Samantha Rae Jones On The Rise Of Social Enterprise & Measuring Your Impact


Samantha is the Founder and CEO of Little Yellow Bird, a uniform company, providing customers with complete transparency and workers with ethical employment opportunities. Little Yellow Bird was founded in 2015 and now supplies over 150 organisations in New Zealand, Australia and the USA.

Samantha's background is in Supply Chain Management and served as a Logistics Officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force for six years prior to setting up Little Yellow Bird. Samantha has a Masters in International Security, is an Edmund Hillary Fellow and was recognised as New Zealand's Young Innovator of the year in 2017.


Samantha shares key insights into building a social business, provides tips on how best to start, talks about the importance of measuring impact & the challenges of good communication when working internationally. 


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise sector? [2:00]

[Samantha Rae Jones] - I was born here in New Zealand. But I grew up living overseas. I spent a lot of time living in developing countries. My school was right next to a river that garment factories were dumping toxic waste in, and I think that had a big impact on me as a kid growing up and seeing that and wanting to do something that shifted that model.

But when I finished school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Went to uni and just took a bunch of papers. I ended up on a scholarship with the military. Did that for about six years. I learnt a whole bunch about supply chains. When I left the military, I couldn't find corporate workwear that was organic, or free trade or transparent. It was really through a personal need that I started Little Yellow Bird and we were originally a supplier of women's blouses.

Then we iterated from there and became where we're at now, more being a uniform company. But that was how we got started. That was all quite random really and kind of an accident in the end, but wasn't like an intentional journey exactly, it was just luck and a bit of a randomness I think that got us here.


That's great to hear how you started. Tell us a little bit more about Little Yellow Bird then and the impact that you're having on the fashion industry. [3:23]

We are a company which specialises in organic and fair trade cotton products. That means that not only are we using products that are made without chemicals, or pesticides, but we also know where and how our products are made. So, we trace them right back to source. We've got a production unit in New Delhi where our products are made. But we also have full traceability on the raw materials. So, that's right back to the co-ops where the cotton is grown.

And, I think probably the main impact that we're making is, we are just proving that you can have a uniform business that cares about ethics, can make a profit, but still pay any supply chain a fair wage and do it in a way that's not damaging to the environment, or the people involved.

It's been obviously a really testing journey for you, and I imagine a very rewarding one as well in setting up Little Yellow Bird. What have been the biggest challenges then in setting up this social enterprise, and how have you worked around them? [4:20]

Honestly, there's so many. I think any business owner would say that it's just a constant cycle of ups and downs all the time.

Some of our biggest challenges have probably been around communication, especially because we're working cross culturally and in different time zones. What I found that has really benefitted and helped is that I have spent significant amounts of time in India. So, I'm there pretty much at least two or three times a year.

We've now got someone full time on the ground over there. But I think it would be impossible if we were just trying to do it remotely. Although, there's a lot of advances in technology and we can do a lot over the phone or over the internet, you can't really beat that face to face interaction and building those relationships and in person's super important. Especially in the industry and the country that we're working in.

Most certainly. So, communication's been quite a big issue for you? [5:25]

Yeah, I think it's been one that causes a lot of problems at the beginning, that we've started to work out how best to communicate, and how we need to communicate better. It's just been a big learning process for us really. I think that's been one of our key learnings is, being patient with that and just figuring out what works best and what doesn't.

Most certainly. In coming across to New Zealand where you're based, last year your home nation hosted Social Enterprise World Forum. This year, you're going to be a speaker at the World Forum in Edinburgh in September. So, what are you most looking forward to Samantha about attending, and what was the key takeaway from last year for you? [5:53]

I think like most conferences, it's actually the people that you meet and the conversations that you have outside of the specific main format. So, I think what I'm most looking forward to, and my key takeaway from the last one is almost the same, in that you get to meet lots of really cool, interesting people that are facing similar challenges. 

I think often when you're building these businesses in isolation, you can forget that there are lots of other people going through the same things.

So, it's really nice to connect with people and learn from others.


Yeah, most certainly. Would you say that being a social entrepreneur then was a lonely journey for you at the start? Or did you feel connected from the beginning? [6:50]

I think it depends what day you're talking to me, because it depends what's going on. I feel like it is a lonely journey, and I think it still is. From what I hear it kind of always is. Because often you're actually not the only one that knows the absolute ins and outs or the real details of some things.

Honestly, sometimes I just don't have the energy to try and explain it all to somebody else to even have that conversation. But I'm saying this differently, it's finding those other people in a similar boat to you that might not be able to exactly empathise with the exact scenario, but can empathise with the general frustration or whatever it is the problem that you're trying to solve.

Finding those people has been really key, in building that support network. That has been really helpful and made it a lot less of a lonely journey.

But I think for me, it was just figuring out, because the whole business thing is new to me as well, figuring out what I needed from a support network. And who I needed on my team, and what skill sets balance mine and all those kind of things.

So, being based in New Zealand then, how do you believe New Zealand's unique in a way that it approaches social enterprise and the types of opportunities that it can offer to change makers worldwide? [8:08]

Not specifically to social enterprise, but business in general, I think is maybe a bit easier in New Zealand, because people were generally really willing to help other people. We've got a small population. Pretty much everyone knows everyone. You can get an introduction or a link to almost anyone that you need to talk to through someone that knows someone that knows someone. Everyone's connected. I think that makes it really easy, but I think New Zealand is well known for being innovative. We have some of the highest charities per capita. I think that we are a nation that embraces that.

I think in terms of social enterprise, it's also quite a good country to try and start something that has a real social value.

Because people want to see those kind of businesses succeed. So, will go even that one step further to help you or give you advice.


Having been involved in the sector now then, for a good few years, how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change? And where do you see it heading into the future? [9:20]

It's definitely still evolving. When we first started out, it wasn't probably a term that was understood as much or wasn't used, we might have been maybe a little bit more unique.

There's differently been a lot more businesses identifying as social enterprises now. I think we're starting to see more infrastructure and more buy in and businesses that are adding into the procurement policies that they want to support social enterprises.


Having been involved in the sector now then, for a good few years, how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change? And where do you see it heading into the future? [9:20 - continued]

There is that shift happening, which I think is really important. But at the same time, my ultimate goal, what I will really want to see would be that all businesses just operate like that. It's not actually like these businesses are social... 

all businesses should really speak to the people and the environment and the communities that they operate in.

It shouldn't be like this is a special category. I feel like all businesses should do that. It should just be like, that's the baseline. Everyone should have to be like that.

Absolutely. I completely agree. What advice then would you give to those listening who are keen to start a social enterprise? [10:29]

I would give two pieces of advice. One is to just start. I feel like a lot of people I speak to, myself included, there's that risk of wanting to have everything perfect before you launch something or share an idea. But you can't get real feedback until your product or your idea, or whatever it is, is out there. It's just never going to be perfect the first time.

You'll be embarrassed by the first version, but that's okay, because... I look back on our first version of our website and our product and everything, and I kind of cringe. But if we hadn't gone through that awkward stage, then we wouldn't even have a business.

Don't be embarrassed and just start.

My second piece of advice, more in terms of the social side is make sure you've got a really clear impact from the start. What is it that you're trying to achieve, and how are you going to measure that?

We've become quite good at measuring exactly what our impact is, but it took us a really long time. I think if we'd spend longer right at the beginning that we always knew that we were about being environmentally conscious and paying fair wages. But, we didn't have any idea how to measure that at the start, and that we can measure that. If we'd been able to do that from the start, I think that would have accelerated our growth and being able to enable us to tell our story better.


Totally. I think that's a struggle that a lot of social enterprises face at the beginning, that whole measurement phase. So, how are you guys measuring your impact at Little Yellow Bird then? [12:02]

That has been something that has taken us a while to get to. But we're really proud because we just recently released our first impact report. It looked across all of our products. We are measuring three key things. And it was, how much labour that was used, the fair trade labour, and how much water we saved and how many chemicals that were saved as a direct result of us choosing to use organic and rain fed cotton.

We did that for each product and then it was just simple math really relating it to how much we had made. We were shocked actually by how much impact you can have in a relatively short period of time. So, our stats were around 12 million litres of water, and 12000 kilos of chemicals that we had saved simply by choosing to use organic rain fed cotton. Those are quite big numbers really. It all adds up pretty quickly.

Yeah, absolutely. Then by tracking that, I imagine that provides you with a really clear way to communicate that with your customers. {13:09]

Yeah, absolutely. To be honest, we did create it for ourselves. But it has become this really great sales tool as well. So, we can send it to customers, and we can actually really clearly tell that story. That if you choose to buy 100 t-shirts through us, compared to your generic run of the mill t-shirt company, this is the type of impact that you can make.

I think that's really important, because we all talk about social procurement policies, but it's often meaningless, unless it's put in that context and given some metrics, and people can actually see it.

We provide little reports with each of our orders. So, each customer can see exactly what they're purchasing decision, the impact that it has made. It's really powerful.


It certainly is. What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently, which are creating some positive social change? [14:07]

There's so many to pick from. Some of my favourite ones at the moment is one called Choice, which is a pay with impact model. Where they're essentially getting people to pay with their phones, and eliminating transaction fees. Basically, it's a Robin Hood model, I guess, where they take those transaction fees, which are traditionally all going off shore in New Zealand to big international companies, and keeping them in New Zealand. But basically splitting that fee and half of that fee is going to a charity of the purchaser's choice and the other half is the merchant fee. So the merchant gets reduced fees, the consumer doesn't notice any additional cost, but he actually makes an impact with the purchase. It's really quite unique and innovative. I'm excited to see where that one goes.

One that I've been helping out here, are Wa Collective. They provide feminine hygiene products that are all reusable. So, eliminating that single use waste. That's really typical in their industry. I think that's also just so needed and just such a revolution. Why are we using so much plastic? There's a better way to do it. I'm excited to see what happens with them. I'm also really enjoying lots of the eliminating food waste, eliminating plastic, those kind of companies; anything in that space I'm really happy to get behind and learn more about.

Well there's certainly a lot of great stuff happening over in New Zealand. To finish off then Samantha, what books would you recommend to our listeners? [15:50]

Probably the book that's made the most impact on me recently was called Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. It's got a bunch of different case studies in it and it's looking at effective altruism, basically, but how can we ensure that projects that we're doing aren't having negative consequences or unintentional negative consequences? Or if we didn't do that, would that have happened anyway?

I think that's been a book that's really challenged my thinking and making sure that every decision I make or the impact projects that I choose to invest in, are actually making a difference. Are they projects that if I hadn't been there to fund them or to support them, would they have happened regardless? Because if the answer to that is yes, then maybe that's not the most effective use of my time. I really want to be involved in projects that just would not happen otherwise, because I just think that's such an interesting space to operate.

So, such a good read. Definitely recommend anyone working in the space to have a read of them and read some of the case studies, because I think it will help shape how you think and how you question everything.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Samantha on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.



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