Jai Sharma started his first social enterprise as a teenager – an online advertising website where visitors could click on advertisements to raise funds for children’s education programs. Although it only raised a few hundred dollars, it was an exciting first step into the world of social enterprise.
From that early experience, Jai has continued to explore the use of business as a tool to pursue social change as an entrepreneur, impact investor and advisor to other start-ups. Before co-founding Thread Harvest with Brian Lee, Jai was an impact investment analyst at Christian Super and prior to that spent two years establishing an innovative care and rehabilitation NGO for young children rescued from abuse in India. Driven by his Christian faith, he seeks to live out his calling to love God and his neighbour in the most genuine way possible.
We spend a lot of time learning, which is generally the first step in us making an idea happen. […] We combine the learning with a healthy dose of prayer, hard work and a willingness to iterate and generally go from there.
Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?
Brian and I had known each other for a while, he actually went to school with my wife and the two of us had shared multiple conversations around using our gifts and corporate experience to make a difference. Eventually we both just felt like it was time to stop talking and give it a go, so we both quit our jobs and spent the next few weeks praying and analysing various business opportunities.
Eventually we settled on a fashion retail store that did something to reverse the exploitation taking place down the apparel supply chain. We were appalled at the fact that fashion was the third most polluting industry in the world while also exploiting tens of millions of garment workers in sweatshops. On the flipside, we were really excited by a new breed of emerging designers which were able to blend style with positive change in really inspiring ways.
Can you please explain your business model to us?
We import fashion from around the world and we then market and sell it online at www.threadharvest.com.au. Each piece has its own story of social and/or environmental impact behind it, so we are as much about stories as we are about style.
What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?
It’s not something we’ve really gone public with just yet but we are hoping to establish a flagship bricks and mortar retail store in 2016. We’re very early on in the journey but if it’s successful we would love to replicate the model and roll out a chain of Thread Harvest stores across the country. If anyone out there has some retail space they would be interested in offering us, we would love to hear from you.
How do you make ideas happen?
We spend a lot of time learning, which is generally the first step in us making an idea happen.
Running fairly lean means we do a lot of work in-house and we really enjoy getting our heads around new initiatives and opportunities. We combine the learning with a healthy dose of prayer, hard work and a willingness to iterate and generally go from there.
What role have mentors played in your business life?
We’ve been really moved by the generosity of some really big names in the fashion industry to give up time for us on a regular basis. In the digital age I feel that there is sometimes a misperception that you can always find answers online. In our experience, the wisdom we gain from a 1 hour chat with an industry leader is worth far more than 100 hours of trawling blogs and websites spruiking the next ‘silver bullet’ answer.
What does your typical day look like?
Every day looks completely different, it’s one my favourite things about the work. Most days involve some mix of putting out a digital spot-fire on the website, coordinating a shipment of new product, social media engagement and a few minutes of wondering how on earth I ended up here.
What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?
In the start-up phase there are some minor tasks that can eat up far too much time during a period where time is a very precious resource. We outsourced some of our work to a BPO in the Philippines that trains and employs the ultra-poor and women rescued from trafficking. The quality of work has been amazing, it saves us a lot of time and we love knowing that the choice is supporting someone with dignified work.
Any other companies you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?
What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?
We love seeing business solving some really tricky social and environmental problems, particularly through the items that we stock. Problems like trafficking aftercare, homelessness and land mine clearing aren’t issues you would ordinarily think business would solve well, but we’ve really enjoyed seeing these problems tackled head on by our suppliers.
Speaking of affecting social change, Is there a particular charity you’d like to support?
We’re big fans of International Justice Mission (IJM), they fight human trafficking around the world and we’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a campaign, as well as supporting some of their employment generation operations.
Can you name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?
Ecouterre – for keeping up to date with global sustainable fashion developments
Stanford Social Innovation Review – for inspiration. http://ssir.org/
Coursera – For education https://www.coursera.org/
What about two interesting Australians we should follow on Twitter?
Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?
We’re currently looking for corporate sponsors, impact investors and retail property developers/managers to partner with us in expanding the online store into a bricks and mortar space.
We also love hearing from creatives and marketers looking for opportunities to use their powers for good!
We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?
What are some proven and replicable marketing avenues/strategies that achieve a monetary and social ROI?
What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?
We often find ourselves at Belaroma just down the road from us in Manly Vale, it’s really close and the food/coffee/service is perfection.