Inspiring Capital had the pleasure of recently meeting and chatting with social entrepreneur rockstar, Natalie Grillon. We were so impressed with her passion, knowledge and experience that we wanted to share it with you all! I'll let her tell you a little bit more about herself and you will quickly see why we think she is a rockstar.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the journey that brought you to where you are today?
I’m originally from the U.S., the Berkshires in Massachusetts, a beautiful community to grow up in. I went to Georgetown School of Foreign Service for undergrad, where I majored in international politics. Post graduation, I served with the Peace Corps in the Timbuktu Region of Northern Mali as a Natural Resource Management Specialist- this experience shaped my worldview and opened up my eyes to the beauty but also many of the injustices and inequalities of our world.
I went back to school for my MBA at Cornell ,focusing on business solutions to alleviate poverty; this model for development made sense to me. These solutions were sustainable. I was fortunate to join Acumen as a Global Fellow after I completed my MBA where I joined Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC) as the manager of the sesame business in Gulu, a post-conflict region in Northern Uganda. I am now staying on with the company for this next harvest season, having completed my fellowship with Acumen in August. I’m continuing to manage the sesame, chili and sunflower businesses, working with farmers to improve their yields and the value of their crop. We’ve doubled GADC’s organic sesame business from last year; this year we’ve tripled our number of farmers, now serving 33,000.
What motivated you to work with Acumen after an MBA? What was your favorite experience working with them?
I went back for my MBA because I wanted to work in business for social impact, eventually starting out as an entrepreneur. I had the experience abroad and knew what I’d seen on the ground in terms of the failures of the classic aid model. The Acumen fellowship was a perfect way to test things out in this alternative model I’d read so much about, see if I loved it and where I could best deploy my skills.
We heard about the interesting venture you are working on that aims to help integrate the supply chain for fabric and make it more transparent. Can you tell us more about that? What inspired this venture? And where do you see it in the next year or two?
We are building a JUST supply chain for fabric, a supply chain that engages and celebrates all its stakeholders. We do it through producing traceable, high quality, sustainable fabric from accountable, vertically coordinated supply chains.
Global apparel supply chains are complex, unaccountable and broken. A simple t-shirt’s journey to the consumer crosses oceans and so many pairs of hands, but all the factories and players involved are often disconnected and unknown. No one can hold anyone accountable: Slave labor, pesticides and chemicals in so called “organic” fibers and unacceptable working conditions are all too common.
We believe it should be easy to make an ethical, sustainable choice in your sourcing.
We are quality: our traceability process allows us to better monitor the quality of our fabric from the initial cotton in the field.
We are transparent: each step in each of our supply chains is traced through our unique traceability process and displayed on our online platform and track tags for our clients’ use in marketing to their consumers.
We are fair: The vertical coordination of our chain allows us to pass more of the value on to each partner, each spinner, each worker, each farmer.
We do the heavy lifting for our clients. We establish supply chains which we’ve authenticated, manage logistics and finishing and facilitate conversations on quality and arrange exclusive orders. We develop the consumer facing materials, including websites, tags and mapping tools to communicate the stories of our supply chains.
The real difference about JUST is that its a comprehensive approach, not only focusing on the environmental and social impact of buying organic inputs from farmers, but taking it all the way through the supply chain to produce the best quality fabric with the most impact.
JUST fabric, JUST supply chains, it just makes sense.
The inspiration came from working with the cotton farmers at GADC and realizing that we had no idea where our cotton went and in turn those who bought it had no idea where it came from. There’s an opportunity to tell that story and connect people with their clothing and with other people who care about the product and the other people in the chain too.
In the next year we hope to grow our client base and begin to expand our model into new markets.
What advice do you have for anyone out there seeking to integrate social impact and revenue generation?
Stick to your morals and have conviction in what you believe, but be humble in those beliefs or ideas.
Read a lot from all different sources. And take time to read books you've always wanted to read or have been recommended to you. Even just 15 minutes a day.
Live and work alongside the people you’re hoping to serve for more than a few weeks- they’ll teach you a lot and you’ll likely learn a lot about yourself.
What's been your favorite and least favorite experiences working in the sustainability space?
Favorite: learning a different language and being immersed in a culture that welcomes and adopts you as its own.
Least: There have been some times I've been scared in some of the places I've worked. Those situations have taught me a lot about what's truly important to me.
Anything else you would like to share with the Inspiring Capital audience?
Perhaps a bit cheesy but, stay inspired. Keep people, readings, music, photos around you that keep you going and remind you why we do this work and keep exploring to find new sources. Staying connected to the field and humanity is critical to the long term success of this space and to your own success- the work can be defeating and challenging but the small reminders and wins can feed you.