As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Mosbacher Morris.
Jane Mosbacher Morris is the Founder and CEO of TO THE MARKET. She is also the author of Penguin Random House/Tarcher Perigee book, Buy the Change You Want to See: Use Your Purchasing Power to Make the World a Better Place (January 29, 2019). Jane has served as the Director of Humanitarian Action for the McCain Institute for International Leadership and currently serves on the Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council. She also worked in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. Morris is a member of VF Corporation’s Advisory Council on Responsible Sourcing, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the Care International Board of Directors. In 2020, Fortune Magazine named Jane a World’s Greatest Leader because of her work at TO THE MARKET, pivoting to procure and deliver vital personal protective equipment at the onset of COVID-19.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in a household where kindness and hard work were major priorities. I knew that would guide my career in some way but growing up I wasn’t always sure what the specifics would be. I got my start at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and spent the early days of my career seeking out which aspects of my skill set could best improve the world around me. I learned very quickly that every day is an opportunity to make a change for the better with your choices, whether it’s how you spend your money or how you treat the people around you.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I started my career working in the U.S. Department of State on counterterrorism and women’s empowerment issues. During that experience, I spent a lot of time with underserved and underrepresented populations around the world. What I kept hearing from women in these communities was that there was a severe lack of economic independence and opportunity. So, I began to think through industries and ways to economically empower women on a global scale.
While working in the Office of Global Women’s issues under Secretary Hillary Clinton, I was often in contact with women working in retail. Many make their products at home or in a workshop. Slowly I began to think of how to connect suppliers around the world to U.S. based brands. It wasn’t until a trip to Kolkata, India while at the McCain Institute with Mrs. Cindy McCain and the International Justice Mission that the idea for TO THE MARKET solidified my passion and commitment to the dignity of work as a means of economic empowerment for women and other overlooked artisans and makers. When thinking about the retail supply chain at the time, I identified two significantly underserved markets:
First, on the demand side, there’s enormous interest (especially from millennials and Gen Z) for ethically-made products. People want to see the same transparency in the fashion world that now exists within the food and beverage space.
Second, on the supply side, there’s an incredible untapped production capacity around the world, particularly in the artisan industry. It’s the second-largest economy in the developing world, behind agriculture, but is largely disconnected from the supply chains of traditional retailers and corporations.
And that’s what set me on this entrepreneurial path and how I came to founding TO THE MARKET — to connect retailers to ethical, environmentally responsible supply chains that empower women.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I first got started, I had no idea how to price products and added $1 per product. (You normally want to make sure you are multiplying the cost of goods of a product by 2.7!). When someone said, “What is the MSRP,” which is the very basic question for what the retail price is for the consumer, I literally had no idea what people were talking about! It was a learning process.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My husband founded his own company, Rubicon, so he has given me guidance along the way on running a startup. He helps encourage me when I have setbacks and pumps me up when I’m feeling discouraged. He offers perspective on how to leapfrog in growth and shares his insights from his own startup journey.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There are always stressful moments when you’re starting a business. I remember one time when we had a shipping issue, my tiny team had to hand-deliver boxes to a client in New York. It was during the holiday rush and I started crossing the street. Suddenly, my arms gave out, and the box I was carrying exploded in the middle of the street. It felt so symbolic of how much stress I was carrying at that point.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
For years, I’ve been practicing an exercise where I write future bios for myself, which is a way of visualizing where I want to go. For me, it’s a way of staying focused. At the same time, it’s not necessarily like, “By 2024, I will have won the following awards.” It’s more like, between now and 2024, what do I want to say I’ve accomplished? Who do I want to become? I write the biography as though I’ve already accomplished those things, and it helps me feel they’re possible. It also brings clarity, even through the most difficult moments.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
These days, we couldn’t be more excited about the ways that TO THE MARKET is growing, though we’ve certainly experienced challenges along the way. Like every organization, we faced a lot of unexpected change throughout the last year. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we transitioned from our usual focus on retail and home goods to supplying PPE (personal protective equipment) for frontline workers.
We wanted to use our manufacturing and shipping infrastructure to help manage the crisis, and it took a whole lot of teamwork and effort to make it happen. We reached out to our supplier network about the possibility of supplying PPE, and many of them responded with enthusiasm. Many of our manufacturers around the world were more than happy to help the cause, so they equipped their factories practically overnight to create gowns, masks, and other materials that could keep healthcare workers safe. What we didn’t realize until that moment was that all our years spent sharpening our processes and building a strong supply chain with mutual trust created the foundation we’d need in 2020.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our syndicated supply chain makes it possible for us to offer a unique flexibility to our partners. We work with a network of vetted ethical suppliers around the world, many of whom are from communities that are underrepresented in retail and manufacturing. When we start working with a new partner, we’re able to tap into this community of suppliers to pair them with those best suited to their goals.
One moment when our unique position came to our aid was during those first few uncertain months of the pandemic. When we were early into our pivot to PPE, our Chief Marketing Director, Cindy Jones-Nyland, heard from a friend and neighbor that the local hospital system she worked for was in desperate need of more gowns and masks. They were able to put their heads together, find out who to contact at the hospital system, and quickly utilize TO THE MARKET’s global suppliers to manufacture and ship PPE directly to the hospital system’s frontline workers. We’re thankful to be able to respond to unexpected needs like this.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
For me, the key is taking time for yourself, while taking care of business. I try to prioritize sleep and get seven hours a night. I also try to stay organized at work. I’m a big list-maker, and I have an insanely detailed calendar that is available to my entire team. I’m totally transparent with how I spend my time. I also color-code my calendar so I can get a quick idea of how I’m spending my day: 10% on investor relations, 10% on book stuff, etc. Having these systems in place reduces my anxiety and keeps me moving forward.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At the onset of the pandemic, we pivoted from apparel, accessories and home goods to supplying vital personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline healthcare workers, nuns, farmers, and more essential workers. Not only did we supply PPE in the United States, but also around the world near our suppliers. For example, we commissioned some of our makers in Kenya and Ghana to distribute masks to women and children in their communities who had been going without.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- We learned early on that fundraising is really challenging. You first have to truly engage a lot of people, then work on getting those same people interested in your mission. After a great deal of communication with perhaps 100 people, maybe 2 of those will give money to your cause. A recent study by Fundera shows the struggle. Women receive just 7% of venture funds for their startups, yet we account for 40% of all American owned businesses.
- When you lead a company, you are signing up for an emotional roller coaster. The highs and lows are steep in both directions. This was new for me, as emotional resilience is critical for myself and my team.
- Not everyone will get it, and that’s okay. Some people are destined to not be for you. Not everyone will like you or your business model. I learned that early on. Still, it’s important to not take that personally and continue to persevere. You have to be your own best advocate. You are your biggest cheerleader, salesperson, fundraiser, evangelist, etc. Once I spoke to Meredith Fineman, author of the book “Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion.” One thing she said that still resonates with me is: “It’s really important to get comfortable being your own cheerleader.”
- Sometimes the cost of inaction is higher than the cost of doing something that is wrong. Failing forward versus analysis paralysis. We had to make some very quick decisions regarding our business model in early 2020 and took very calculated risks that have allowed for significant growth for the company. Being comfortable in that space of failing forward is very important
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
-Lead with empathy and focus on results.
-Set clear expectations. Let your team know exactly what you need from them and when. When it comes to your own performance, be clear with yourself on exactly what you hope to accomplish, and what achievement looks like to you.
-Focus on the ROI of your time, effort, and money. Running a business is full of doubt, questions, and distractions. It’s easy to look up and find yourself spinning your wheels on something that isn’t in your zone of genius or won’t get you to the growth you need. Take the time to regularly assess where your energy is going, and whether it’s getting you the results you need.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think a lot of times you have to experience things and learn them yourself instead of just taking someone’s word for it. Perhaps the one advice I ignored initially was the idea of casting a really wide net when you are fundraising. I’ve really learned you need to talk to a lot of people to find the right fit!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A shared commitment to help people find meaningful employment. Everyone, no matter their station in life, deserves the opportunity for safe, fairly-paid work that enables them to make decisions about the direction of their lives. I’m passionate about enabling the dignity of work.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can also download the newly released chapter of my book for free. The new chapter provides tips and advice for how to view your purchasing power and enact change today.