Social Enterprise Empowers Women in Distressed Nations

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By Siiri Morley (Founding Partner, Prosperity Candle) Prosperity Candle has a vision so big and so ambitious that we’ve encountered many naysayers along the way. That's to be expected in our line of work. Our team speaks about a million points of light -– millions of candles lighting up the world and empowering thousands of women in some of the toughest parts of the world, like Iraq, Rwanda, Haiti, Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan.

Empowerment of women in these countries attracts people, but once they would hear that we planned to do this as a for-profit social venture, interest often began to wane.

Many people cautioned us that importing high quality candles made by women in Baghdad was “impossible”. Yet we’ve done it successfully three times and are now ready to build.

Empowering Women as a Social Enterprise

Our mission is to empower women as entrepreneurs to launch independent candle-making businesses that enable them to not only survive, but prosper and thrive. We focus on parts of the world where women have been most affected by conflict or natural disaster and offer them an opportunity to build a business that can grow and enable them to earn more than a living wage. A living wage means being able to send children to school, put food on the table, pay for medical bills, etc.

My business partners Amber Chand and Ted Barber first conceived of the Prosperity Candle business model in 2008 as they explored how to better align international development and women’s empowerment goals with international trade. They believed firmly that consumer products could create transformative change in the lives of women around the world, but that a different recipe was needed -– both for consumers and producers.

As they explored different possibilities for a new model, they found that candle-making, unlike many handmade products, is a uniquely scalable enterprise and one that was uniquely suited to women’s needs in distressed nations.

The more molds a woman invests in, the more candles she make each day and the more income she can earn. Candles were also compelling because the training is very simple, they offer tremendous market opportunities to women, are highly symbolic of peace, prosperity, reflection and empowerment, and can be made in the safety of one’s home –- an important consideration in war-torn areas.

Bootstrapping the Early-Stage Social Venture

I joined the team very early on as a partner when Amber and Ted had just launched the pilot project in Baghdad, Iraq in partnership with the international nonprofit organization, Women for Women International. By early 2010, we had a pilot project underway in Baghdad, Iraq and all three of us were devoted full-time to Prosperity Candle. We self-funded the pilot and wanted to have a proof of concept before seeking more funding. By April 2010, we had trained over 40 women, imported thousands of pillar candles and had an e-commerce platform in place. We also lucked out with some early media coverage in the Huffington Post. We were ready to launch our very first sales for Mother’s Day 2010.

The response was incredible. Customers were excited to support our mission and were delighted with the quality and symbolism of the products. We felt confident enough in our model at this point that we began approaching potential investors for the company to grow our work.

Nearly all social enterprises face a number of challenges in raising capital for their work.

Social enterprises tend to confuse people –- we’re not a non-profit that offers tax deductible donations and we're also not a traditional fast-growth, high-profitability company. So, like most of our peers in the sector, our efforts to raise capital were time-consuming and had limited results. We found some wonderful new lenders, but didn’t find sufficient capital to grow our work to the next level.

Raising $10K Funding on ProFounder

While at SoCap (Social Capital Markets Conference) in October 2010 I was focused on exploring how Prosperity Candle could team up with like-minded investors, I learned more about ProFounder and was able to connect with their team.

The ProFounder team invited us to join their platform as a beta entrepreneur to create a capital raise. We decided to do so because we had such a huge groundswell of grassroots support that we wanted to mobilize. Many individuals in our communities wanted to support us financially but were unable to contribute more than a few hundred dollars. Until we learned about Profounder, we couldn't figure out the best way to organize and leverage their support.

For a small social enterprise to accept a loan of less than $5,000 just doesn't make sense in terms of the logistics. But ProFounder’s platform changed this for us -– it facilitated small investments from dozens of people to help us grow our work.

Our raise was small on Profounder ($10,000 total) because we wanted to test the waters cautiously.

Although the immediate financial benefit was relatively small compared to the effort we invested, we found that engaging our support base in this way led to a new level of commitment to our mission. These 32 friends and family who joined us as investors have made strategic introductions for us and act as ambassadors for the company. They are willing to open their networks to us and serve as a resource. This is invaluable to us as we grow and will certainly continue to benefit us into the future.

With the support of our ProFounder raise, we were able to update our e-commerce platform, pilot a local candle-making initiative with women refugees from Burma and Bhutan, and expand our sales channels. We’ve also secured sales relationships with Amnesty International, FEED Projects and Whole Foods.

We’re now at a crossroads as a company. We’re looking to our future growth as well as sustaining the foundations that we’ve already created. We’re building new sales channels to ensure that we have strong enough market demand to responsibly grow the number of women that we work with and the number of candles that we import.

Knowing that every 10 candles sold equals one day’s living wage for a woman in Iraq motivates us daily.

2011 will surely be a pivotal year for Prosperity Candle and we look forward to finding new partners that can help us bring our work to the next level -– both in terms of raising capital to grow our team and to support our sales efforts to empower more women. We are, for instance, reaching out to organizations that focus on women's empowerment and/or women's professional development to offer them an aligned purposeful business gift collection.

We hope some readers will consider supporting our work through this program!

Prosperity Candle offers organizations looking to make a statement with their next donor, client, employee or board member gift an attractive range of gift options that are aligned with their values. What better way to illustrate your commitment to women's entrepreneurship, professional development and empowerment than by giving a gift that helps a woman build her own enterprise in a place like Iraq, Burma or Haiti? To learn more about the purposeful business gift program and all of our customization options, contact Siiri at siiri@prosperitycandle.com. Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Siiri Morley is a Founding Partner of Prosperity Candle, a social enterprise that aims to empower women entrepreneurs in regions of conflict. She has worked on poverty reduction and sustainable economic development projects in Afghanistan, Croatia, Ecuador and Kenya, and was a business capacity development advisor with the U.S. Peace Corps in Lesotho. She has consulted on social impact measurement to design firm IDEO. Siiri holds an MBA from the Heller School of Social Policy & Management at Brandeis University. Follow her on Twitter at @siirimorley.