My company recently hosted a three-day, multi-city run of events for entrepreneurs. The goal of these events was to sit down and talk to entrepreneurs at various stages of launching their products. We learned about their processes, let them ask us questions, and helped them connect with one another. While there, I had a truly eye-opening experience that has inspired and energized me.
Hustle While You Work
On the final day of events, we were in Brooklyn. It was there that I met Jelani Chance, the founder of Stolmid, a swimwear company preparing to launch in 2019. He’s a born and raised Brooklynite, and he grew up in tough neighborhoods during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. As a now avid traveler, he shared a story with me about a recent visit he made to a city in Mexico, where he was reminded again that things can always be tougher.
The scope of poverty in this beautiful town dwarfed his experience growing up in what was then low income Brooklyn neighborhoods. It was another reminder that although things were tough, there are many people with less. It continued to put things in perspective, also reminding him that even with the challenges he faces, he’s still in a position to help people in need.
When he returned from his trip, he was determined to find a way to help the homeless. He became a man on a mission and spent three months figuring out the best way to make a positive impact through Stolmid. Working full-time at his day job, he got home every night around 10 p.m. But he dedicated 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. to hustling on this new project.
Jelani is passionate about clothing and design, so he chose that as the vehicle for his outreach.
Combining his passion with his motivation to have a positive impact on society, he designed a premium men’s short with prints inspired by his travels, uniting flawless style with precision functions such as waterproof sealed pockets.
Despite his best efforts, he continually hit walls. He worked with a number of vendors across the globe, but the initial concepts just weren’t working. He couldn’t find a way to make the shorts functional without being bulky. Finally, through a vendor relationship built over six months, he was introduced to the right engineering firm and a consulting firm connected Stolmid to a production company that checked all their boxes. It was exactly what he’d been looking for.
His product has now evolved significantly from that first concept into swim shorts that can be paired with a waterproof wallet. Jelani’s desire to be a champion for his cause and to help uplift those that are less fortunate fueled his determination to persevere—all this in spite of the fact that it was costing him more money and taking him more time. He wasn’t successful right away, but he didn’t let that stop him.
Find Your North Star
Best-selling author, speaker, and organizational consultant Simon Sinek speaks often about the importance of finding your “why.” This is more than just a catchphrase. Your “why” is everything—the reason why you’re putting effort into things.
Because Jelani had a passion and a purpose, he was able to push through all the obstacles he encountered. But did he really know his why?
When we first sat down to talk at this event, he had a lot of questions about product delivery, but his message was very watered down. He passionately said to me, “I just want to help people.” That’s great, but everyone wants to help people, right? So I asked him to be more specific.
He then launched into telling me about his visit to Mexico, and I said, “That’s great, but is that really your why?” We continued talking, and he realized although he wants to help those people in that town in Mexico—and others like them all over the world—he really needed to start at home.
After a day of meetings and a meet-and-greet where attendees shared their projects, Jelani’s pitch had changed significantly. Instead of saying, “I want to make shorts,” he said, “I want to help people that are seeking a second chance, to get off the ground. So while my company is going to do a number of things, we’re going to donate a percentage of our proceeds to this cause specifically.”
His why is not to make money selling shorts; it is to support people seeking a helping hand. The shorts are merely the mechanism to do that, “paying it backward” to the cities that influenced and inspired him, starting with Brooklyn and New York City.
There is such power in finding your true cause. It becomes your North Star and your guiding light. If you ground all your day-to-day decisions in it, your why acts like a kind of compass to keep you on track.
Do It for the Micro-Moments
Another amazing brand at the Brooklyn event showcased the power of knowing and living your why. They’re called Solight Design, and they produce flat pack solar powered lights.
The lights are quite inexpensive, and their business model is a bit like Tom’s shoes. They use a portion of their proceeds from lights they sell to large retailers like REI and WholeFoods to buy lights, at cost, to send to places without consistent access to light sources. They also offer a “Donate Light” program through their website, which allows consumers to donate directly to people in need.
When Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz turned to national news channels to beg for help. Solight’s customer, Operation Blessing, showed up at Mayor Cruz’s door just after the disaster hit.
When they arrived, Mayor Cruz was holed up in her office with no light or power. They knocked on the door, and the mayor—frustrated and overwhelmed—said, “Unless you have power or light, I don’t have time for you.”
Turns out, that’s exactly what they had. Upon hearing this, the mayor started to cry. They got to work handing out lights and Solight’s co-founder, Stacy Kelly, traveled to San Juan just a few weeks later to help in the distribution efforts.
Purpose is an incredibly powerful driving force. For many entrepreneurs, it’s not about the products. It’s about these micro-moments, for being there when someone really needs them.
Products will come and go, but what doesn’t—and shouldn’t—change is your why.
You can overcome all kinds of obstacles if you’re clear on why you’re doing it. If your why is truly important to you—more than just making a profit—you can more easily pivot and navigate obstacles that would normally have you jumping ship and moving on to the next project.
Before you take one more step on your business journey, take the time to figure out what is driving you. Ground yourself in it, and never forget it. Let it be your mission, your purpose, your everything.