Katie Johnston On Creating Successful, Multifaceted & Sustainable Social Impact
Katie Johnston grew up in Central West NSW on a big farm in a small community. She was always taught to learn quickly, learn a lot and give anything a go.
When the opportunity came up to pitch at an investor event, she made a vague idea a lot clearer; EcoBling. The idea was simple; upcycle waste into accessories and plant a tree per piece sold.
Since then Katie has been able to showcase on international runways, create social entrepreneurship chapters to help those in need and plant almost 20,000 trees.
Katie shares her insights on creating a successful social enterprise, we explore her thoughts on how to deal with the challenges faced along the way and she shares some of the fundamental ingredients to create positive social impact.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Rachel Stevens] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of entrepreneurship? [01:55]
[Katie Johnston] - Sure. It's actually a very random adventure. So I've had a really diverse kind of career. I couldn't make my mind up with what I wanted to do. I jumped from business to art and to all kinds of things in between. I was a massage therapist at one point, I've worked in hospitality, all kinds of things. So I managed to cast the net really wide, experimenting with all kinds of of industries and eventually I landed in the not-for-profit sector. I wanted to get meaning out of what I was doing. From that I got a role in a centre that focused on social change and helping people structure social enterprise projects. When that role was winding up I thought, well I've just been able to help other people within that organisation so why don't I have a go at doing this myself. So yeah, I had some time to think about what I wanted to do. An event came up and it had certain categories. Basically I designed this idea to fit into their environmental and social categories they had and I came up with EcoBling. I took that to the event, came up with that pitch, got backing for it and I was on my way.
Fantastic. Your social enterprise EcoBling is of course very multifaceted. Can you tell us a bit about the business and about its many, many layers? [03:31]
Given my nature to get bored quickly, I wanted it to be multifaceted, it needed different levels. I want to be able to respond to the different things going on in the world as they came up. I didn't want to box myself into something. So EcoBling's accessories themselves are, as I called them, a fundraising tool or an opportunity to align with certain businesses or not-for-profits or community groups. Apart from designing and creating accessories which are made from upcycled waste we are planting trees. Those trees are planted in African food forests as well, so being able to help alleviate hunger and create a carbon sink is great. The great thing and the thing that gets me really excited is being able to respond to different natural disasters and social issues going on. So being able to work with different communities. I flew over to Nepal after the earthquake and worked with communities to teach them how to make beads from the rubble. From that we were able to organise a big production run of them, bring them back to Australia and sell them as a fundraising tool. That's still on the go that project which is good. We have also been able to do little pop up campaigns as well like the leaf tribe campaign we have to accelerate our tree planting program as well as the equality bracelets and equality necklaces to raise money for marriage equality Australia. We can respond to anything in a creative way which is nice.
They all sound fantastic! IndigiBling of course is another initiative of EcoBling. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? [05:27]
Yeah. IndigiBling was morphed from an idea that I had when I first started to set up production studios in remote Indigenous communities. I wanted to bring more opportunities to the community instead of having communities come to the city or remove themselves, displace themselves or be displaced out of necessity to find work and income. I wasn't able to do that and wasn't able raise the funding to be able to do that so instead I came up with the idea to morph that project into one where I sent out wooden jewellery and micro-financed a burner to each community. Instead of having a huge studio full of tools I'd just send one burner out. They then burn their art onto the pieces of wooden jewellery and send them back. When they then do enough pieces to pay back the value of the burner they can then keep contributing to IndigiBling and create an income for themselves that is at their own pace. It fits in with their lifestyle and what they've got going on and it's just a way of celebrating and sharing Indigenous Australian culture with the broader community.
That is a really lovely way to integrate that into the broader community as you said. [06:50]
I think so. People find it really special to have a piece of art that they can wear and it has so many hands involved in its creation. It has so much of a story to tell. We run a dangerous kind of life where we're always focused on the new, best shiny thing and it's nice to be able to embed some ancient cultural wisdom within what I do and being able to share that and keep the story of Dream Time alive. It's really special.
It is, it's a beautiful opportunity. It's obvious you seen a lot of growth since the start of EcoBling. What are some of the plans for the future? [07:28]
Well I jokingly say global domination. Once I get there I'll be pretty happy, in the accessories market anyway. No, it's just continued growth. I've been really lucky and I say lucky but it's probably a result of creativity and hard work. I've been able to showcase on international runways which has been really amazing. The first runway I did was in Canberra at FASHFEST in Australia and then Seattle in the US for Eco Fashion Week and Green Fashion Week in L.A. and Vegas which has been awesome. Also in Brooklyn Fashion Week and a few others, so that's been really amazing to experience and to be able to share the message of upcycling through those platforms. I do want to start integrating more into mainstream so I can really infiltrate and share the message to people who haven't been converted yet. I really want to grow so I can educate more. Also as different things happen and different social issues arise, as different natural disasters or environmental issues are happening, I want to be able to respond to those. I can do that better once I've grown a lot more so the focus is on growth.
Sounds like you're on your way to world domination. [08:59]
I hope so. Can't come soon enough.
So for a lot of us finding our passion isn't always an easy thing but of course that is just the beginning. What sacrifices have you had to make to commit to this project and what have been the biggest challenges along the way for you? [09:06]
Well I'll touch on the first point you made with finding your passion. I will be the first person to admit that EcoBling and jewellery making, all of that was never my passion. It's just a tool to help me do what makes me feel good and that's the social and environmental side of things. My biggest love in life is nature so I want to be able to do what I can to help her. It's really hard and that can be done in many different ways. You can have something you're passionate about and do it in many different ways. So EcoBling is just something that works and that I landed on and that I'll keep doing until it doesn't work anymore. The biggest challenges I think, and there's a lot, is the daily grind. Motivating yourself and keeping yourself balanced in work and in play because it's so easy to get all consumed. When you're having a quiet week or quiet month then you just start building this resentment and you just want to throw everything into the fire pit and say see you later.
So it is really challenging to kind of champion your own cause for such a long time. It can get really exhausting. So I think it's it's very it's challenging, the whole thing is challenging to be honest.
Every day it's a different challenge in a different way and sometimes you have that one challenge that stretches over a month or so and other times you just have a daily challenge.
You have to loosen the grip sometimes and just approach everything as part of the ride.
So when you are finding those different issues challenging have you got any tricks or strategy that you've used before to kind of pull through and maintain the passion? [11:15]
It depends on how big they are. I am really proud of myself that I have a psychologist that I go see regularly, just touch base with me and work through some of the things that are coming up. Self-doubt and self-belief really, really come out to play when you're running your own business and they really have huge impact so I think one of the most important things to me is to look to my mental health. So I see a psychologist regularly and I try and get back a massage or something to look after my body regularly. As far as the more minor challenges; I have this mantra. My friend, he approached me one day, I was having some problems and I said to him, 'this is going on and this person's being difficult. I don't know what I'm doing, I feel lost, I feel like I'm always at the start line.' He just looked me dead in the eye and he said, 'who cares?' I'm like, 'hey excuse me! You are my friend, you're are not meant to say who cares' and he said again, 'who cares?' He just kept saying 'who cares?' to everything I said over and over again until I thought, actually who does care, it doesn't really matter.
At the end of the day the challenges you have, a lot of them are just ego based, little hissy fits that you get caught up in it and you just have to walk away from it. The more energy you spend on those little dramas that happen day to day, the less you've got to put it into the bigger picture.
So I just walked away.
You've had a bit of experience now with getting investors and other funding on board. Do you have any advice for our listeners when it comes to successfully getting finance as a social entrepreneur? [13:46]
To be honest I only had the first thing I ever did which was the investor event that I went to. I went there with a really really vague pitch. They were asking me financial questions and I had no idea what they were talking about. Later on I had to Google all of the words that they said.
So I think when approaching investors you have a very clear, concise, specific pitch and therefore need to have a very clear, concise, specific idea. Investors don't like to fill in the gaps, they want to know everything, and they want to know it very quickly.
When it comes to funding they want to know that you've piloted the project, that there is going to be a demand for your project or your product and they want to be able to fit into your business straight away.
You've got to be able to show them that your product is successful even if you've only done a few market stands and people are buying your product and really excited about it. Customer feedback, they want to know what other people think. They don't want to guess, they want to know.
Obviously it's a risk for them to give you money because you're essentially, in the broader scheme of things, quite unknown, and so they want to see that you have got over yourself, you've got away from your self-doubt, and that you've got a good grip on what you're doing. If they can see that confidence and clarity and see that by giving you money it's going to be starting quickly, that it will move quickly towards making a profit and they are getting in return on their investment. Then I think you're onto a winner.
Yeah. Very interesting perspective. Are there any particular tools which you've used along the way that you'd recommend to the listeners which have proven to be invaluable to you? [15:40]
Not really. I know, I wish I had the golden ticket. I'll be honest I've done so many programs, read so many books, gone through so many different techniques and this and that. I just find it all a bit commercial. Everyone's trying to sell their product or flog that it's a golden ticket.
I just think follow what feels good. If you need support then go to people who have made mistakes and successes. Have a mentor who is just real, someone who is authentic and somebody who will tell you that it's not all sunshine and daisies.
When you go to them saying 'oh this is so hard' and they go 'yeah it's hard, what did you think?'. You just need somebody who can be really raw and really honest. Also be as gentle as you can on your self.
Don't compare yourself to other people, just walk your path.
The best thing that I learned when I studied life coaching was that I just really understood that in order for me to succeed I just had to look at my life with a lot of intention and see what was working and why it was working and do more of that.
I think everyone just needs to have a microscope over their own lives, over their own business, see what's working for them and do more of that. Figure out what works and do more of it.
Sounds like we could all be a bit more reflective maybe. So what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients for building a successful organisation that creates a positive social impact? [18:17]
You have to be connected to what you're doing. It has to sing to what you're interested in such as your fundamental or core values. You can't just create something that you think people want. You have to create what you want to see in the world. Everything else you'll learn along the way. I had my core values before I thought of EcoBling and I could express my core values in multiple different ways which I think is a really healthy approach to have. That way if EcoBling didn't work for whatever reason my core values are still there I'll just go find another way to express them.
Businesses do fail and one day EcoBling might not be trendy anymore and I have to not get my identity and my sense of self worth entrapped in that.
I have to treat it as the tool and the business that it is and know that my core belief and values can be expressed in multiple ways. You never know, I might think of an idea in a month that can be even more successful and still express those same values.
That's a really positive way of looking at it, it's nice.
I think so, yeah.
To finish off. Are there any good reads that you could recommend for our listeners? [19:59]
Impact Boom! Not really, no. Read as much as you can, learn as much as you can but read it with a grain of salt. Like I said you can absorb as much information as the world can offer, it doesn't mean you should take it all.