In the third installment in our series on amazing ethical start-ups, we talk to Lauren Foulger and Erica Smart, the founders of Humble Hilo.
Humble Hilo blends fashion with philanthropy, creating beautiful Hupil Bags and home design products while supporting projects in microfinance, education, and health and nutrition in Guatemala.
At what point in your career did you realize that you would start Humble Hilo? How have you seen it evolve since you started?
I (Lauren) have been the volunteer Director for the NGO World Link Partners (WLP) for the past 6 years trying to raise awareness and create opportunities for impoverished families living in rural Guatemala. I have spent years trying to come up with different ways to fund our humanitarian projects. I am not a fundraiser, and there is nothing I like less than asking corporations for money to sponsor us. After seeing one of my bags I bought in Guatemala several years ago, Erica approached her about selling them. It evolved into a wonderful business model where not only we were selling beautiful products, but were able to employ many women and families and give back to humanitarian projects in need. In a nutshell, we started Humble Hilo to eliminate the need to fundraise, and wanted to create a company that not only gives back a portion of its profits to fund WLP, but also to give families in Guatemala work, and to sell products online that appeal to the masses and that carry meaning.
Your product line is not only fair trade and sustainable, but it also gives back to local communities in many different ways. I love the feature where you share exactly how many different community initiatives customers supported each month. How do you monitor and evaluate the impact of Humble Hilo? How do you manage to grow the business and your impact/reach while keeping everything you’ve established on the ground sustainable?
One of the aspects that really sets us a part from other companies selling Guatemalan products is that our impetus for starting Humble Hilo was to fund humanitarian projects that have been on the ground and functioning successfully for 8-10 years. I have spent years working along side local Project Directors and have regular contact with them to discuss the impact of Humble Hilo donations that come in. As the Director of WLP, I am aware of where every penny of our donations goes, how they are used, and the outcome of the project through regular and thorough reporting given to us by our Guatemalan-based Project Directors who are on-the-ground and work with the projects daily.
Thankfully, we have a great team running Humble Hilo, a team in Guatemala that oversees the production of Humble Hilo products, and a separate team that runs the humanitarian projects of WLP. Everyone has his or her specific responsibilities and so far it is running smoothly and is continually sustainable.
Tell us more about World Link Partners and how you work with them in the field? What is the importance you have seen in having an on-the-ground partner?
World Link Partners is a 501-c3 and has been involved in humanitarian efforts in Guatemala for over a decade. Lauren has been the Active Director of WLP for the past 6 years- years before Humble Hilo even came along. It has been incredibly beneficial to have an on-the-ground partner and regular contact with the projects we support. Essentially, we are able to skip the middleman and focus directly on the project needs in real time. Our focus and goal is to help support these projects we are so passionate about, and that is our priority with Humble Hilo and the reason we started this company.
Can you tell us more about the process of getting inspiration for your designs and bringing them to market? How do you work with the artisans to ensure that both tradition and functional design are upheld?
We wish we could say it’s something super scientific, but it’s really pretty simple: we get our inspirations from everywhere. The bags and designs are the work of the Guatemalan people and we’d never claim any of that as our own. However, after working with Humble Hilo so long and seeing and meeting so many awesome companies, stylists, customers, etc. we have been exposed to so many beautiful designs and products. We take inspiration from everything around us and see what we think fits Humble Hilo and our customer based.
We have a team in Guatemala that works with the artisans daily; they deserve all the credit. We’ve met with the team and the artisans who create the bags and gone over every detail as closely as possible. They are wonderful, hard-working people and they make our jobs look easy.
What are your thoughts on fast fashion brands using traditional designs from Guatemala and other countries without giving the communities credit or sharing profits? Why is this so common, and how do you foresee this pattern changing?
I think it all comes down to honesty. There is a big difference between copying designs and taking credit vs being inspired by designs. Most of us are consumers of fast-fashion and I think that is okay. I hope as they create these textiles and items that they are giving proper credit to those they pulled it from as well as finding a way to give back to whatever cause they are passionate about. Pay it forward. We also realize that many of these countries that create beautiful work aren’t equipped to make mass-market products. We hope to always bring beautiful products to market, where we can scale and use actual native product we always will, but we also will continue to design our own products and responsibly source them. Our goal is to generate profits to fund our projects. We want to help better the country, that doesn’t mean we just want them all to become factory workers. We want them to flourish and become what they’ve dreamed of becoming.
How do you navigate cultural differences, language barriers, and different expectations when working with the communities who make Humble Hilo Products? What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the field? And some of the biggest lessons learned?
When working in foreign countries, there are always cultural difference and language barriers to deal with. One of the nice things about having lived and worked in Guatemala years before we started Humble Hilo is that we were able to anticipate many of the cultural differences and avoid some of the difficulties that accompany it. That doesn’t mean that we have avoided them all together. One of the things that people love about our brand is that most of our products are handmade, but this is also one of the most challenging aspects of our products. Every product varies and logistically it has been difficult to photograph and promote our products. Often we get customers that want a certain bag they saw in a photo, and are often disappointed when they find out they are one-of-a-kind. Another challenge that we face is keeping up with the demand of our customers. Our huipil bags are made from traditional handmade blouses that take months to make, so it is not something you can pull together overnight. We have had to learn patience that these cultural art pieces aren’t something that can be rushed and take time for our employees to find, and make in to bags. We work in small villages where American deadlines and mass productions are not part of their culture. They take time and pride in the work they do… which is a reason their products are so beautiful and sought after.
Many of your Instagram posts focus on the bonds of mother and child, and many of your products are geared toward new moms. How has being a mother shaped the way you develop and design your products? Do you find a shared experience as moms with the women who make your products in the field?
Our thoughts are, and will always be geared toward moms. We are mothers first. It makes it easy to create products that improve our everyday life.
There is a universal language of being a mother. Traveling anywhere, you see kinds hanging on their moms, asking for treats in a store, being consoled, yelled at, etc. Moms are moms and there will always be a core connection.
Do you have any advice to young entrepreneurs who want to launch a socially conscious business model? Is there a secret to making businesses with a mission work effectively?
We get this question quite a bit, and our answers is always the same: DO IT! The secret to any business is passion, hard work, honesty and integrity. It sounds cliché every time we say it, but it’s true. People recognize your authenticity, it’s not something you can fake. If you’re in it for the right reasons, people will know. Also, be kind. There are dishonest people, copy-cats, negative comments and a lot of bumps in the road. Be kind, you’ll never regret it.
What is your proudest moment since you started the company?
For me, my proudest moments are when I get to go visit Guatemala and see the change that is happening in person. There is so much mundane work behind computers and swimming in inventory that is part of the job, but when I am able to go to the projects or visit the women that we employ in Guatemala and see the difference it is making in their lives, I am rejuvenated and remember why we are doing what we are doing.
Another of my proudest moments is the opening of the Health and Resource center that is discussed in more detail in the Question 10.
Humble Hilo has expanded to so many new products over the last few months, from your Humble Deeds bracelet to a sleek line of home decor. What’s next for Humble Hilo as you continue to grow, and what is next for your projects in the field?
We wish we knew! Mainly we are trying to just catch our breath. We are constantly thinking of new ways to grow, to continue to support our projects. Right now we have launched our own design and line of backpacks and we are focusing on those along with our bags and baby products. We know some products will work and others won’t, but we’ll continue to bring new products to market that we think our customers, like ourselves, will love.
Humanitarian Projects: One of the most exciting happening as far as our humanitarian projects is the establishment of a Health and Resource Center that we are opening in the impoverished villages of where our projects are based in Senahu, Guatemala. For the last 8 years I have been working towards having a Multiuse Center. To be honest, I never thought I would see the day, but with the help of Humble Hilo donations and other generous donors, this Center will be opening sometime this year in the main town of Senahu. We are going to transform what is now a vacant and rundown building into a Center that will improve the lives of people in need. This Center will serve many purposes and will create a ripple effect of change in this town and the 120 surrounding villages. It truly is a dream come true. We are leaving next week to Guatemala to see visit the Center, projects and meet with our artisans.