Style With a Purpose: Joanna Steinberg Discusses the Social Mission of Parcel & Journey

Style With a Purpose: Joanna Steinberg Discusses the Social Mission of Parcel & Journey

The beaded bracelets from Kenya, the silk scarves from Nepal, the belts from Guatemala — they all have stories, and Joanna Steinberg wants to tell them.

In January 2013, Steinberg launched Parcel & Journey, an altruistic lifestyle brand that offers artisan communities around the world a platform to sell handmade accessories. The business represents a leap of faith that’s common to entrepreneurs; Steinberg left a comfortable career in the finance industry in order to turn her passions for fashion, travel, and trade enablement into something greater.

But translating a vision into a viable business wasn’t always easy. In this exclusive Bootstrapper interview, Joanna Steinberg explains the philosophy behind Parcel & Journey, the challenges she faced along the way, and her long-term goals for her business.

IN.CREDIBLY: What inspired you to start Parcel & Journey?

JOANNA STEINBERG: I’ve always had a social conscience, and no shortage of big ideas. Founding charity boards and doing non-profit work was my outlet when I was working in finance. In 2012, I co-founded The Bootstrap Project, which is a non-profit geared toward micro-finance and craft revival. Working with the Bootstrap Project introduced me to a lot of amazing organizations, and the concept of “trade not aid” really interested me. But, I found myself needing to move on.

I wanted to combine the vision of trade enablement, artisanal handicraft, and my love for travel into a lifestyle brand that would resonate with a more fashion-forward consumer. You need your customers to love and support what you do, so it helps to make something that’s more in line with them. I work with artisan groups to translate their skills into products that are more viable.

How would you define “trade not aid”?

Well, everyone’s heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That is trade not aid. You can give someone money, or charity, or food, or whatever it is, but that will not sustain them over the long term. On the other hand, if you enable individuals or communities to utilize an existing skill they have, or you put them through training programs to develop a skill or a trade, they will be able to sustain themselves for their entire lifetime.

Often, that will trickle down through a family and a community. The money that our artisans earn can pay for clean water, health care, schooling, and education, in places where those things aren’t easily accessible. I don’t only work with women, but it’s great to see women entrepreneurs benefiting from trade enablement and micro-finance, and providing a life and opportunity for their families that they didn’t have before, and their parents didn’t have.

Parcel-and-Journey-necklace1Where did you get the seed money to start Parcel & Journey?

I initially had savings that I put into this, and some help from my family. That sustained me for the first year when I was developing the business, but after that I needed additional money to work, so I went to the bank and took out a loan — which I am very much looking forward to paying back.

Do your artisan groups get a percentage of sales or are they paid upfront? How does the financial relationship work?

We figure out pricing upfront, before we go forward with production. The artisans tell me what they believe is a fair wage, usually per product, based on how long it takes them to make each item and what their costs are. I’m also working with people who are there on the ground with them, who help the artisans do costing exercises. It’s really important that they have the support to properly cost and figure out what they should be earning.

Recently, one of our retailers wanted to order this necklace I was making with an artisan group in Kenya. The retailer wanted the necklace to be larger, but they wanted to buy it for about the same price, and with a faster turnaround time. So I said to [the artisan group], “This is a great opportunity for us, because this is one of those companies that will place big orders, and it’s someone we want to work with moving forward. But it’s going to take you more time to make the necklaces, we’ll need more supplies to make them, and I don’t want to set you up for failure.”

So they got together, this group of women, and they decided it was important to them, and they wanted this business relationship. They said, “It makes sense for us. Yes, it’s less money [per piece], but if we’re getting this size of order, then it makes sense to us overall. Let’s do it.” It’s remarkable to see the business acumen and understanding from these groups, and they always have complete autonomy to make those decisions.

It’s an admirable business model — and it also sounds like a complicated one. You have to source product around the world, communicate with artisans from different cultures, and make sure they’re all being paid fairly. Was starting this business more challenging than you thought it would be?

Working internationally is challenging in itself. Working with other cultures is not easy, because there are so many things that get lost in translation. If you do not have all the funding in the world, with a huge team in place and enough money to meet with people for long time periods to get them up and running and make sure you’re on the same page, it can be very difficult. There’s definitely a learning curve when you’re dealing with international trade, and it’s not an industry where I was formally trained.

Launching this business was one of the hardest undertakings I’ve ever embarked on. And I can tell you, I thought this was going to be a no-brainer. “It’s going to be great! It’s going to be huge!” You have to have a certain level of confidence when you’re launching a business, but this has been a very humbling experience for me. For the first year and then some, I think I survived on adrenaline alone.

I do think mistakes are the best predecessors to success, and I’ve learned a ton through the mistakes that I made. If I could give a piece of advice to myself three years ago, it would be “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” I launched a brand with way too many SKUs — meaning way too many individual styles — too many product categories, and too many international partners. I’ve worked for the last eight months to simplify and streamline everything in my business, from the people I work with and the product categories I carry, to my distribution channels and web site platform, and it’s been the absolute best decision I could have ever made.

That’s a very long-winded way of saying that when you start something, it’s incredibly important to be very clear about what you’re looking to accomplish, and how you can do it a little bit at a time. Fortunately, I’ve built some really great relationships with my partners around the world and the communities I’m supporting over the years, and I’ve started to slowly find my niche.

Parcel-and-Journey-clutch-beach

In terms of marketing, what methods have been most effective for getting the word out, defining your brand, and attracting customers?

Word of mouth from my friends and family has been huge. But also, cultivating a true lifestyle associated with this brand and what we’re doing has really helped to create the most traction. Tara Michie has been a great brand ambassador for us. She’s a surfer, photographer, blogger, and model, and early on she was basically my muse. I’m like, “You embody this brand. Everything about you and your vibe embodies what I’m trying to do.” Her Bohemian surf and travel aesthetic were a great pairing for the brand.

I’ve been fortunate to have the support of certain magazine editors, who have reached out and wanted to tell the Parcel & Journey story. I also worked with a PR firm called Elle Communications, who solely represents socially responsible companies, and they were such an incredible partner. They really helped to spread the word and share the message in very thoughtful ways. If I had just gone with a fashion PR company, they might not have understood that there’s a greater purpose here that goes way deeper than the aesthetic of what you’re wearing.

How do you decide which artisan groups to work with?

Well, many of them found me. Since I was involved in many non-profit initiatives previously, I would attend conferences where I’d meet a lot of people who worked in the social good space. All you need to do is tell someone a little about your cause and they’re like, “Oh! You need to meet so and so, and this person’s doing that in Cambodia, and this person’s doing that in Thailand.” I have no shortage of people I could work with now, but ultimately, I need to work with groups who have infrastructure and can scale.

The Kounkuey Design Initiative is one organization I’ve worked with since Parcel & Journey started, and I love them. They build productive public spaces around the world — basically, incubators or innovation hubs that provide infrastructure and a place to work for all types of small businesses to originate. They also connect them with loans to help provide funding. When you’re working in third-world countries, crafts have always been a predominant form of livelihood, so you tend to see a lot of co-op crafts groups starting in these productive public spaces.

parcel-and-journey-cuffWhat are your long-term goals for Parcel & Journey, and how would you like to see it develop?

Well, my high level goal is to get Parcel & Journey to the point where it can be sold to a larger company, to give it the wings it deserves to take off on another level. I’m an originator, and I’m good at cementing a concept, laying the groundwork, and the initial building phase. But I think selling it or bringing in a company who knows what they’re doing and has a portfolio of larger retail brands would be great, because it could lead to greater international distribution, and we could build out the communities we’re working with in a way that I don’t have the capacity to do on my own, realistically.

I’ll be in business for three years in February, and I think I could use another two years to really get Parcel & Journey to a place where I’m super proud. Right now, I’m creating something that’s very sustainable for very focused communities, and I think that will paint a really great picture for a larger organization who can make Parcel & Journey everything it deserves to be. There are huge organizations like Ten Thousand Villagesthat work with communities all over the world to sell handicraft. I’m selling a higher-end product that’s a little more focused on the aesthetics, but you need the right kind of backer and institution and know-how to make it scalable.

To this point, what has been your proudest moment as owner of Parcel & Journey?

I definitely do not have a proudest moment yet, though I think I’m at a tipping point where there is going to be this “yippee!” moment coming. But I’ve had little quick wins. It’s exciting when stores that I love and respect discover the brand and place orders. It’s also been really cool to see certain stars like Kristen Bell and Alessandra Ambrosio rocking P&J gear, just casually strolling down the street. Those kinds of things are really exciting, and they get the message out. It’s very encouraging to know that my product resonates with people who embody the brand, who truly believe in what I’m doing and what the brand stands for.