We love rags-to-riches Cinderella stories. They inspire us. Personally, I love learning about people. I mean really learning about them. What makes them tick? What drives them? What fuels their fire? What’s their why? What’s their reason for doing what they do? How do they work so hard to get where they are? Are they an actual overnight success or are they an overnight success that actually took like 10-15-25-35 years of hard work to become an overnight success? Have they left behind a faster-paced, all-about-profit lifestyle to pursue a dream that impacts the world in a positive way? That’s what I love to hear about, and today’s guest is the epitome of that. My guest this week is Susan Correa, the founder of art & eden–a remarkable, organic kids clothing line that is made responsibly. It’s eco-friendly, ethically-made, and affordable. Susan’s passion for what she does and her backstory for how she got started and how she overcame incredible odds had me, honestly, nearly in tears. This is an incredible episode, friend, and I cannot wait for you to hear it.
MORE THAN A CAREER – A CALLING
Throughout Susan’s journey, she has had the joy of living out more than just a career. She has been able to live out her calling. She got her start in fashion, but began looking for deeper meaning in her life–searching for a way to bring in more purpose. She was deeply moved by the work of her friends and family who worked in impact, and she began questioning whether success should be measured monetarily, or by the amount of good a person does in their life. All of this questioning culminated when she was introduced to a school in Bangalore through a blog post. This school was nestled in a densely-populated slum district. The school served a hot, nutritious meal to the children, and for most of the kids, it was the only meal they would eat all day. Within 23 days of reading this blog post, Susan had signed all of the papers with Hope Foundation India. She was there to launch and support that meal program, and for every garment that was sold in one of their businesses, one meal was given out. Susan and her team helped provide nearly 200,000 meals. August 18, 2014, Susan went into the school fired-up to make a difference for the kids, but the day ended with her life changing. She recognized the power of business to be used as a force for good. She began to wonder how we could move from business being transactional to transformative.
AN ORIGIN STORY – The “Art” and The “Eden”
Fashion is a $2.4 trillion industry. It touches every human’s life. When you think of fashion, you think of beauty and perfection. Susan conducted her whole career loving every moment she experienced in the business of fashion, but never once stopping to think at what cost this beauty was coming at and what burden it was placing on the earth. The whole journey started from a book was ready on her way to India–Linchpin by Seth Godin. This book wanted people to use art in a way that asks nothing in return. She began to wonder what was best for the world in the business of fashion? ‘Art’ is thus where art & eden’s journey began. ‘Eden,’ then is a reflection of Susan’s quest to leave the world as a sustainable place that our children can enjoy and thrive in. ‘Art’ is where she started, and ‘Eden’ is the intended destination.
ICE CREAM & WHAT IS BEST FOR THE WORLD: FROM SEED TO SHELF
usan spent the first two years immersed in documents and research papers and libraries, trying to understand the impact of fashion from seed to shelf. She wanted to understand how we choose the seeds to grow our crops to make the fabric, how we treat the farmers that harvest them, how we dye the fabric, and how we care for the communities we work in. She tried to look at business wholistically–not just looking product, but also at purpose. Susan became enamored with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and how they do business in the world. She decided to reach out to the CEO on Linkedin and explained what she was trying to do. She was so surprised when he got back to her! He made time to see her in person and walked her through the story. It was a beautiful unfolding of a business model that cares for everyone and everything along the product’s process. Susan was incredibly inspired and committed herself to slowing down–focusing on building a better business with art & eden, and she has succeeded wildly.
About Susan Correa, Founder of Art & Eden:
There are two ways to tell my story.
One: This is a story about a startup. It’s about using business for good. It’s about revolutionizing the fashion industry. It’s about an underdog, a woman of color founding and pioneering ways forward. It’s about a business built in response to urgent social and environmental crises.
Two: This is a story about radical internal change. It’s about deeply personal transformation that could not be contained to the personal. It’s about culturally indoctrinated world views shattering open and an irrevocable commitment to multi-directional change: from the personal to the systemic, from the wiring within the self to the wiring in our cities, our corporations, our world.
The thing is, whichever way I introduce it, half the story goes missing. That’s what makes it so hard to fit into a quick pitch. Because in truth, there is only one way to tell the art & eden story: explaining the inextricability of what we do with who we are.
art & eden was born out of a personal breakthrough, my slow yet sudden awakening from my life as an entrepreneur with 20+ years of global experience in corporate fashion. I convicted myself guilty of spending decades ‘turning a blind eye’ to the environmental and worker abuse rampant in the apparel industry. The speed at which I operated in order to bring the latest fashions cheapest to market left me no time to truly care. Sure I felt badly about the pollution, waste, low wages and poor worker treatment in the industry, but with profit as my sole purpose, everything else seemed like a distraction. I rationalized: ‘The problems are interwoven into the system. They’re too big for me to solve.’ I hoped somebody else would do something about these issues. I focused solely on my goal of maximizing profits.
It wasn’t until visiting a school in rural India to help feed undernourished children—a small give-back program I began at one of my past companies—that I had a complete collapse of perspective. Those children, combined with two formative books about entrepreneurship and art, unlocked something in my mind and heart that changed me forever. From that day forward, I realized that changing the world started with changing myself. A better world could only start with a better me—there was no waiting for someone else to fix the problems. I was that somebody I hoped for, well able and fully capable of doing something that mattered. I could not simply return to business as usual and pretend that everything was okay. I had to find a better way forward.
I decided to exit my executive positions in the two multimillion dollar businesses I was running. It was time to reimagine a new way forward. Leaving two existing multi million businesses, was the biggest risk of my professional career. I am the sole breadwinner for my family. My two kids were nearing college and tuition loomed ahead. I saw the stress weighing on my immensely supportive husband. I knew I was putting everything—and everyone—on the line. But I also knew I could no longer participate in an industry that valued profit at the cost of people and the planet.
Yes I was I was told that this was impossible. Yes I was told that I was crazy. Yes I was told that there was no place for an Indian woman in the business of American fashion.
All of this only made me more determined to discover the alternate possibilities, and there was only one way to learn them – I had to lean in!
What is possible?
This question is the seed of art & eden. Every aspect of who and what we are has sprouted in response to this seeking.
After two years of research, serendipitous connections and a whole lot of heart, art & eden launched in January 2017.
art & eden is a sustainable and decidedly unconventional children’s fashion brand. We take “be the change you want to see in the world” to a new level. We believe that business can be used as a force for good, that our process and profits have the power to serve the needs of local and global communities. We take a holistic approach to sustainability, including every touch point from process to product to consumer and beyond.
All our clothes are made with sustainable fabrics—organic cotton and upcycled or recycled polyester—certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. We prohibit toxic chemicals and dyes still commonly used in the fast fashion industry. We seek out and partner with mission-aligned factories similarly spearheading their own social initiatives. We strive for a cradle-to-cradle operation, where what we make can be re-used, recycled or can decompose. We ship in biodegradable polybags and use recycled cardboard for our e-commerce packaging.
Within our company, we utilize practices that invest in and empower people throughout our supply chain, whether farmer or office employee. We believe in building each other up so that we can do the same with our earth. We ask difficult, rigorous questions and aren’t afraid of difficult, un-pretty answers. We want to make something better, to leave our children a planet that we are proud of, one they can breathe and thrive in. We understand this requires humility, un-learning and a lot of pivoting to figure out what works.
In addition to our internal processes, we have local and global giveback programs that serve under-resourced children. In Newark, NJ, we partner with the Camden Street School to run a yearlong mentorship program that fosters inner authority, community resilience and leadership amongst middle schoolers. Globally, we work with the HOPE WORLDWIDE. We committed to delivering one million essential vitamins and 7,000 doses of Albendazole to undernourished children throughout Central America and in Tijuana, Mexico, and we’ve come through on our promise.
We go to these places ourselves. We are the work. Whether it’s in how we treat one another, how we make our clothes, how we serve our children or how we support our customers.
We believe change is possible.
We believe in better ways.
We believe in education, transparency, awareness and the power of good choices.
I hope that you believe in us and find our story worth sharing.