In April I organized a panel for the Stanford Women's Leadership Conference called "Solutionary Women: How Can I Create Change?" I asked four of the women who I had previously interviewed for the Big Vision Podcast to share what brought them to their work, and their advice for the graduate and undergraduate women who attended the conference.
You can listen to it here, and I have included the transcript below. The speakers were Alli Chagi-Starr, who is the Co-Founder of Art in Action; Ilyse Hogue, the Campaign Director for MoveOn.org; Melinda Kramer, the Founder and Director of Women's Earth Alliance; and Reem Rahim, the Co-Founder and Vice President of Marketing for Numi Tea. Oh yeah, and I do some talking in the beginning, too (:
The panel was about 50 minutes. I put each woman's photo at the beginning of when she talks to mark each section. I hope you'll take the time to read it, because they all have some great advice. Enjoy!
Britt Bravo: Thanks, you guys, for coming out for the last panel. I know, we're the last panel, it's the end of the day, and you're probably a little tired. So first, I just want to thank the Conference for having us here. When Sophia contacted me and asked if I would talk here, my first thought was, "You know, I could talk here, but I just know so many amazing women who have stories that I want to share."
What I do is, I write for several blogs, as she mentioned. One is called Have Fun * Do Good, which is my personal blog; BlogHer, which is a network of women bloggers; NetSquared, which is about how nonprofits can use the social web for social change; and also the San Francisco branch of WorldChanging, which is talking about what are different solutions, particularly focusing on green solutions, happening in the Bay Area.
I also produce several podcasts, one of which is called the Big Vision Podcast. And all of these women [on the panel] I interviewed for the Big Vision Podcast, and asked them about their work, and how they came to do their work, and advice they have for others who want to do similar work. So when I was asked to do this panel and learned what this conference was about, I thought, "Well, I should have them come and tell their stories to you." So they'll each tell you a little about that, and we'll have time for questions and answers at the end. And also, we'll be here a little bit for the reception, so you can also come and talk to people one-on-one.
For folks who are interested in how you can use blogs and podcasts and other social media things for social change, basically the way I started was, I have always worked for nonprofits and socially responsible businesses, and was not technical at all. That's the first thing: you do not have to be technical. You can use different technologies for these things, as easy or as difficult as you want. And really, when I started, I thought that blogs were for kind of strange people in their basements who were typing about conspiracy theories and stuff like that.
And about two years ago, I met a woman named Jory Des Jardins, who has a blog called Pause. She's my next-door neighbor. And when she said, "Oh, I have this blog," I was like, "You have a blog? Whoa, you must be freaky!"
I looked at her blog, and she was a very good writer. And she just wrote these really well-written essays about things that were of interest to her, and I was like, "Oh! This is really cool!" And I'd always wanted to be a writer, and I had tried many forms, and none of them really fit for me. A blog was really perfect for me, because first of all, it was a very casual voice -- it's not very formal.
But also, I come from a family that -- I don't know if any of you guys have moms or grandmas who send envelopes full of newspaper clippings of things that might interest you? I knew that was going to be me very soon -- and a blog, in many ways, is like a digital version of that envelope. Because you're just sending links. "Check this out, check that out, and look at this!" But it's a much broader audience than just your family.
And also, because I've always been involved with nonprofits, which are about helping other people and trying to make the world a better place, and I've done a lot of career counseling, I'm always trying to give people advice and share information. So this was a perfect venue, because it was like, "Here's this thing I want you to know about, here are these amazing women doing this work. Here's this action you should take, this thing you should boycott, this organization you should know about." And it was really easy for me to share that information and link to those places.
And the podcasts became an extension of that, because I realized I wanted to do interviews, and it was a great way to do the interviews and have them in an audio form for people who are interested in audio, and then also I get them transcribed and put them on the blog. So, if that's something that's interesting to you, I can definitely talk to you about details afterwards, but my advice to you is, number one: don't be afraid of the tech. OK? There are many different platforms for both doing podcasting and blogging that are easy or difficult.
It's best to pick a topic that's sort of a niche topic, or... it doesn't have to be completely narrow, but you're going to get more of an audience if it's about a particular issue, rather than just everything. You don't want to write about everything, because then people won't find you in the same way as when they search on Google about "homelessness issues", or "the environment." If you're writing just about certain issues, your blog or your podcast is going to come up more and more.
Also, a great tip that someone had told me is to create your blog or your podcast and think of three people who you want to be your audience. And always be sort of writing to them, even though you know it's a broader audience. So for me, I actually often pick my parents [when writing about technology], because they have dial-up, and they're not very tech-savvy. And so I'm always trying to make things really simple, and explain things in a way that they would understand, kind of thinking of so it's not just for the Bay Area, who know how a lot of things work. There are a lot of people who don't. So they're some of the folks that I write for.
And then finally, I would say to follow your curiosity and your inklings. That's kind of what I have found, is as I've progressed writing and doing my podcast, it kind of changes. Like there'll be times where I'm really interested in food issues, and I'm interviewing and talking to people about that. Then I'm interested in Fair Trade issues. And I find as I follow those things, and as I go into them in depth, then there are other people who are interested in that as well.
So those are the main things, if you're interested in that kind of work. And because I'm a career counselor, I also just have general advice for you, which is to always take action. I often tell people the story of how I used to think that I wanted to be a massage therapist, until I took a class and I realized you had to massage naked people you didn't know.
That did not occur to me.
So whatever you're thinking about, and whatever inspires you when you hear about this, or whatever change-making you're thinking about, or inklings you have, just try it. And it's the same with blogging or podcasting, or anything, find a way to actually take an action, whether it's volunteering, an informational interview, or whatever that might be, because you're going to have a lot more information about if you like it or not if you do it.
Now I'm very excited to have our panelists tell you their stories. We'll start with Alli Chagi-Starr, who as was mentioned, is the co-founder of Art in Action and the Art and Media Director of Reclaim the Future for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Alli Chagi-Starr: Thank you, Britt. It's great to be here, and thank you all for coming in the afternoon. I want to thank Britt for putting the panel together and just for her work in inspiring women leaders, and getting our voices out there, and recognizing our work - and also to the organizers. None of this happens without the people who cut out the little orange squares on your tables and put the flowers in and made sure you had packets ready, and got the word out, and did the outreach.
That's really, that's the heart of our work, the organizing, and I have to really hand it to my sisters, the women of our movement that do that work in such a beautiful way, that it seems seamless when you walk in. But I know how much labor went into pulling this together.
As Britt said, I'm a founder of Art in Action. I wanted to get a sense of who is in the room. First of all, who identifies with the word "activism"? Who identifies as an activist? Just so I can see that, and that's fine; you don't have to be an activist to be in this room. Does anyone in the room identify as an artist, by any chance? Great. Does anyone identify just as a concerned citizen, like "Oh my God, what is going on in the world?" Can I just see?
OK. And has anyone ever sung in the shower or in your car?
OK. Now what about painted a picture on a napkin in a restaurant? OK. I just want to dispel the myth that we are not activists and that we are not artists.
I think that's one of the "dis-eases" of our society. We are taught that we are not participating in the solutions and addressing the crises of our times, and that we don't have the power to do that for some reason, and that we're not creative beings. I think that is really what distinguishes us from all other species is that we create. We make beautiful things. We think up ideas. We come up with, "Let's have a conference and invite all these amazing women here. Let's make some beauty in the world. Let's build some giant puppets. Let's address this issue with a podcast." That's what we do: We create and we make things and I think that is our artistry, and that is frankly, the deepest part of our humanity. I think it is the antidote to violence, war and domination, our ability to create. So I just wanted to first put that out there.
My background, I was asked to share, is as a dancer. I came up through the ballet world and as a modern dancer, very technical, little "bun-head" world. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Little ballet dancers walk with their feet turned out - I was one of those. I moved to San Francisco. I actually went to UC Berkeley for three years. I dropped out because it was just too crazy and bureaucratic and I didn't feel like anyone even knew I existed, and I didn't even know that I existed when I went there.
I ended up discovering a program, at New College of California, a couple of years later, when I was producing arts benefits for social change, especially for women and children living with HIV, this was about 1989 and 1990. And I felt like the dance world, in conjunction with the benefit events that I was putting together, were really kind of elitist, very white, really not addressing the issues of our times that I could see - but they thought they were. That there was this notion that the dance community is inherently political, and I thought well, not really. It's actually kind of insular and isolated.
So I decided to leave. I was a paid, professional dancer. I decided to find out how to bridge the worlds of performance, cultural organizing and radical activism. Out of that came an organization called Art and Revolution. Has anyone ever seen giant puppets in the streets for a protest, or seen pictures of that? Not really? Well cool. That's great.
One of the things for me, in going to protests and demonstrations about different issues, is that I felt that the protests were really boring, dry and preachy, not fun and compelling. And I was like, how can we, as creative people, make gatherings of people addressing these very important issues more magnetic?
So for me as an artist, I got together with some other activists to figure out how could we build beautiful images that would attract the media, attract other human beings of our same species to care about these things as well, and that was the road to doing Art and Revolution.
In 1995, I'm giving you my life story; I took a class called Challenging White Supremacy. It was a workshop for white activists, and white folks in general, to just address our privilege and look at racism, and uncover some of that work. Is anyone studying diversity work or anti-oppression work here at Stanford?
Yeah, I think it's really key. I think that's one of the things that really ends up dividing our movements. And it's not that any of us are bad or wrong or shameful, it's just that we don't know. We're ignorant and don't understand the history of these oppressions and how they undermine our work as activists, and as allies, and undermines our solidarity with each other.
Then out of that class, I did a lot of work and discovered that what I wanted to do was pass on the Art and Revolution skills, the dance, and the theater and how to bring art into the streets to homeless youth, and low-income youth of color. So that is the work that Art in Action does in a summer camp. It's an overnight summer camp that we do. It's based, not just on art and politics, it's also about personal transformation and community.
So that's really the background. And as Britt said, I also am the Art and Media Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which is based out of Oakland. We have four initiatives. One of the initiatives is called, Silence the Violence, and I'm wearing a Silence the Violence button. The homicide rate, as people are probably aware of, has just really increased in the last few years in Oakland, where I live.
So we're trying to build opportunities for young people to counter the violence and disparity and depression and rage that are in the streets. It tends to be really bad in the summertime, and so we'll be holding some Silence the Violence events. If anyone is interested, I have a flier outside. One will be for mothers who are mourning the loss of their children who died in gunfights in Oakland. And then another program is Reclaim the Future, which is one our newest projects, that is addressing green-color jobs and building opportunities for low-income people, formerly convicted people, and communities of color in this new green economy. How can we uplift people out of poverty with this new green boom and not leave some people out.
And then we have two other projects, Police Watch that deals with police accountability and then the other one is called Books not Bars, which is addressing the injustices in the California Youth Authorities. So if anyone's interested, I have some materials outside.
Just a couple of words to the wise, I'll throw out. I think that after 20 years of nonstop activism, my prescriptives, my medicine for the movement, if you will, would be to really cultivate cultures of appreciation. I think women are automatically drawn to acknowledging each other, but I think in a "man's world," that gets a little bit erased, and we think we have to compete and be involved in a culture of critique and competition all the time.
I think where we do well is actually when we take the time out to be in a state of gratitude for what we do have and for the work of one another, building in cultures of sustainability. And that means taking naps, going out dancing like I did last night, where you're not just around the clock, pedal to the metal, 24/7, which I've also done years of and it's not sustainable if we're going to be in this for the long haul. We really have to figure out how we are going to sustain ourselves and each other over the years.
And that brings into building in cultures of longevity, for us to really see beyond the action on Thursday. OK. So that action is going to be over, what's the media plan? How's that going to impact our work next year? Where do we want to be in 30 years? Really looking at long-range visioning and not just getting through the week. I think that's one of the things that keep us behind in our movement building. Building in cultures of community and sharing and candor, being direct and speaking to the point, and not being so covetous about who we really are. Let's be out. Let's just share with each other. That's one of the cultures I think our movements are lacking sometimes.
And then I mentioned earlier building in cultures of magnetism. How can we be more compelling? How can we attract more people? How can we listen to the listening of somebody way over there, whose not involved in the issue that we're working on, and get with where they're at, and their reality, so that we can speak into that listening? So I think those are the things that I want to share, some things that I have been thinking about. And thank you again, so much for having me.
Ilyse Hogue: Hi. I'm Ilyse Hogue and I really honor Alli's thinking of thanking everyone for making this happen, and Britt, in particular, for putting this all together. I have a different poll that I wanted to do which builds on some of the wise words that Alli put out. Raise your hand if you have heard of or had at any point been inspired by Hillary Clinton. Raise your hand if you have heard of or have at any time been inspired by Lois Gibbs. Raise your hand if you have heard of or have been inspired by Vandana Shiva. Last one, raise your hand if you have heard of or had been inspired by Wangari Mathaai.
The reason that I wanted to do that and one of the things that we want to share is that there are so many amazing (s)heroes in the world. And because for centuries and centuries and centuries, men have written history, we don't even know about all of the women changemakers out there. And if you want to know who any of those women that you didn't recognize their names are, definitely come grab me after at the reception because they're incredible women who have impacted our world. One of our jobs as women changemakers, which you are by showing up today, is to tell each other stories and recognize the impact that all women have on the world.
I am the Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. We are a 3.5 million-member political action committee who works on issues from universal health care to climate change, and energy independence to restoring democracy through getting rid of the torture clause that the Bush administration has written into the government charter, and trying to get public funding for elections.
So we have a wide mandate. I've done this for about a year, and it's been a fascinating experience. I did not set off to do this. In fact, who here doesn't know exactly what they want to do when they get out of school? That was really me. I did a bunch of bumming around, did a ton of backpacking. I was a ski bum for a winter, and landed one week in Austin, Texas and got a job waiting tables.
Something started to happen there that perked my interest, which was that there was a developer who wanted to build a huge development on a patch of land that sat right on top of our aquifer. And it didn't seem like rocket science to me that you actually don't want to build something with a lot of industrial metal and toxins on top of your drinking water. I thought, "I'm only 21, and I understand that? So why don't these people get this?"
So I got involved in a community effort to stop that development. It's a very long story but we did everything we were supposed to do, we got an initiative on the ballot, we passed it by a wide margin: 75%, which if any of you are familiar with electoral politics, that's pretty huge. We canvassed, we went door to door, we flyered, and it passed. We went and had a victory party and then woke up the next day and realized that it didn't really matter because the company that wanted to build had gone to the state legislature to get them to pass a law to undercut the local ordinance that would protect our water.
So I did a little bit of digging around and figured out that this company was a subsidiary of a company called Freeport-McMoRan. Have you guys ever heard of Freeport-McMoRan? I think it's one of the, if not the largest mining company in the world. When I did a little digging, I realized that aside from threatening our water supply in Austin, Texas, they had sufficiently done that in Indonesia, and the Philippines and pretty much all over the world.
So I started to understand that there was a system at play that needs to change. Through a series of events and happenings in my life, I ended up at Greenpeace for a while, and then I spent seven years at the Rainforest Action Network, where I was a program director, and sort of birthed, with a wonderful core of support, what we called our Global Finance Campaign, which created pressure on Wall Street executives to think about where their investments were going, and put environmental and human rights greens on their investments. I left there last year to take the position at MoveOn.org.
That is part of my path, and I ran through it really quickly because what's important to me to communicate today is that I don't know why I do the work that I do, except that it always felt right. And every single one of you out there has that inside of you, what you're meant to do. In fact, I went back to grad school because I was tired. Like Alli said, I wasn't taking care of myself as an activist, and I wanted to learn about the world that I was living in. I got a degree in forest ecology and I spent three wonderful years out in the woods, learning science. I thought, "I'm going to be a scientist because this is nice. I get to be outside." I applied for like a hundred jobs as an ecologist when I got out of grad school, and the only job I got was the one at Greenpeace. I thought, "That's telling me something. I'm actually supposed to be an activist."
And you all each have your own path. Staying in touch with your path and following that, there are a million ways to make change, as long as you are engaged with your own way to make change. Social change is a giant organism. What I do would never be effective without what everyone else is out there doing.
So listen to your own vision. I was really excited to see this workshop in here [the conference program], I don't know if you guys have done all of these, but there was one that I just said to these guys, "This is amazing," it was, "Successful Strategies for Approaching Your Career: Be a Change Agent." Did you guys go to that? So this whole thing that women don't ask for the good projects, I see that play out everywhere I go. It's really important for you guys to honor yourselves before you go and ask for other people to honor you. And then do that, go and ask other people to honor you.
But what you need to do is create a space where you can hear your own vision. When we get over-worked and when we allow ourselves to take the scrap work from everyone else--we all learn from doing support work for other people. I'm not advocating that we don't do anything of that, but when that becomes your full-time job, you're not going to have the space or the time or the energy to check in with your own vision and make sure that you are offering what you have that is uniquely yours to value. And this is a constant struggle for me because our work never stops, to take that time and check in.
Explore facets of who you are. One of the hardest things for me about going to MoveOn is I had identified as a radical activist for a long time. I have hung banners on buildings; I have sat in streets and occupied intersections. And I thought, "Oh, my god, I'm going to actually work with the Democrats. Oh, my god, what does that mean?" I realized it was my own insecurity that I could bring who I was into that world and actually add value in that world that made me nervous about doing that.
So don't ever limit yourself. Don't ever typecast yourself. Stick to your own vision but let it be fluid. If it feels like you can take who you are into another realm, that realm is lucky to have you, as long as you're bringing your true self there.
Own your space. One of the first things that I had to do that was terrifying to me, when I was at the Rainforest Action Network, was actually stand up in front of a crowd at Carnegie Hall and address the CEO of Citigroup, which is the largest bank in the world. And I was like "Oh! Who am I? Why is he going to listen to me?"
Even if you have to, fake it. I did that whole thing of looking in the mirror and being like, "No, you have something important to say and you're the only one who can say it." Because what I was going to say to him is, "You need to change the way you're doing business if we want to have a planet for our children." And if you can't quite get there, fake it, because you will come through.
And everybody has got... Sandy Weill, who was the CEO of Citigroup, he's not anymore but he was when I was in this meeting, he got there by faking it.
And that doesn't make him more valuable than me, and it doesn't make him more valuable than you. So step into your own space and own it. Even if you have doubts, own your space.
While you do that, Alli touched on this, be a woman. I've worked in the corporate world, I've worked in the political world, I've worked in teaching when I was in grad school. More women voices are needed everywhere we go.
And there are women who choose to get ahead by emulating the systems that we have. And I don't begrudge anyone how they get there and I'm not saying all women are alike, but honor that in you which is a woman and bring that with you wherever you go.
If we're going to see the change that we need to see in the world in the coming decades and centuries, it's going to be because a woman's vision, women's visions, are more honored and we're going to get back in balance.
And then finally, keep track of each other. One of the fun things about sitting up here is Britt and I went to college together. Alli and I occupied intersections together. Melinda and I worked in allied organizations years ago before she started her own initiative. I have never met Reem, but this is great because I will keep track of her from here on out.
We are all the future. You are all the future. And what will give you energy is to watch each other grow and flourish and try new things. And that will continue to allow you to do the same thing.
Social change is one giant organism. It's not about one person, it's not about one vision, it's about recognizing and honoring your own in conjunction with everyone else's.
Thank you very much for having me here today.
Melinda Kramer: Hello everyone. I'm Melinda Kramer, and it's just a pleasure to be here. And I'm realizing just sitting here and listening to these incredible stories and seeing these faces, just how much I've gotten to like being in a room with women and co-creating with women and watching us inspire each other. So this is just yet another moving experience for me. So thank you, everyone, for being here. And thank you for organizing this, everyone who has been a part of that.
I would have never imagined that my work would have me be working so directly with women, and a lot of them, and all the time. My path was really environmental work, environmental policy work. And I never saw, as I began down that road, the connection, the inextricable link between women and the environment---women as mothers, as caregivers, oftentimes as food producers and water keepers. And as really kind of the threads in community. Women have really stepped to the forefront of environmental and social justice work.
I'm the Founder and Director of an organization called Women's Earth Alliance, which really works to equip women with the communication tools and the networking opportunities, and the information and training, for them to really amp up their efforts, both on a local level, and also on the global level, and really have a shared agenda and voice of what it is that they know and what they need to share.
How this all started for me, again, my interest was environmental issues, and I think the first experience that really turned me in the direction that I ended up going was I was an undergraduate in St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working for an environmental law clinic as a consultant.
And I started working with a community outside of St. Louis called Herculaneum, where another one of our big bad companies was based--the largest lead smelter in the world. It's a company called Doe Run. And at the time, the company really was not following any regulations and wasn't really being monitored. And as a result, the community was really feeling the effects of that.
In my work I found myself working with a coalition of mothers who, I mean this is a town where you drive down the street and you can see the black on the ground and on the whites of the houses. And the children's lead levels were through the roofs. And it was the mothers who came together and said, "This is not OK. This is about our community. but this is about many communities that are having similar struggles."
Interestingly, Doe Run has a sister company down in Latin America. And interestingly, there was a group of women who really had put that on the map as well.
And after that my work really led me to many places around the world. I worked in East Africa with an organization called Care Kenya, working with women around sustainable agriculture issues. I worked with a wonderful organization called Pacific Environment, where I found myself sitting at kitchen tables sipping tea with local activists in the Russian Far East, all over China, out in the bush in Alaska, and in my hometown where local citizens were really needing to take a stand for what was happening in their communities in terms of health and environmental degradation.
What I witnessed was time and time again women really coming to the forefront around those issues, women at the forefront of the problems and the helm of the solutions. And something started to happen for me; I started to see a trend of women stepping up. And I started to communicate this and ask a lot of questions and really research into what was that that I was seeing. Was this just my experience or have others noticed this?
And what I learned was, indeed, there's been a deeply historical connection between women as stewards of the environment, of the health of their communities, and the justice of their communities. And that was where it kind of popped for me.
I started to talk to my colleagues and friends and mentors about whether or not there was a forum for women doing this work to connect and share what they know--share best practices, share resources, inspire each other's efforts, collaborate across the world. And there wasn't. There was nothing at the time that would provide that kind of forum for this type of leadership among women that was so powerful and yet so disjointed.
So an organization emerged from there. And today, Women's Earth Alliance is an amazing collection of mothers, health workers, entrepreneurs, activists, advocates and community leaders, who have come together to share voice and to tell a story that needs to be told, which is about really walking towards solutions both for their communities and for the environment.
I was actually talking to my mother recently about my work, and what we've seen emerge, just by opening up the space for women to really come together. And it's interesting because my mother makes quilts. She's made quilts for as long as I can remember. And these are just beautiful, radiant quilts from all over the world. She's done it as long as I can remember, and I never learned the skill, and I told her that I had felt badly that I hadn't learned it, and she told me, "You have. You piece together people from disparate parts of the world, you piece together disparate ideas, and you piece together hearts and hope."
And I loved that, mostly because I knew I couldn't sit still long enough to knit a small hat, let alone make a quilt.
But that was really special to me, because something my mother has always said about creating a quilt is creating the space. The envisioned and imagined space where disparate fabrics and colors and designs can come together and tell one story. And I really think that's what it's about right now. I think that humanity has quite a story to tell, and telling it in unison is so important, so that we can start moving towards solutions.
And I think that the work I do with women is so moving to me because when I think about a quilt, a quilt is beautiful and powerful, and doesn't tell a linear story with a start and a finish. It has multiple points of interest and light and beauty. And coming together is stronger and more powerful, more compelling than any one piece. And I think women do that really well. Women do create the space. Women connect, and out of connection there lies so much possibility.
That's what I believe in, and that's where my work comes from, is, "I don't know the answers. I don't know every story that's been told, but I know that there are so many words and ideas and initiatives that need to be shared." And so I feel a responsibility to open up a space for that to come together, and for some collective wisdom to arise.
So my advice to any of you would be to really look for that space, and open up that space, whatever it is. Whatever conversation needs to happen, whatever initiative needs to birth. You don't have to go it alone, and the beauty arises from finding who knows what, where the gap is and who can fill it, and how do we weave this web and really come together towards solutions. So I would certainly say look for what that space is and open it up. Offer it up, and invite people in. And amazing things will come from that.
I guess the other piece of advice I would say is, never assume that something that you think you need -- or that someone else needs -- is already there, that you just can't reach it, or it's just not in your sphere. But that really, if something touches you, and you feel compelled to delve deeper, look, and you very well might find that that does not exist. That idea, that initiative, that coming together hasn't happened. And make it happen. Because it's fun. And ask for a lot of help because that's where our strength really lies.
So, again, thank you so much. It's been wonderful to be here and see all of these faces.
Reem Rahim: Hi. Thank you, everybody for having us. I kind of want to follow in the thread of creativity and creating your own lives, because I feel like my process has been a process of self-transformation. My name is Reem Rahim, I'm a co-founder and VP of marketing of Numi Organic Tea.
I sort of started my journey wanting to be an artist, and my mother told me I was too smart for art. [laughs] And I was supposed to be a doctor, and I almost came to Stanford, but I stayed in the Midwest and studied biomedical engineering. And in my junior year, I had a very traumatic car accident, almost lost my life, and had several surgeries. That kind of really turned me in, and found art as a way of healing, and took me to Italy. I studied art there, came back, worked as a translator, and then moved out to California to get my Masters of Fine Arts at John F. Kennedy [University], which is pretty much a transformative art program.
Then, myself and my brother met in the Grand Canyon, and we had this idea for a long time to import a dried lime from our native Iraq to the States. And it was called Numi. So we did, and started our company. He had lived in Europe for several years, and had teahouses in Prague, so he really had the tea knowledge. And I was an artist -- and I was studying art at that time, so it was all good -- and decided to do all the packaging. So all the artwork you see on the packaging is mine.
And my whole impetus, in terms of what I wanted to express in my message, was that America moves too fast, and I didn't understand what we were running after. You know, we're just constantly running. And I felt like we have these sort of one-liner, sitcom conversations. Joanna Macy talks about how we're psychically numb. Just a way of being that didn't have the depth of feeling and self-reflection, that I just felt like we needed. Like Mother Teresa talked about how America was rich in money, but poor in spirit. That's what I wanted to express through the packaging and through the company.
So we started in our small apartment in Oakland, it was about 750 square feet. And moved to, him and I, in 1999, and almost killed each other.
Working with your brother is pretty challenging. But you know, it teaches you a lot. And we kept moving, moved to his house, which is about double the size. We did everything, from sourcing to packaging, to packing the boxes, taking the orders, going on sales calls, all of it. And you learn on your feet. When you don't know, you want to know, and you become like a sponge of knowledge. He didn't have a business background, I didn't have a business background.
We moved to his house for about a year, and then we moved to about a 5,000 square foot warehouse, and now we're in a 25,000 square foot warehouse. We just extended our space to have a sort of teahouse event space, which is another 5,000 square feet. We're about 40 employees, about $10 million in revenue, and probably the eighth largest tea company in America, in natural foods.
So, you know, knock on wood [knocking sound] people really have appreciated what we've brought to the world. And the tea is excellent, it's organic, full leaf quality, no added flavorings, very clean and natural tea. And we also innovated. We introduced rooibos and honeybush from South Africa, which was never heard of in America. So we brought that here, because it was very popular in Europe. Also introduced our native dry desert lime, which was one of our bestsellers. And we just introduced this product here [gestures to box], called "Flowering Tea," and they're all hand-sewn tea leaves that are sewn around flowers, and they blossom when you steep them in hot water.
So what I wanted to talk about is business. If you have an idea, go for it. And the more unique and the more interesting and the more sort of crazy it is, the more the market might want it. The more people might need it. Because you're bringing your unique self. And I believe that an idea isn't just one idea, it's out there. Nobody steals ideas. An idea is a thought form, it exists out in the ether. So other people will respond to it as well.
What I also want to talk about is the values of our company, because just as people... you know, as a person you can bring your values into a profit-making business.
So from the beginnings we felt that we were responsible for our waste. We don't use cello-wrap on our boxes; everything is pretty much biodegradable except for our overwrap. We converted all of our boxes to at least 85% post-consumer waste. One of our inner wraps is about 100% post-consumer waste.
We use bamboo, which is an extremely renewable resource. We don't use that much wood. The place where we get out bamboo in China, they had floods last year so we started donating 20% of our proceeds back to them so they could rebuild their factories. Well, everything is organic, as I mentioned.
About 17 of our products are Fair Trade. And just this year we started a new fair labor practices initiative. So we worked with an organization called Scientific Certification Systems so that they would create the first national consensus standard in the US that would have standards associated with fair labor practices that could basically certify wine growers . . . anything.
Because currently, the TransFair fair trade only certifies about eight different products, eight different raw goods--rice, sugar, cocoa, coffee, soccer balls, something like that, tea and a couple other things--and it's not really global. So we're trying to work on initiatives like that so more companies can express their values and it can reach a larger audience.
In terms of our post-consumer waste use and bamboo and everything, we just won WRAP of the Year award, which is Waste Reduction Awards Program of California. And they choose among 12,000 different manufacturers in California. And I think we were on par, in terms of our reduction, with Toyota; and we beat out Target, which was really great for a small company. So you do what you can.
Last year I started supporting this organization called Free Set that is a New Zealand couple that works with a co-op in Calcutta, India. And they take women out of the prostitution trade and then teach them sewing skills. So we do that. And it goes on.
So what you try and do what you can because that's what you believe in. So business doesn't have to be sort of the evil corporation. Nowadays when you have young people who have strong values and believe that they want to make change, and we know that the people out there are wanting to invest in companies and buy into--you know, put their money where their mouth is--then it's a two-way street and we start to change the world in terms of what we eat and who we support in that way.
A final thing that we are doing is we have a fund from Rudolph Steiner Foundation, and we have convinced them this year, apparently--we pay them 10% interest--and we've convinced them that we'll pay them 5% interest and the other 5% will go to various developing countries so that we become part of the end of poverty, is the way we see it.
So it's very exciting. This following week I'm going to Boston to receive an award from Inc. Magazine for the top 100 inner city companies--inner city in Oakland. So it's really sort of a pride thing to have started a little company in your apartment and then have it grow and be recognized, and in the process be bringing value to the world and be bringing social change as much as you can.
And what I want to sort of pass on in that way is that it is possible to have an idea, put it out there, have your expression be your brand and your message be your brand, and then bring who you are. I mean, now I have much more outreach than I ever could as a single person, as a single artist. That's how I feel, is now I get to touch people every day, give them peace of mind; give them peace, and then also be helping the people that I buy tea from, et cetera. So, that's it.
You can listen to this panel on the Big Vision Podcast.