daily check outs. What were blockers? We do meetings on Zoom in teams of four to five people.
We also have all hands on deck meetings where we review the company’s performance. Everyone is aware of key metrics and what we’re all rowing towards. The leading metric is the good that we’re doing in the world. It keeps all of us fired up and excited.
SM: What is Olivela’s long-term vision?
SB: Female empowerment, climate change and a couple of others we haven’t announced. It’s an important part of our larger vision.
SM: What lessons have you taken from COVID-19 that you might continue to apply later on?
SB: It’s hard to talk about because so many businesses are struggling right now and I don’t mean to minimize that at all. It’s been an extraordinary opportunity for us as a team to grow. We’ve been growing 20% to 60% month over month.
The reason we’ve been growing is we’ve been able to get very smart about what we’re marketing and what it is our consumers want. It’s the cause messaging. They want to be a part of making the world a better place.
SM: What’s the secret sauce that’s driving growth?
SB: Twenty percent is really generous. You don’t have a lot of platforms that do that, especially at the price point of the luxury items we sell. It’s about appealing to humanity’s better nature and being quantifiable about what good you can do as well as being clear post purchase. I also have a great team.
SM: How do you keep up with the ever changing digital marketplace?
SB: We’re keeping an eye on what’s going on around us but we’ve stuck to our guns in terms of our purpose. We talk about the table stakes that we need to continually get better on. It’s not always about new initiatives, but staying focused on the core things over time.
SM: What lessons have you learned that might benefit other entrepreneurs?
SB: The biggest thing is until money is in the bank, it’s not in the bank. You always need to have a plan B. I actually think as an entrepreneur, you need to have B through about M.
We had a 15 million round that was supposed to come in in March. It was supposed to close on Wednesday and the market plummeted on Monday. That forced us to think in a different way. We’re at a place where we’re better off than I think we would have been had we had that. That’s part of entrepreneurship. It’s, it’s not easy. It’s not fun all the time. But it gets you out of bed excited.
Simon Mainwaring: What’s your vision for how business can rise to the occasion given all these challenges we face?
Stacey Boyd: We need to reimagine the way that companies operate. It can’t be around the margins. We’re headed for a place where companies large and small will be forced to answer some of those questions in a deeper way as business leaders.