Monday, January 24, 2011
Joe Demin, from Yellow Leaf Hammocks, did exactly just that. After many years in the corporate world, he is now the “Chief Relaxation Officer” for his own enterprise.
As a business owner, I know there are so many highs and lows that come with the territory. In fact, it’s a reality for any type of passion being pursued. Many will say- never give up or never say never- and if you watch Oprah’s new show, Master Class, that is definitely the motto there. If you haven’t seen this show yet, I suggest you record it right this very minute (seriously right now) and then come back.
When you are a business owner many people will throw all kinds of ideas at you or tell you different contests you can enter. Recently, my friend told me about the British Airways' "Face of Opportunity" Contest and for whatever reason, we didn’t pursue it. Ironically, Joe did, and now he is one of the 250 entrepreneurs that won a free flight to exclusive international networking events and meetings. How exciting!
As always, I wanted to learn more and I reached out to Joe. Our conversation went great, but his responses to my questions were even better…
1.Can you describe the moment you decided to start Yellow Leaf Hammocks?
As cliché as it sounds, I knew I was onto something the moment I walked into the hammock shop on Lanta island. When I saw the hammocks, I was compelled to buy one, based on how great the product was alone. I then inquired about the origin of the hammocks and learned of the artisans behind them. At this moment, I knew I wanted to start Yellow Leaf, but I was not fully committed. I had kicked-off my career in commercial real estate at 17 (when I had my first internship) and was 4 weeks away from taking the GMAT exam, for which I had been studying about 20-30 hours per week, plus the “normal” work schedule; so I had to give this idea more thought, meet the Mlabri, and spend many weeks pondering this life changing decision.
The final decision came two weeks after I returned home, although I think I had my mind made up well before then. I spent the next several months working on Yellow Leaf after work hours and weekends and finally left the “corporate world” last week. I don’t think I can fully describe that moment though - simply unreal.
2.Can you explain the passion behind your decision?
Last fall I went on a retreat with 30 brilliant, passionate social entrepreneurs. Although hearing their stories and learning about their businesses was eye-opening and inspiring for me, this newfound knowledge would have to take a back seat as I returned home, where I spent my days structuring real estate deals and my nights studying for the GMAT. I wasn’t drawn to real estate by money or prestige, but by vivid memories of a slumlord harassing my mother when we first moved to America. I had dedicated 8 years to pursuing my career and could see its trajectory stretching up and onward. However, the rigid corporate environment soon sapped the passion out of my work and I desperately needed a vacation. In the dead of winter, I took a trip to Thailand. That trip set the stage for my discovery of the Mlabri. If I had heard the story of the Mlabri a year ago, I would have been inspired to buy a hammock. After my crash course in social entrepreneurism, I heard their story as a call to action.
3.How has this decision impacted your life?
For starters, I have become a happier person. Yellow Leaf is a social enterprise and lifestyle brand. Our core values are centered around wellness, relaxation, and doing good and as “Chief Relaxation Officer,” I must practice what I preach. That means taking on a healthier lifestyle and self-improvement in my own life first, which is something I am now working on.
4.Wonderful things have happened since you started this project, can you please share?
Immediately upon my return from Thailand, I began to lay the foundation for Yellow Leaf. I reached out to colleagues, acquaintances and friends and was amazed by the reaction I received. Inspired by the Mlabri and impressed by my business plans, they offered encouragement, advice and contacts to help us move quickly to market. As I became a one-man sales force, re-investing proceeds into the company’s growth, I also seized opportunities to introduce Yellow Leaf to strangers whose businesses I admired. Our casual advisers now include the leaders of multi-million dollar eco-luxury brands, philanthropists and other social entrepreneurs. I’ve learned just as much from the talented creative professionals who have donated their work: writers, artists and photographers who internalized Yellow Leaf’s message and gave voice and life to our mission.
Through all of this, I have to say that the most wonderful thing is seeing the smile on our customers (“hammockers”) faces, seeing the pleasure they get knowing that they are purchasing something truly unique and beneficial to their lives, and at the same time, knowing that this purchase is helping sustain an endangered culture and language, providing an alternative to slave-like field labor, and redirecting the local economy from slash and burn agriculture. All from hammocks!
5.What is your long-term goal for the company and what can we look for in the near future?
Yellow Leaf’s philosophy is one of economic empowerment for a forgotten group. With the secure income from the hammock project, the Mlabri are finally able to live on their own terms. As talented, well-compensated artisans, they can no longer be enslaved on toxic farms or be denied Thai citizenship and civil rights. Independent of charity, they can foster self-respect and protect their culture. Further, they can take pride in the fact that their handiwork far surpasses the quality of current hammocks on the market - their creations are not mere trinkets, but offer a true benefit to consumers. Our model surpasses that of local NGOs like the Mirror Foundation in terms of cultural preservation. Yellow Leaf moves beyond current social enterprise efforts like TOMS shoes and lives to “teach a [wo]man to fish.” In time, we hope to be able to support the weavers’ lifestyle for all Mlabri and to replicate this enterprise as a sustainable model for international aid and development.
Further, as a baseline of success, sales of 2,000 hammocks in our first full year of operations will support a healthy living wage for the 200 members of the Mlabri Tribe; who reside in the Ban Booyan Village, bringing more than 3.2 million baht into the village annually. At that income level, funds will be available to continue to improve nutrition, medical access and infant mortality rates, education and community infrastructure. Expanding hammock operations and employing more weavers will combat other problems in the Mae Lai Valley. By reducing dependence on toxic farming and creating new opportunities for the indentured laborers, we will reduce the amount of rainforest acreage lost to slash and burn agriculture. We will also stem the loss of young people to sweatshop factories in Bangkok, providing local opportunity to a new generation. This is the model we want to replicate in future initiatives with similar groups - through sustainable income and community empowerment, these changes are achievable.
I love his story, the beautiful hammocks, his call to action, his business title and just the company’s philosophy overall. There are so many good people out there trying to help others and I admire that he wants to replicate this model for other groups as well. Hats off to you, Joe!
It’s funny, I have met so many wonderful people because of this blog, and actually I get updates from some of the people I have connected with. I love it. I didn’t even realize I would be building relationships and it’s definitely an added bonus.
Pursing a goal or trying to live your dream is not always an easy ride, but with so many lessons learned along the way and connections being made, it appears as though it would be hard to ever regret… no matter what happens…
Have you taken a leap of faith in any area of your life? Please feel free to share some tips or lessons you learned along the way…