This week, IBN member Lela Barker, owner of Bella Lucce in Columbia, SC, is launching an exciting new non-profit venture. From Morocco, With Love offers wonderful products imported from the beautiful nation of Morocco. I have seen this venture unfold from the time it formed as a seedling in Lela's mind, so this week's launch is especially exciting for me to watch.
Among the many lovely products Morocco, With Love offers is this lovely pair of women's leather babouche slippers pictured above, alongside the company logo. In a minute, I will tell you how to enter to win a free pair in the color of your choice, plus another From Morocco, With Love treasure.
Because Lela is already a busy and successful CEO (her products can be found in boutiques, spas and resorts all over the world), I was curious to know why she felt compelled to launch another business. Then I became curious to know why she wanted to launch a non-profit business.
And then, I became curious to know how in the world she planned to keep up with it all. I figured you might be wondering some of the same things, so I asked Lela to pony up some answers. Here's what she told me.
dM: You already have a busy and thriving business. Why another one? What is driving you here?
Lela: I first visited Morocco in June 2009 just for kicks. There's an amazing world music festival in the village of Essaouira each summer, and a dear friend and I were eager to attend. It was an incredible journey and I wanted to return to the country.
Luckily, I’m in the early stages of a book project that needed some work done in Morocco. So I returned last September to start the research for that adventure and, during that visit, I was invited to visit a rural village school. What I saw there that day made an indelible impression on me and I haven’t been able to shake it.
The two room school house had no library, no computers, no overhead projectors and no smart boards. There was neither heat nor air conditioning. There were no crayons, no jump ropes, no playground equipment and no hot meals. The students, those that can afford the $50 annual tuition, walked or rode the family donkey between two and four kilometers to get to the school.
The teachers don’t have it any easier. They leave their homes and families during the week and travel to rural areas to help the children, and they share very basic living quarters. On less than $400 a month, the teachers must provide their transportation to and from the school, their food while at school, and all of their family expenses at home.
The “teacher house” has no heat, no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no computer, no running water, no stove and no cabinetry.
Despite these conditions, both the children and the teachers radiated joy and a palpable tenacity, and I was drawn to that. I love the underdog. And if these kids don’t have the deck stacked against them, I don’t know who does. But they smile and laugh and walk and study and sacrifice in order to move forward.
As I left, every single one of the 156 students came to kiss me on my hands – a sign of deep respect in Morocco. They didn’t want anything from me. I hadn’t brought any gifts or made any promise. I had just come to spend time with them and they were thankful for that.
I drove away from that little school forever changed and in search of a way to somehow “adopt” those kids and children like them. I wanted to tell the world their story, to compel other people to act and to raise money to help ease their journey a bit. From Morocco, With Love is the manifestation of that desire.
Hassane, my driver and translator on that journey, has become the sole employee in this new venture. He coordinates a network of Moroccan craftsmen who produce the beautiful textiles, thuya wood products, pottery and leather items that we sell. From Morocco With Love buys them at a fair price, exports them to America and sells them at our website.
We return all profits to Morocco for the benefit of the local impoverished.
dM: Why new business, and why non-profit? Could you have accomplished the same goals through Bella Lucce, an already existing business?
Lela: Bella Lucce certainly keeps me on my toes and I am ever-grateful for that. Thankfully, it’s in a good place right now. We’re as busy as we need to be, and I have a fantastic staff that keeps all the daily balls in the air so I can focus on strategic development and the bigger picture. Increasingly, that picture has included how we can more positively impact the world, how we can shape it for the better.
I believe that we all fundamentally have that core responsibility. Some of us are more willing to focus on it than others, some are better positioned to focus on it than others, but we all have it.
As I slide into the back end of my 30’s, I’ve realized that what I personally need right now is not more money. What I need is to feel that what I do each day is having an impact. Not just on my bank account, not just on my local community, but on the world at large.
I’m in the beauty business and it can ring hollow and a bit shallow at times. When it does, I have work like this that I can focus on to mentally revitalize me. It does that in a way nothing else can. This revitalization is good for me personally, good for my staff and good for my family. It's an overwhelmingly positive force that sweeps everything up and pushes it along for the better.
Thankfully, my for-profit company, Bella Lucce, adequately compensates me and my staff. There’s really only so much money you need in the end. My needs are all taken care of, as are many of my wants. After staring into the eyes of those little girls at the Moroccan school, I couldn’t envision starting another venture to enrich myself while they struggle just to eat. I can’t walk away from that.
dM: What are the basic steps to creating a non-profit?
Lela: In many ways, launching a non-profit was remarkably similar to beginning my for-profit company. There are websites to be built, bank accounts to be opened, phone lines to be installed, photos to be taken, accountants and lawyers to be consulted, inventory to be stocked, etc.
I was lucky that I had a great support system of people already in place and we were able to utilize many of the talents that have long worked with Bella Luccè in various capacities. In that regard, having previous experience as an entrepreneur was invaluable to getting my non-profit off the ground.
However, there are some key differences in the two types of companies and I’ve spent an enormous amount of time learning how to navigate those. Essentially, a non-profit incorporates as a non-profit in the state in which it is located. There is a fairly straightforward set of paperwork to complete and file with the Secretary of State.
There are tremendous legal implications inherent in this type of corporatel structure, and one should not enter into it lightly. For example, if From Morocco With Love is ever dissolved, I must return all of its assets to another nonprofit or the state itself. And we have very specific tax laws that must be followed to the letter.
Non-profits are actually governed by board members who oversee strategic growth, while an Executive Director manages them on a day-to-day basis. I’m the Executive Director of this venture, but I am somewhat beholden to the board I’ve assembled and we must meet regularly to encourage transparency within the nonprofit.
Additionally, my nonprofit is filing for federal 501c3 status with the IRS. That is an “elevated” nonprofit of sorts, with different tax implications. But it’s a significant amount of time invested in paperwork that is literally thick enough to be a book, along with some pretty hefty fees.
That process takes 6-9 months for approval after filing, so it’s anything but a quick and easy process. Learning these waters has been incredibly eye-opening for me and I’ve probably spent as much time on that process as anything else.
There are definitely days I’ve felt the sheer “weight” of this venture and have gotten a bit weary with the amount of responsibility it carries, but I do believe it will be worth it in the end. I found Scanpo, a state-wide trade organization for nonprofits who has been an invaluable resource for me and I encourage anyone with an interest in starting a nonprofit to look for something similar in their area.
dM: How do you plan to manage two extremely busy businesses?
Lela: Honestly, I’m not quite sure how that’s going to work. I think this is one of those instances where you just feel compelled to act, so you stand on the edge of the cliff, close your eyes and jump, and then pray that the wind carries you. While the “launch phase” of this venture has been almost five months in the making, I’ve been incredibly busy and have had to borrow a significant amount of work time from Bella Lucce.
I hadn’t anticipated that being a tremendous problem, as the economy of 2009 had certainly slowed us a bit. However, we’re charting a record 2010 so far, and it’s been difficult at best to juggle my daily responsibilities at Bella Lucce alongside this new project. That has translated to Bella Lucce being a tad neglected and my sleep schedule being massively neglected.
However, I’m hopeful that From Morocco, With Love will be much less demanding post-launch, and I plan to dedicate about 20 hours per month once the venture finally sprouts wings. The bulk of the buying and pre-shipment work will be done by Hassane on the ground in Morocco. Bella Lucce staff process and ship orders from our South Carolina warehouse. I’ll focus on the logistics of adding new inventory, accounting paperwork and freight arrangements.
Of course, this is all in theory, isn’t it? Honestly, I have no idea what From Morocco, With Love will do. I felt moved to start something like this and I am just putting it out there in the universe. It’s been tremendously blessed and supported thus far and I remain optimistic that I’ll be able to manage whatever direction it eventually takes.
dM: Who helped you with the new venture?
Lela: I was blown away by the number of people who stepped up to the plate to help nurse From Morocco, With Love along. I called up many souls who have been invaluable resources for Bella Lucce and explained this new project. More times than not, they voluntarily (and without me even suggesting it) offered to do the work without payment or with a ridiculously low price tag attached. This entire venture would not have come together so beautifully without their help. I’ll be crediting them on the website, but I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank them here as well.
Padraic Ryan of Ryan Design Studio donated his time and talents to this website. Having long been our web designer for Bella Luccè, I approached him for a quote on launching this website and was floored when he offered to do it gratis. He’s brilliant to work with and a very patient soul and I owe him my right arm at this point.
My dear friend Robin Nalepa, a brilliant writer, photostylist, PR gal and all-around fabulous person patiently styled dozens of products, drew up our press release, edited a small mountain of web copy and helped me maintain both my focus and my sanity.
Kim Kim Foster is a feature photographer for The State newspaper. She’s also one of the grooviest chicks I know and she stepped right on up to the plate when I threw myself at her feet, pleading with her to photograph mountains of Morocco’s finest artisan goods. Kim Kim and Robin recently launched a copywriting and product photography service for small businesses. Their website is coming soon at www.flowerboots.com. In the meantime, you can contact Robin at rcnalepa at aol dot com.
Dharma Merchant Services provide our credit card processing. They set the standard for green, socially responsible processing with a heavy focus on nonprofits and they graciously waived all setup fees in support of our efforts to help Morocco. If you’re a business that accepts credit cards, please contact Alexia at (866) 615-5157.
Brooke Stant, of Villainess is a cherished friend who also happens to design uber-cool custom blogs. She volunteered her talents and time to create Lovenotes, our blog that keeps people informed of new products, community donations, highlights of Moroccan culture and upcoming philanthropic efforts.
Professional Printers in Columbia, SC is our printer. I am indebted to Clint and his team for rolling back prices on a variety of collateral materials necessary to launch this venture. Recipients of a 2007 National Premier Award, Professional Printers uses digital presses to create some of the most brilliant work in the industry, with quick delivery and extremely competitive prices. You can reach Clint at (803) 796-4000.
dM: What are your long term goals with this venture?
Lela: I’m really eager to see all this hard work translate into dollars we can return to Morocco. I visited the same school again in December with a small carload of playground equipment, including dozens of jump ropes, balls, ribbon wands and parachutes. The children were beside themselves as most had never seen those types of toys and it was tremendously uplifting to see the gratitude in their eyes and know that something we did brought joy to their day.
A girl could get addicted to that feeling and I hope to return several times per year to witness the philanthropy myself and document the good works for our clients. We have many earmarks for the funds raised via the website, from building wells and plating gardens to providing books, shoes, dental kits and school tuition to the children of Morocco.
I’m planning to journey to Mali, Africa soon for Bella Lucce, and my sister had the gall recently to ask me if I’d be starting From Mali, With Love in 2011. After I indulged in a really hearty laugh, I answered, “Maybe after I take a looooong nap.” You never know…
dM: Would you recommend that others with the passion you have to help others launch a non-profit to complement a for-profit venture?
Lela: I would never conceive of telling someone to NOT start a nonprofit. I truly believe that the world as a whole needs to “get outside of itself” and focus a larger share of energy working cooperatively to ease the burden of the impoverished. It takes so little some time to make a tremendous impact, and I hope we’ll all look for ways to do that.
With that said, a full-fledged nonprofit is far more work than I ever envisioned. I came home last September on a bit of a high, determined to find a way to help those children. Things were still a bit slow at Bella Lucce, so I had some extra time. Thankfully, I also had some extra money. It seemed like the perfect storm. Five months later, I’m broke and tired and my kids are missing their mom, but I stand on the cusp of something really wonderful, born out of love and gifted with such potential to change hundreds of lives and I can’t help but be wildly enthusiastic about that.
I can’t tell anyone else what to do with their time and money. I can only speak for me, but starting From Morocco, With Love is the single greatest thing I have ever done, save for the birth of my two daughters. I pray that the universe sows the seeds that I have planted. If it also moves someone else to do something positive for the world, then we’re all better for it.
dM: How are you and your family handling the additional time it takes from your time together to do this?
Lela: Honestly, I’ve given up sleep. And days off. And nights out.
That was the only way to get this done. But I have an amazing support system at home as well. My husband, Christopher, has patiently resized and upload hundreds of pictures, constructed inventory spreadsheets, watched my children while I’ve been overseas and pulled more laundry and dinner duty than any man ever should. He also never complained when the initial funding ballooned to four times the sum I had initially planned. God love him.
My kids have drawn me pictures when I have become completely delirious and been very patient when they’ve had to tell their teachers, “Mom’s in Africa again, you can’t call her right now.” And a few girlfriends have had to talk me off the ledge with warm smiles and glasses of Shiraz. I’m extremely grateful to all of them.
Though we’ve had nannies and housekeepers in the past, our household is flying solo these days. The house is a bit messier and the food isn’t nearly as good, but we’re making it.
dM: Thank you, Lela. I know we have only seen the tip of the iceberg, but I am confident that your journey is inspiring many people to consider how they might make a similar difference in the lives of children in other parts of the world.
I am so ecstatic to see the wonderful Moroccan treasures at From Morocco, With Love. Lela has been gracious enough to offer you a chance to win a pair of the women's leather babouche slippers in the color of your choice. And I have decided to sweeten the booty by adding a set of six multi-colored arabesque henna tea glasses. Are they gorgeous or what?!
To be entered to win both of these fabulous Moroccan goodies, you must do each of these three things:
- Leave a comment below. Tell me how Lela's story inspires you to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate, especially children. You may share as many comments as you'd like. Each will be considered separately.
- Join the Indie Business FaceBook Fan Page. Here's the link. How easy is that one?
- Twitter a link to this post. You can do this automatically by clicking here. That link opens up your Twitter page and makes it easy for you to Tweet this post with one click.
On February 22, I will choose one winner, based solely on my impressions of the comments submitted here. I will notify the winner via direct message on Twitter so be sure to follow me if you are not now doing so. If you don’t hear from me via DM by close of business on February 22, you did not win. The winner will be announced at this blog and elsewhere later in the week. (If it's enough fun, I may just choose a second, and maybe even a third place winner!)
Question: Are you inspired by Lela's launch of From Morocco, With Love? How does Lela's story inspire you to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate, especially children?