176: Rachel Kois: Being An Intentional Activist: An Entrepreneur’s Vision For Changing Capitalism, Helping Others Buy Better Through Ethical And Impactful Shopping, And Embracing The Belief That You Can Make A Difference
Entrepreneurship opens up various opportunities to help make people’s lives better, not only with the products you make but the causes you support through them. Changing capitalism by helping others buy better through ethical and impactful shopping, Rachel Kois of Simple Switch joins Thane Marcus Ringler to tell us the amazing things he has been doing in pushing the power of entrepreneurship to solve some of the world’s most serious problems. She takes us into her online marketplace that puts social cause at the forefront of every product there is. An intentional activist, Rachel embraces the belief that you can make a difference. Join her in this episode as she talks about her journey as an entrepreneur, the difference between charity and empowerment, learning how to receive feedback, and more.
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Rachel Kois: Being An Intentional Activist: An Entrepreneur’s Vision For Changing Capitalism, Helping Others Buy Better Through Ethical And Impactful Shopping, And Embracing The Belief That You Can Make A Difference
This is a show all about learning how to live a good life, which we believe takes living with intentionality. Intention in the tension is the mantra because life is full of tensions that we have to live in the midst of daily. This is unpacking stories from others in the process of becoming and we are all becoming every single day as we learn our entire lives. Thank you for being a fellow up and comer on this journey and walking alongside us by tuning into this show. We’re grateful that you’re here and we can’t do it alone. That is the reality we are in.
I’m excited to share with you the interview. Before we get there, a few reminders, if you haven’t left us a rating and review on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, that is a great way to help our show be found by more people. A review I will read and if you leave one, we may read it on air. A review from Rwqhcrm titled Genuine, Inspiring and Challenging. The review says, “I enjoy the honesty and diversity that this show brings. Thane is legit in his desire for authenticity, discipline and improvement. It’s worth the time.” Thank you for those kinds of words. It means a lot to me. If you want to help our show, that’s a great way to do it.
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Our guest is Rachel Kois. She is the CEO and Founder of SimpleSwitch.org, an online marketplace for ethical and impactful shopping. Think like Amazon except every one of the 3,000-plus products has a positive social or environmental impact. They aim to shift some of the trillions spent online in 2020 to everyday products and gifts that support orphan care, planting trees, combating climate change and more. She believes deeply in the power of entrepreneurship to solve some of our world’s most serious problems.
When she isn’t working to harness the power of capitalism for positive impact, Rachel loves rock climbing, drinking craft beer, and taking care of her vegetable garden and five backyard chickens. Her first-ever entrepreneurial adventure was a knitting business and she’s traveled to 28 countries. She’s a stubborn idealist committed to authenticity and making a difference. This interview was awesome and wide-ranging. We covered a lot of things including being intentional activists, learning how to receive feedback, changing habits, knowing what’s helpful with recycling and composting. It’s something that I was interested in learning from her.
The difference between being dogmatic and being passionate, her journey so far as an entrepreneur, the difference between charity and empowerment, her goal of changing capitalism, which was also interesting, running successful internship programs, her future vision and much more. I was impressed by Rachel’s breadth of knowledge even at such a young age and her humility, skills and leadership so far. I was excited to learn from her about the internship program she runs. It’s impressive what she’s able to do with interns and that’s near the end of the conversation. You’re going to want to read all the way for that. She also provides a little discount code if you wanted to know it at the end. Make sure you read the full interview. It’s worth your time and I enjoyed it. Check out what she’s doing at Simple Switch. It’s a great way to spend some meaningful dollars this Christmas holiday season. Without further ado, please enjoy this interview with Rachel Kois.
Rachel Kois, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
It’s great to have you on. We have so much that I am excited to know from you on. I want to start here. One of the things I like to do in talking to people about the guests, I ask them to describe Rachel in two words. Here are some of the words they used, “Intentional activists, gritty, relentless, beautiful soul, ambitious, determined, unafraid, bold and authentic.” Not to pop-up the ego too much but I want to encourage you with those. I want to dive into the first one, the intentional activist. What does being an intentional activist mean?
That is such a compliment. I love that that was what came first to mind with people because I know these were rapid-fire questions you were asking. For intentional activists, the first thing that comes to mind for me is my own awareness and self-worth. Making sure that I’m holding a humility that allows for constant change because I come from a privileged background. A lot of the things that I’m an activist for are not things that always directly impact me. Whether that be the environment, I live in a beautiful place that’s somewhat less impacted than places where marginalized communities are, but also things like poverty or racism, I’m personally unaffected by. Making sure that I’m being a good listener because I think it can run the risk of a white savior complex. That word tends to make people feel a little off-center and freaked out. It’s making sure to be a good listener so that I’m being the actress that people want or need. Still, I like those words that people thought. That’s great.
To underscore that, getting positive feedback and encouragement from people is underrated and underpracticed. We could all do a better job of giving people words of encouragement or speaking life into them. I’m glad that happened there. Being a good listener, is that being a crucial or an integral part of being an intentional activist? What helps you be a good listener and how have you grown in it? Vice versa, you could also talk about what prevents you from being a good listener.
Ego and pride are what prevents me from being a good listener. If someone says, “You’re not good at this. You might not understand this,” it’s hard to sit with that. Instead of saying, “No, I am. I’m great. People say I’m an intentional activist.” It’s hard to move past that in some moments. It takes practice. That’s why I liked the word intentional in there, not just activists because I’ve had to train myself to be open to feedback. That’s not to say that I’m perfect at it by any means, but I’ve luckily been trained in some groups that I’ve been a part of, but then also trained by the practice of taking those hits sometimes and realizing, “I’m not that good at that.” That’s not something we need to wallow in, but be able to look at that with a lot of honesty and figure out how we can be a better listener and take more action in those areas.
I love how you talk about taking action and we’re going to dive into a lot of that. When you talk about getting trained and becoming good at getting feedback, because this is home for all of us and even for me, now that I’m newly married. I’ve been married for about 8 or 9 months and that’s a whole other realm of getting that feedback. Especially for me, it’s the person that I loved most. That feedback is hard to hear and it hits at an emotional level a lot of times. For you, in your training and work, what would you say is the process you’ve gone through? What have you learned in becoming better at getting feedback?
It is almost an inside joke for many of my close friends. Anyone who’s reading this who was with me on this journey will recognize this. I was part of an organization for a little while where I did a year abroad doing mission and service work. They do a lot of training around feedback. It’s not necessarily because it’s a good skill but because I think if you send a group of young people out who are going to be traveling together, they should have this training or they’re going to tear each other apart. If you’re not learning how to do it in a healthy way, then you’re learning how to do it in an unhealthy way with the world race. They do a great job with feedback and let us through several trainings about simple things like when you receive feedback, making sure to wait 24 hours before responding.
That simple practice can help whether it be in a team relationship like that or a personal relationship like your marriage or I practice this with my boyfriend as well. We try to wait 24 hours so that you can have that sitting with it. You can pass over that initial sting and that initial defense mechanism of saying, “No. I can’t be that bad at this.” This is relationship-dependent. You have to build up this trust, but realizing that feedback is coming from a place of love and a place of wanting to help you reform into the best version of yourself.
It’s not needless criticism. That’s different than feedback, but if you’re able to say, “I see that you’re falling short in this area and you could be awesome. Here’s a way that you’re not awesome. Let’s be thinking about how you can grow in that.” On an internal level, being able to take it and say, “This isn’t someone attacking me. This is someone helping me grow and helping me build. That means they believe in me because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t take the time or energy or emotional energy to say these things to me.”
That’s helpful, practical and actionable. The only way you get good at feedback is by going to the reps at the end of the day. It’s easy to talk about it. As I grew from child to adult, in a sense going through high school, college, early career days, that was probably the thing that made the biggest difference in my own personal growth. I love that you’re hitting this home. Receiving feedback and waiting 24 hours is such a great practice.
It’s hard because you want to have the last word in a lot of those situations, but it makes all the difference.
To get back to intentionality, acting and taking action, one of the things that were said about you as well is that, “She lives the life she espouses.” One of the examples that I want to know about is what you decided to do in 2018 for a full year? What that commitment was, why and what came from it?
I’m assuming you’re talking about the waste thing?
If there is something else, you can go too.
I was thinking because I started my company in 2018 but I didn’t do it for the full year. I want to make sure. In the end of 2017, I generally tried to hold off on New Year’s resolutions that are going to look like, “I’m going to do this thing this whole year,” because mostly because I know I likely will not succeed and I will have grander aspirations for this commitment. For some reason, at the end of 2017, I was watching a BuzzFeed video. It’s something super simple and something that was viral about a community in Japan who changed their waste stream systems. That they would be the first zero-waste community in Japan.
I was amazed by that. I thought it was cool, this idea of changing our habits to make a positive impact. That’s a big part of what we do for Simple Switch. For me personally, I said, “Maybe I could change my habits. Not put rules on what am I allowed to do or not allowed to do but say, “What intentionality can we create?” I decided that any waste that I made if it wasn’t compostable or recyclable, I had to keep it. I’m giggling because I’m doing this interview from my bedroom. There was a bag in the corner for all of 2018 where I would have the trash that I was creating. The reason I set it up that way is I had seen videos. There’s someone I look up to who runs a plastic-free store and she had done for the whole year all her trash fit in this tiny jar but I knew that probably wasn’t realistic for me.
I didn’t set it up that I was only allowed to make a certain amount of trash because I knew I love Oreos. I knew if I cut myself into this strict deal, I wasn’t going to make as much progress but if instead of buying whatever I want and then throwing it away, I always had in the back of my mind what the consequence was going to be and I was going to have to keep it. That was going to help me make that progress more naturally and it did. A few years later, everything I touch I think about, “What’s the end-of-life solution for this thing?” If that’s the trash, I’m thinking about, “Is that worth it?” The consequence is weighing it whether that be for emotional or practical use, “Is this going to be worth it?” That was a weird year. I got a lot of weird lucks.
How big was the pile at the end of the year?Ego and pride are what prevents people from being a good listener. Click To Tweet
It was smaller than you think and it weighed a lot less than you think. I don’t have the statistics right off the top of my head but I think that the average American makes 150 pounds on average of landfill waste a month. In over a six-month period, which was the first time I weighed it, it was 6 pounds. I was a little bit below average anyway. I’ve grown up in a family that recycles things like that, but I thought that was incredible. A lot of it is not gross trash. It’s some plastic wrappers and plastic waste generally. I would have waitresses come up and say, “Can I take your plate?” I’d be like, “No, I’m going to take this home.” They’d be like, “You’re finished.” I was like, “I know but you gave me this piece of paper and I don’t think you guys compost so I have to take it off.”
It’s such a great trigger to remind and have it be front of mind when you’re seeing it every single day and what a powerful tool for changing habits. I’m curious because it’s something that I don’t know as much, I’m sure a lot of people reading would love to know more on it as well. When you think about these areas of recycling, composting, trash, what are some of the easiest things to learn about that will make the biggest difference in our actions? There’s so much unknown for the average consumer in those spaces. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from your experience in that realm.
The top couple things that come to mind, one is that a lot of times local recycling centers have different requirements. Sometimes you need to sort your recycling. Here in Colorado, a lot of places have single-stream recycling. You can have all your recyclables in the same bin. Getting on and Googling your city and recycling rules figuring out there might be free recycling pick-up where you are or there might not be, getting familiar with those things. If that means that you land on, “I can’t do this yet.” That’s okay but at least getting familiar so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. I don’t think that should take too long. That’s an easy one. If you are in Colorado, we have amazing recycling.
I was texting with one of the guests from our podcast who works at the recycling center near me. I’ve learned a lot from her and from the eco-cycle which is near us. I get nerdy about composting. That one is a little bit trickier than recycling mostly because a lot of places and localities don’t have a composting set-up. In a lot of places, especially if you’re anywhere near a bigger city, there are private composters popping up where they will come and get your compost and take care of it. The thing that’s cool about composting is that with recycling, it’s better than throwing it in the trash but it’s still not great. We’re still creating those materials that are going to use up a lot of carbon footprint, not just the materials going in the landfill. Thinking about reducing and reusing things before recycling is important.
With composting, these are natural things like your food and other things that are created. They certainly have a carbon footprint too but much less than creating something like plastic. We love that. We love the natural materials, then it’s like the way that it was intended. Usually, if there was food waste, it would go on the ground and then it would become dirt and that dirt would help things grow better. I’m into gardening. That’s why I get excited about composting because your plants are less susceptible to bugs, disease and all these different things if they’re put in compost as opposed to other types of soil, which I think a lot of people think that compost and normal soil are the same.
Learning a bit about that might make you as fired up about it as I am. I think it’s cool. I did worm composting while I was doing that zero waste year. I don’t think that’s for everyone because some people might be a little freaked out by that but I had a ton of fun. Worms are made for this. They’re made for getting the food, eating it, pooping it out and making something that’s going to make all of our plants stronger. The other cool thing is that compost pulls carbon from the atmosphere. Not only is it strengthening our plants and our food systems, but it’s also helping to directly combat climate change. It feels like a magic trick to me.
How do you describe or what is your current composting practice? What does that entail? What do you do personally?
I was doing the worm composting thing. Honestly, I was a little too disorganized for it so I stopped doing that. People do backyard composting. I’m doing compost pickup with a private compost company here in Colorado called Compost Colorado. There’s another one I’ve learned about that I like called Wompost that does some outside of Denver communities. I live in a house with seven people and we all compost our food scraps as well as things like paper and paper towels. We put it in a bucket and it gets taken away. In the spring, they will bring us a portion of the compost that is created so that we can use it in our garden.
I love how you broke it down because a lot of the things that you hear not necessarily from verified sources but in hearsay is that recycling isn’t that helpful or it doesn’t make a difference. There are a lot of faults in the system and all of that. What you said about reducing and reusing is such an actionable, tangible thing while also trying to get informed by doing a simple Google search in your area. Those are actionable things that we all can do. That’s sweet to be able to break that down.
I’ll add something there because there are faults in the system for sure with recycling. One thing that we’ve gotten involved in with Simple Switch is that we are plastic neutral. What does that mean? We’re climate neutral. We pay to offset the carbon footprint that we have, but we also pay to offset the plastic footprint that we have. What that means for us is if someone buys a product that has a certain amount of plastic packaging, we are paying to have that amount removed from the landfill waste stream and taking care of it responsibly. That might mean that it goes into a waste stream. You have all started to see things pop up on the market that is made of recycled materials. That’s one cool way that we can use recycling is by putting it back into other materials.
I’m currently wearing leggings that are made of plastic bottles. There are many cool uses. The other thing that it does which I think is one of the main faults of the system but this one especially is that there’s a poor treatment of waste workers in landfills as well. With the recycling system, the company that we work with, rePurpose Global, not only removes the waste from the system and disposes of it correctly, but they’re also working for fair conditions for the people at the end of the waste stream. Apparently, people in the waste stream often have a life expectancy of around 30 years old because of all the toxicity and things like that. When I say it’s better to reuse and reduce, those end-of-life are what we’re trying to avoid. It’s always going to be better than putting it in the landfill because then you have those human consequences as well as the environmental consequences that we’re avoiding.
Thank you for sharing that. That’s insightful and it shows how complex everything is, and how we can feel good about doing a small step but oftentimes there’s more that can be done in one small step, never solves the whole puzzle.
It is still worth it. That’s a balance but I never want anyone to read this and say, “That sounds too confusing. I’m not going to do any of it,” because if all you can do now is recycle a plastic bottle, please do that.
Back to the year 2018, Simple Switch is what was founded then. I wanted a quote of yours that I’ve read and I know is undergirding your mission. You said, “I believe that every dollar you spend is a vote for the future you want. Actual voting is important. The second to that, the way we spend our money is important in creating that future.” How did this understanding and concept go from an idea in your head into the reality that it is now? Even before you get to that journey of Simple Switch, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that quote.
It feels starker now since we went through an actual election season. We see the power of an actual vote and there was so much advocacy around that that I do think was important. It was interesting because we often say, “Vote with your dollar.” It was interesting doing that in cahoots with, “Vote with your vote too.” The idea of, “Voting with your dollar,” when we are going through our everyday lives, we’re not looking too closely at the way that money is shifting in everything that we’re learning, seeing and consuming. The truth is that money is power in a lot of ways. If we are spending our money in a way that is giving power to people who are out of alignment with our values, then that is directly if subconsciously voting for a future that’s out of alignment with our values.
It’s been fun in 2020 to see people grasp that idea more especially surrounding everything that’s happened with the pandemic, and the way that small businesses have been affected. Everyone is grasping the intentionality that goes behind their spending. Whether that be buying from black-owned businesses or small businesses or impactful businesses like our partners, people are grasping that and encouraging others to do the same. It’s been beautiful to watch. We’ve seen a few major corporations gain trillions in 2020, while other smaller businesses that might be more in alignment with what we want go out of business. That is a huge system. You changing where you buy your coffee is probably not going to be the tipping point for that system to change. If that is a collective consciousness change and many of us change those things, then that’s what changes the world, which I feel passionate about. That’s how it went into.
To dive into this a little bit more, you also hear these ideas that I think are important as well that you vote with your attention, with your likes and who you follow. Those were all votes. If we start thinking about that more, it helps us be more intentional with each of those. With that, there’s always pushback and nuance in the system. In the sense that we are all grateful for Amazon in many ways because it’s conveniently added to our lives in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. The same is true with Apple. I have an iPhone and Apple MacBook. These are the things I’m grateful for. There’s tension there. There are these two opposing forces. How do you personally live in that tension well between the ideals of what we’re striving for, the reality we’re facing, and living in the midst of those?
I went to Walmart to pick up some Christmas lights and it’s interesting because I think people who know me, my values and what I do professionally, especially people who don’t know me that well, maybe intimidated and think like, “I’m not going to tell Rachel I bought this Amazon purchase. She’s going to be disappointed in me.” I agree more with what you said of there’s this huge tension. My company wouldn’t be able to exist without the infrastructure that Amazon has perpetuated. Not to say that I am in any way wholeheartedly glad that Amazon exists or for the impact that they’ve made. You’re right that there’s nuance in this balance of what exists, and then once it exists, how we use that.
On a personal level, I have a business mentor who’s the head of the entrepreneurship department where I studied. When I was talking to him about my company, he was saying, “You have to check the balance because you want to be the face of your company and you want it to be personal.” I tried to do that with Simple Switch, to show my personal journey along with what we’re doing corporately. He said, “You have to be careful because if you push too much into being that, then people might start attacking you for having a hamburger if you go to McDonald’s or something like that.” That gripped me for a while, this idea and it still does sometimes of, “If I make a mistake, then it reflects poorly on this entire idea of ethical shopping, on this entire idea of how we can be more intentional but with our dollar, but with our intention.”
What was beautiful about this journey is that it is full of mistakes and that’s way more authentic. In saying, “I’m a zero-waste person,” people can’t connect with that. That’s our company values instead of iterating it often. That comes from a personal place of similar to what we were talking about before with the listening, making sure that I’m always willing to learn. Sometimes that’s going to be stubborn. For instance, I’m learning a lot more about ethics, environmentally and socially around veganism, vegetarianism and why people do that. I haven’t made that change even though I have been given a lot of information there and I’m still learning about it. It’s okay to wrestle with those things and figure those things out. Also, to make mistakes and encourage people to take small steps. My journey is being honest that none of us are perfect and nonjudgmental.
I resonate with what you said there because for me as a golfer and being my career for a while, my whole life was geared around optimizing my performance. My expectations for myself were way beyond the average person because of the nature of what I was trying to do and the atmosphere and environment. What that did was it fueled growth and progress for myself. It also disconnected me from the reality of most people. It becomes unattainable in anyone’s thoughts, views or perceptions of you. It also becomes more robotic or inhumane. You’re hurting yourself and you’re influenced by doing that, even though it feels like leading by example or all those things. It’s an interesting dichotomy there. What you said also makes me think of maybe the difference between being passionate versus being dogmatic. You can be passionate about something but you don’t have to be dogmatic and say that you have to do this or else you’re a horrible person.
I love the book, Dare To Lead, by Brené Brown. You have to go through and pick out of this huge list of values, your top two values. For me, one is making a difference. That’s probably not going to surprise anyone who knows what I do for a living. The other is authenticity. In my personal relationships, hopefully that shows. In a professional way that becomes more of a wrestling match of, “How do I show who I am and what I’m working through, while also being this good leader of this movement or what we’re doing to make a difference?”
I want to talk about Simple Switch. I’d love to know a brief description of what Simple Switch is for people who don’t know. I’d love to know when this idea first was birthed within you?
I love that you didn’t start with this because I’m on a lot of podcasts where that’s all we talk about, which is great. I love talking about Simple Switch but this is a fun change of pace. Simple Switch is an online marketplace for ethical and impactful shopping. We either say ethical impact shopping or we say positive impact purchasing. The idea is that we are somewhat of an alternative to something like Amazon where you can’t know what exploitation or destruction is going on behind the products that you’re buying. There are all sorts of nuances there but it is something that generally our society is trying to move away from. It’s that disconnection, although it is convenient, that ignorance to the whole product and the whole journey that it goes through.
We sell more than 3,000 products. It’s everything from toilet paper to jewelry. I can probably reach out and touch ten things next to my chair that was from Simple Switch that I have because they are practical needs in my life. That’s what I like about our site. It’s not encouraging people to buy more, it’s encouraging them to buy better. The list goes on and on with these amazing social enterprises and environmental enterprises we work with. Coffee, toilet, paper, soap, stuff you use every day but it makes a difference.The idea of changing capitalism is putting so much positive pressure on companies. Click To Tweet
What I love about it is it’s clear and defined. That’s such a hard thing to do in any young company is to get a clear and defined explanation, vision and mission that people can understand, get behind and join forces with. The way you described, it shows the hard work of getting that clarity that’s happened over the last few years and not buying more, buying better, ethical and impactful. The way you described it was a good example of putting in the hard work to get clarity around that, so people can rally and support. That doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen by chance. It takes a lot of failures and iterating, etc. Take us back to that early stage of this idea blooming. Where did that stem from? What were the forces that were fueling this origin?
That is such a deep compliment, what you said. It’s only the insight that an entrepreneur would be able to pick out. We do underestimate the idea of messaging and how that grows and changes. I have become barely but somewhat of an expert, definitely more than most people on these things. For me, it’s easy to ignore the fact that the messaging makes perfect sense to me, but not necessarily to everyone else. That is a huge thing that we’ve worked on. Thank you for recognizing that. Simple Switch got started in 2018. I had the idea in 2015 when I was still an undergrad at CU Boulder. I had gotten back from a trip to South Africa. I went on a study abroad/internship to do business consulting with underrepresented and under-resourced entrepreneurs in townships near Cape Town.
It’s still one of my most amazing journeys and life-changing. It’s cool and a little scary to think where would I be if I hadn’t gone on that? We worked with incredibly talented entrepreneurs but they were financially under-resourced. The markets in South Africa are different where I feel I could start a business and have a market because of my social networks, personal networks, the financial privilege of most people around me would have a market quickly like we do in Simple Switch. These people were trying to start businesses with way more experience than me, way more knowledge than me. We were able to give them extra sets of hands as business students going in and creating specific deliverables whether that be a new marketing plan, a new accounting system.
My one client was a debt restructuring firm. That was interesting because I didn’t have any experience in that. The other was a Braai cook, which is a South African barbecue, which I feel spoiled because every time we went for a client meeting, we got an amazing South African barbecue. They were incredibly talented and wonderful. When I came back to the US, I felt frustrated that they wouldn’t be able to start a business as easily as I would be. I was an entrepreneurship student and we were constantly ideating new businesses for practice, even companies that we weren’t going to start. It felt like many of them could have been successful at least in a small way. That jumpstarted my thought process.
I’m still a student. I’m not necessarily looking to go change policies about this that doesn’t feel necessarily like my path. There are a lot of things I could do that I don’t think. What can I do as a consumer? As someone who buys things, what can I do to shift my purchasing to companies like this? I had started shopping from some social enterprises that were cool but I had never heard of them before. I’m figuring out, “How can I give those people more of my market share than companies that I don’t care about?” That is how the idea for Simple Switch was born because truly out of pure frustration. If this tool was only for me, I still think it would have been worth building.
It wouldn’t be the most financially responsible thing for me to keep it going if it was just me, but I was shopping for normal things, pants, toilet paper. You have to go through much research if you’re new to this journey about what do you think is fair trade? What is composting? What does that mean? What are these easy steps that we can take instead of having it be as convenient as something like an Amazon? At that time, they had the physical button that you could press and it would automatically send you new things. It’s truly as convenient as you can get. They died out because of smartphones but it was something that triggered it in my mind of, “This shouldn’t be as hard as it is.”
We live in the 21st century. This is clearly behind. We started the process of thinking about the infrastructure and learning about how I was going to start it. I did a year abroad at that time. I wasn’t working on Simple Switch in a practical way, but I was meeting a lot of the people that we now work with. Certainly not on a personal basis but meeting a lot of the communities and meeting a lot of the cultures that we now contribute to. We have a little bit better of an understanding of those things. For instance, we work with a company that works against sexual trafficking. When I was in Nepal, I was able to work with women who are coming out of sexual trafficking. Being able to put some personal relationships and faces on the work that we’re doing, and the way that the spending on our site matters. It makes it a lot more fun when I’m running budgets and spreadsheets here.
We’re going to get into some of that here in a bit but I want to go back to South Africa and the internship that you described as life-changing. Would you say it was the lengthy exposure in a different culture? Was it the personal relationships and the stories you saw? Was it the practical business experience? It could be all of those. How would you describe how your life changed before and after that internship?
The biggest thing is how grassroots and active it was. It made me a lot more excited to use my business skills. Business was originally a backup major for me. I also majored in theater performance which I love. Through the four years where I was studying Business, it became a lot clearer to me how much I could use that for things that I was passionate about. The business itself wasn’t the thing for me. It was how we can leverage business and the power of businesses. In the morning, we would be taking classes on how to do things and then in the afternoon we would immediately go put those things to work. That activated my work style. Even if we were doing that in a not so wonderfully and socially impactful way, that still would have happened.
The frustration about their lack of opportunity was a big change for me. One other thing that comes to mind for me a lot is this idea of charity versus empowerment. Our client had an unexpected technical failure with one of her ovens while we were there. It was one of the big industrial ovens with a huge hood. I think the hood broke so it wasn’t able to pull up the smoke and it was going to cause all financial issues for her. We were in teams of three South African students and three American students were working with, which was also amazing. I adore my teammates so much but me at night when we were getting ready for bed, my two American teammates and I started a GoFundMe. Within twelve hours, we had enough money to pay to fix this woman’s oven.
At that time, I had done more thinking than average about charity versus empowerment. That was something I was interested in as I learned more about business in a way of empowering people. My professor, the same one that I mentioned who gave me the warning about the hamburger, we were all staying in one big dorm building together and walked down the hall. He asked what we were doing. We told him that what was done is done. We had already raised all this money. He said, “It’s fine. Do pay for the oven.” That’s not something that we encourage in this program because we are looking to do empowerment here and not charity.
We’re not looking to come in and say, “I have more financial resources in the United States so I can spread those to you and pay for the thing that you need.” It’s more, “How can we empower you to leverage the resources that are around you here in your South African community?” That is something that I’m still extremely passionate about, learning new things about every day, trying to be a better listener about. I think that that was a big perspective shift for me as well of, “We shouldn’t just fix these problems by putting Band-Aids on them. We need to figure out how we can go into communities and make those larger changes.”
The book that I read that came to mind that was enlightening in some ways about this was When Helping Hurts. That one was helping me get my mind around it, especially from a white American perspective, it’s a helpful book for that. In this idea of charity versus empowerment, I feel like it speaks to short-term change versus long-term change and the big difference there. I know from some of the research I’ve done, one of your company values involves a tree. I’d love to hear a little bit about that and how that ties in.
This value is our newest value. It’s the value of a Tamarisk tree and a Tamarisk tree is a type of tree that grows in the Middle East, specifically in Israel, that produces more humidity, more water content in the air and more shade than many other types of trees in that area. Because that’s a hugely dry, arid and hot landscape, that’s valuable to have these trees. The catch is that these trees don’t grow to maturity for about 80 years. If you’re planting one of these trees, it is not for you. It’s also not even for your kids. You’re thinking two generations down the line.
In the rabbinical tradition where I heard this from say, “What Tamarisk tree are you going to plant today?” The metaphor being is, “What legacy are you going to leave that is not selfish. It’s not for you. It’s for future generations and making a long-lasting legacy change.” I think that’s beautiful. I would love to see Simple Switch be the company that effectively changes capitalism, to something that we can be proud of, that we can have as a force for good, that is taking care of people all over the world, and is integrating markets, and making people feel more connected. There’s so much that we can do with this power that has nothing to do with us. Although it might help us push forward some goals here, now and today for me and my family, I’m hoping that it’s also going to create a better world for future generations.
What Tamarisk tree are you going to plant today? That is an awesome question and such a great daily reminder too. When you think about how that plays out for you personally in your life, how does that question shape decisions, thoughts or even what you choose to do in your day? I know a lot is filled with running the business and all those things. I’m curious what other ways this question or this idea has played out for you and your life?
It helps us to be unselfish. I do apply it the most through Simple Switch. Simple Switch is a big way that I’m able to leverage my time to make these long-lasting impacts but it also matters in the ways that we speak to people, treat our family. It may be the conversation that I’m having with someone is not going to affect them right now, but they might remember those words down the line. There’s a fun, super short TED Talk online that I was introduced to while I was in South Africa on that internship. It’s called Lollipop Moments. It talks about how this girl was going to college and she was waiting in the admission line and she was seriously considering going home and quitting.
She was nervous. Someone from the admission line brings her a lollipop and gave her a compliment. He will never remember her because he was doing it for hundreds of students but something about that moment changed her whole perspective. She went on to graduate and she wanted to do great things. Sometimes those Tamarisk trees are unknown as well. They can be from a place of kindness. I love that idea too that every interaction we have can make a positive or negative impact that doesn’t just have to be with spending.
When you think about our generation, people in their 20s or 30s or Millennials in this stage of life, what would you say are ways that we can practice this for our generation? What does that look like practically? It’s something that we all struggle with to some degree. We’re all cultural and our world is geared towards short short-term gratification. It’s geared towards a fast change, short change, things happening now. Getting into this long perspective is a practice in many ways. I’m curious maybe even what obstacles are preventing us generationally or what mindsets are going to help us shift that?
Maybe you’re alluding to this on purpose or maybe not. There’s a misconception about Millennials and down of being self-centered, self-focused, instant gratification, and those types of things, which hasn’t been my experience at all when I’m doing this work. That can certainly be true on a day-to-day basis of, “What am I doing?” When you ask about obstacles, I feel things like technology and I’ve heard a lot of things about Social Dilemma, about this type of thing. What’s the instant gratification that’s being programmed into us by our dopamine reactions in a way that no generation has encountered before?
When I look at this social and environmental impact aspect, I have run into thousands of people, specifically Gen Z but also Millennials, who are incredibly focused on these problems. They do want to make change and they want to make it quickly. They’re driven by making a better world for their children. Part of that is because the messaging that we’ve received has been a lot more urgent around these things. We’re more connected with people around the world or even with our neighbors, at least in an intellectual way like we know a lot about them. Even if sometimes it’s debatable whether there’s more connection. Because we have that knowledge, there’s been a lot of messaging around leaving things better than we found it.
I’m thinking especially environmentally. A lot of people in our generation and below have started to realize that they do need to be taking care of the Earth or it’s not going to be there for future generations. That urgency is an unfortunate reason that we might be good at that. It’s the same with social. We’re seeing people step up for racial equality. We’re seeing people step up for homelessness. It is one that I’ve seen a lot of people are doing some amazing education about, in ways that maybe has been ignored in the past. It’s not on purpose but it’s cool to see people doing a deep dive in those things.
One of my quotes that I’ve thought of often since hearing it was from this guy named Ed Zschau who was a teacher for Tim Ferriss. He said, “If you’re going to make a difference in society, changing the world for the better, you better be prepared for a long journey.” He went on to say, “You don’t get a quick return creating value for the world. You get a quick return doing something that doesn’t matter.” I thought that both of those are great reminders because what you said is true that more aware and more motivated than ever before is the younger generations towards this change.
Yet we need to taper some of that with the understanding and the reality that it takes a long time to make lasting and meaningful change. That helps us maybe have more sustainable longevity with that force for good. It’s a cool thing to hear from you from your experience perspective that this information is making a difference. Having more awareness around it is leading to more people wanting to do good in that. It’s not as sexy as all the negative and pessimistic headlines you hear about. We need to hear that because it’s not often portrayed.
That is interesting because there’s a distinguishment between people wanting to do more and people doing more. Sometimes that commitment, diving in and diving deep, making life choices around these things, I still do think our generation and below do a great job at this. We’re seeing more people do careers that they’re passionate about, whether that be nonprofits or other impact-driven things. There’s also a lot of fatigue that comes with this work. That’s something that I try to gamify for myself. I’m a seven on the Enneagram. This idea is important for me because if I’m not able to gamify it and make it fun, or at least allow for some pride in those things, it’s hard to stay motivated.Commitment is what distinguishes between people wanting to do more and people doing more. Click To Tweet
That’s true for everyone but it’s been true on a personal level. What you were saying made me think of a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine who is a close personal friend but she might have been one of the people that you talked to. Her name is Quinn Antus and she was on our podcast. She runs a coalition for tech companies who are passionate about climate reform. We were with some other friends and talking about how interesting the pandemic has been watching people feel this urgency and take things seriously. As things haven’t changed that much circumstantially with case numbers or caseloads of things, seeing people become fatigued with that concern and how that has affected things.
She was comparing it to the way that people feel about climate change. It’s hard to have this big looming challenge that we should all be tackling. You don’t want to hit it with like, “The world is ending.” That’s not a good motivator but also, we have to figure out how to make these small wins in this huge systemic problem, creating those small wins for people. It is what you and I were talking about with composting and recycling. There are these small things that can feel like, “I did it.” Psychologically, I don’t think we can totally process the gravity and the weight of these huge systems without breaking it into smaller ones. Part of the job of any of us, those Millennials that we were talking about or you or I in creating this impact is translating it into those smaller goals. That’s hard to do but that’s super worthwhile because then you see people that spark go off in their brain. That helps them continue on their journey even if it’s a small win.
It seems like it’s reaching the deeper levels of it. As we grow up and grow through life, we have these goals or these benchmarks we set for ourselves or another set for us. As we reach them, we realize there’s so much more. There’s a greater world. There’s this bigger ocean. It keeps reiterating and repeating over and over again in bigger ways. That’s a reminder too that it’s not about a destination, it’s about enjoying that process and recognizing that, “Here’s that cycle again. I’m stepping into a bigger pool.” That helps us be more patient but also accepting of where we are. If we don’t accept where we are, we’re not going to be able to move forward.
The first thing that comes to mind is a song lyric, Aquaman by Walk The Moon. It says, “Just when you think you’re all adult swim, that’s precisely when somebody shows you to the ocean.” I like to think about that all the time because it’s exactly what you’re saying. There’s also a Nelson Mandela quote, “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Those wins are wonderful and they’re that instant gratification, but they’re also this motivation to keep going because there are bigger and better things that we’re realizing.
One of the things you brought up briefly earlier is this idea or a goal or dream of yours to change capitalism. I’ve heard you mentioned it several times. I’d love for you if you could break down a little bit of what changing capitalism entails? What does that idea mean?
I’ll preface this by saying I don’t feel like I am an expert economist. I’m speaking about my understanding of capitalism and my experience having with Simple Switch. The reason I preface with that is because I’m always trying to grow myself as an entrepreneur and as a person. I’ve realized that I talk about this often that I would like to dive deeper into philosophies behind various economies and economic systems. That is something that if we come back on this show in a year, maybe I’ll have a more thorough answer there. What I mean when I say it is that I think that at least the unbridled, pure capitalism, there are a lot of cool things about it.
There are a lot of cool ways that the free market works. I’m interested when we talked about charity versus empowerment. Free market is one of the ways that people can do that, but because there is evil and exploitation, those things are taken to a different level that is destructive. When we’re seeing capitalism as it is now, we’re seeing people who have $1 trillion. To give you an idea, if you stacked $1 million up on top of each other, that would be the height of a chair. That’s the part I’m iffy on but, $1 trillion, if you stack them up, they would go to the moon. It’s different numbers. It’s hard for us to grasp those things and understand.
We’re seeing corporations or even individuals with trillions of dollars who have come to that place because of the exploitation or at the least because of the use of the labor of other people who will never see $100. $100 is something that we can hold in our hands, $1 trillion is not. To grasp this idea and this discrepancy is difficult. It’s something I’ll sit, meditate on and try to understand the hugeness of the numbers that go into these companies. I run a small company where I’m agonizing over spending $100 on an ad to reach you, so that you can learn more about ethical shopping. Knowing that I’m going up against companies, even smaller ones, not as big as Amazon who have $1 million spending budgets for the same period is equally fascinating and frustrating for me.
The idea of changing capitalism is putting so much positive pressure on companies. Eventually, this was always an idea from the beginning of Simple Switch. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out because think we could do it eventually. I would love for us to have such a strong and well-known infrastructure that we can do two things. We can reach up to larger operations to help them put in place more ethical practices. Whether that be environmentally or socially, we can help consult them. We can also reach down to entrepreneurs like the one I was working with within South Africa and say, “We have a demand for this product. I see that you have this skillset, you could start an amazing ethical company here that’s making a difference in your community and in the world. We can be a retail partner.”
We don’t have the power to do those things now because we don’t have the demand yet. We don’t have the customer base yet, but also we don’t have the infrastructure. I’m excited to grow. The thing is a company like Amazon could do those things. That’s where I see some of my frustration with these larger companies is that Simple Switch is built on the idea of, “Let’s get big enough that we can change the world.” To see companies that have gotten outrageously big and are not making those changes in the way that they could be, and solving some big problems in the way that they could be, it feels frustrating.
I understand the idea because I hear a lot of people saying, “Let’s get rid of capitalism.” I understand where they’re coming from because I do think that there are a lot of problems with it because of this evil and exploitation. I don’t personally think that’s probably realistic. For me, the way to solve those problems is to change the system from within, and change it to something that’s not only connecting people better but also allowing for these better ethical practices as the norm. It’s not something I would love to get to a place where a Simple Switch no longer has to say we’re an ethical marketplace because every marketplace is ethical.
It brings up a lot of great stuff. Before I forget, one of the economists I enjoy that you might see as a good place to get your feet wet is Tyler Cowen who has a podcast called Conversations with Tyler. That’s a great feet wetting place, even though they do deep dives.
I’m a big podcast person. I’ve been planning on diving into some big thick books, but it would be good to start at a podcast.
He has an amazing interview style. It’s unique that’s shooting from the hip that keeps these guests on their toes. They dive super deep into the concepts behind economics in a way that you learn a lot. You’d enjoy that. It makes me think of a quote also that Eric Hoffer said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, turns into a business, and degenerates into a rocket.” You see that in most of the large corporations. What you were mentioning too is that if you don’t start with the intention for good outside of yourself, then it won’t result in that. These companies didn’t have bad intentions, but they might have been selfish intentions. Over time that turns into bad effects or intentions or results.
Also, even lack of intention because I’m sure many companies grow with the intention of making a profit, which is not in itself a bad intention. It’s interesting how our society also doesn’t allow for those things to grow in an ethical and impactful way well. We’re applying to be a B Corp now. We’re finishing up the process. For us, we’re an LLC now. They have a legal requirement that you have to put in your legal paperwork language that expressly says that part of your business model is to make an impact. If that’s not there then you have a responsibility to your shareholders to maximize profit even if it’s not making this positive impact.
It’s interesting how this can drive some companies who the people who are running them might genuinely want to make this positive impact. One example that I don’t know a ton about but I’ve heard a bit about is Whole Foods going on with Amazon. They didn’t have anything in their legal structure to clarify the type of impact that they wanted to have. Now a lot of those things have changed because they’re under a different corporate structure. Because their shareholders include Amazon, the shareholders have to act in a way that’s best for those people. It’s interesting making sure that we’re giving ourselves those boundaries and anything to make sure we’re doing it.
It shows also the complexity of the system and when you start getting public, there’s more opportunity to add more resources, but then you’re also more compromised in your mission and goals to now focus more so on returns, profits. This incentivizes what you originally intended or planned to do. Everything comes with trade-offs in that, which is why I think what is helpful about hearing from you on this and having this conversation is that changing capitalism is a great idea, a worthy cause and it’s complicated. Because people are pro or against capitalism, it doesn’t make them a good or bad person. There’s a lot of good that comes with capitalism and there’s a lot of bad. That’s true in most things in life.
You could say that about anything. Being able to change any system to where we’re minimizing the amount of negative that’s coming out of it and maximizing the amount of positive, that wraps up that question nicely. That’s what I mean by change capitalism.
I love that you approach that with humility in recognizing that there’s a lot you don’t know, but you want to learn. That’s where we all need to start. By having the conversation is where we get it started. The younger generation’s role is always to be and play the idealist. If we don’t do that, then no one else will because life is hard and doesn’t go your way. It’s suckier than it is good. We become more and more skeptical or cynical, the older we get naturally. It’s important to have idealistic pursuits as young people especially and then to back it up with the work which is what you’re exemplifying. If we go back, that internship in South Africa was that first inkling of grassroots, making things happen, getting the job done even with less resources.
I heard also that when you were getting going a year or two later with getting Simple Switch into the world, you met this obstacle of wanting to have someone develop your website and platform but not having necessarily the resources, and seeing it as an insurmountable task. I believe a mentor helped you shift your perspective on that to take action again. I feel like that ties in well. I’d love to know a little bit about that story and how our perspective shifts can often help us take action in that.
I was listening to a podcast from Brené Brown on brain elasticity and the way that our brains change. It is fascinating to me thinking about what I knew about eCommerce and online business before I met Adam, who’s this mentor you mentioned and after. Even with simple pieces of advice, which I’ll mention. I came back from the world race. That was that year abroad, feet on the ground, stoked about starting this company. I was like, “I’m not even going to apply for any paying jobs because I want to throw myself into this company but I didn’t have any technical experience.” I figured the first step was to find a technical cofounder who was going to develop the website. At that point, it was supposed to be a mobile app first, which we released. Now we’ve come full circle back to the mobile app.
It’s a lot easier to use than any website that’s why I’m loving it. I live in Colorado. Boulder and Denver are both tech hubs and there are a lot of cool tech people around. I was going to all these meetups and stacking potential developers. I wanted to find someone who I got along with well personally, who also would do it for free, who also was excited about impact. There were a lot of different niches I was looking for. I had a couple of people with who I was in early conversations with and it fell through. Maybe they didn’t have the time or things like that. Finally, it was an entrepreneurship speed dating event where you’d go and you say, “Pitch your idea to the six more successful entrepreneurs or business people and they give you feedback.”
It’s supposed to be a twenty-minute interaction. I was paired with Adam, which I’m super thankful for, who is my business mentor. He sat down, heard my pitch and it was encouraging. He’s excited about the idea and said, “What is stopping you from doing this after dinner?” I was a little bit incredulous like, “I told you I don’t have any technical experience.” He introduced me to Shopify, which has become such a deep part of my life for the past couple of years. It’s funny thinking about that I didn’t know what it was for the first year of pursuing this. It’s a platform that allows you to sell things online but they take care of some of the infrastructure and coding like how to run a payment platform.
I wouldn’t be able to code especially a secure payment platform the way that we use on Shopify. I think I had a misconception that Shopify was for people who were buying and selling things out of the back of their van, which I have no judgment for. I’m pro-van life but that’s not what I wanted Simple Switch to be. I realized that Adam’s company had done huge amounts of sales and that Shopify had companies that were doing millions in sales. I realized, “That’s probably big enough for us especially now.” He is still my mentor now. We talked through all the different things and ideas that I have, and it’s super encouraging. He works for a company that sells records now called Vinyl Me, Please. It’s a cool company. He’s the CFO. It complements some of those parts of entrepreneurship that don’t come as naturally to me. The connection to our partners comes naturally than other things, but not always the finance and the logistics. It’s been cool to learn more about these things.
I know also with that, you dove full-on into Shopify and that included learning how to code yourself. What was that process like in diving into the platform and becoming somewhat of an expert in the field of Shopify, and even learning how to code with zero technical background?Be a little bit more present and not so focused on what's next. Click To Tweet
I am still far away from being any kind of expert about even Shopify but about coding. I have learned super basic HTML to make small changes to our website. A big part of that learning process was learning how to Google, how to do different things like what questions to ask. It’s also knowing when I am under-qualified because then I can reach out for professional help, whether that be for someone in my network or through someone in Shopify’s networks because they have a great network. Luckily, that platform is drag and drop.
A lot more of what I have learned are not those technical skills but a lot more about like UX and UI. Where should I put things on the website to make them easiest for my customers to find? When people are scrolling, where are they most likely to look so that I can put our bestsellers there? A lot of stuff that I never would have even thought to consider before owning this company, but had those doors opened to me by curiosity. It is the main thing of realizing, “We have a working website now and people are buying from it,” but we have this issue where they’re not buying this one thing and I can’t figure out why and looking into that. It’s about curiosity and problem-solving.
What is striking is that those are such cornerstone elements of being an entrepreneur and going on that journey. I love that because it seems like that deeper threshold of first learning that people can take action on little in South Africa and they’re making it happen and you can too. It’s that next deep dive of, “I need all the stars aligned. I can make the stars align through different tools that are out there.” One other thing that was mentioned in some of the research was a turning point for you in the company. That was with this concept that every entrepreneur and many people in life face in all realms. It’s this idea of imposter syndrome and how it affects us. I know I faced it in golf. I know I faced it now as an entrepreneur, as a coach in different realms. Everyone will come up against this. I’d love to know your experience of that as an entrepreneur of Simple Switch. What led to the turning point and how you’ve been able to experience or think about that since then?
I might talk my way into finding a turning point but I don’t even know if there has been one. The imposter syndrome is something that entrepreneurs deal with for their entire journey. It’s going to look different. I don’t feel like I don’t know how to create a business through the Secretary of State anymore. I overcame that part of imposter syndrome but I still feel like, “Am I the right person to steward the money that people crowdfunded for us? Am I able to do this technical task that we need to do in order to create?” With impact, it’s an extra level of imposter syndrome because I’m not only trying to figure out the technical logistics of the company, I want to make sure we’re a trustworthy company for everyone who comes upon us.
Making sure to back myself up with people who are smarter than me, and those mentors being willing to ask questions and be humble in those things. That sounds like the opposite of what you’d want to do for imposter syndrome. You want to build up confidence and say, “I am the best person for this,” but instead being able to say, “I have the tools to do this. Whether those tools be internal or external, they’re still valuable.” Another thing is through practice. Being a couple of years in, I remember I was uncomfortable or I was a little anxious to put CEO and Founder on my business card even though that’s definitely what I am at my company.
A few years in, I’ve written that many times that it’s true. Sometimes it’s about forcing yourself to say what is true and have that self-talk with yourself. Whether it be, “My real business title is CEO,” which is a simpler one or whether it’s, “I am deserving of a break.” There’s some imposter syndrome that goes into rest as well and the wholeness of being an entrepreneur. It’s not only those technical skills that we have imposter syndrome about but also, “My company is legit enough that I should give myself sick days.” That’s a constant journey. It’s going to look like different imposter syndrome all the way along.
It’s recognizing those things in yourself and continuing to work through them. When I’m at my best, I’m systemizing some of that stuff through journaling. I like to think about what I’m feeling insecure about, and then put that into the podcast search bar and see if there are any great resources that come up, whether that’d be a skillset or something more psychological or personal. That’s a strategy that’s felt helpful to me in that personal growth, which can directly combat imposter syndrome. Building up skills and also being willing to ask questions. As we were talking about earlier, that authenticity in leadership and authenticity in our growth allows us to feel less of that imposter syndrome, not more.
It’s counterintuitive. That’s the thing that holds us back the most. Much in life is counterintuitive in that. It’s not our immediate default response but asking questions, being humble, searching and producing self-confidence, those are such great ideas that we can use to overcome this thing that we all face. It’s not necessarily even like it’s a full overcoming. There are some good elements of it. It means that we’re reaching past what we may think we’re capable of, which is healthy.
It’s a scary feeling that comes from some cool risk-taking.
I love how you sit with learn from and then try to systematize to overcome your weaknesses too. That’s such a great practice in all of life. We’d all do well to work on that. There’s much more I want to talk about. I’d love to know a bit about one of your strengths or superpowers that I heard from others. I already knew about from our connection at the coworking space. It’s the ability to leverage interns in a way that’s beneficial to them and also ethical and responsible, but also beneficial to you. I was impressed in hearing your presentation for startups, in September 2020 at the green spaces for that by what you had been doing with them, and in learning from others as well, it’s a strength. I’d love to hear how you approach interns and using that tool in a way that’s mutually beneficial?
My interns have been amazing. I’m 4 or 5 days away from the end of my current interns time period and I’m going to miss them a lot. That’s how I feel at the end of every round. The internship journey has been interesting with Simple Switch. It’s funny because the way you would say it is I’m the only paid employee but I’m not pulling a salary yet. I’m the only full-time employee. I have some other people who have volunteered to do various things like order fulfillment, data entry type of stuff. About a year into Simple Switch’s life, I was a mentor for a sorority at CU Boulder. I had one of the girls I was mentoring there asked, “Rachel, I need an internship for my major. I think Simple Switch is awesome. Do you guys offer internships?”
I had never thought about doing that before. That was part of the imposter syndrome thing like, “I can’t manage interns. I’m not worthy of that,” but because it was someone that I knew and someone who knew the company well, I accepted her. Some students have different ideas of what it was and what it is. Once she said yes, two people through her network also asked for internships. That was the first round. I will say that round was a bit of a mess logistically. They were cool and contributed a lot but as far as the way that I leveraged their time and even knowing what I needed done was tricky.
After that, I put out actual applications. I started working with actual universities to recruit that summer. One of my favorite stories is that I put out applications to several universities around Colorado. One of them being my alma mater, CU Boulder. One of my interns that round ended up being the career services guy from CU Boulder. He saw the application come through the office and he worked with me to make sure students were seeing those. He said, “I have a full-time job but I think your company is awesome. I would love to work for Simple Switch.” He’s still a good friend of mine. Every round has taught me how to be more of a leader but more of a manager.
I might have had leadership experience in my past but it’s hard to get managerial experience especially since I jumped straight from college into starting this company. There’s been some cool learning on how to manage better, how to better use their time to move the needle in my business as entrepreneurs. It’s been helpful to me because now I have five interns. If I only have two hands, then we have twelve hands working on these projects. They’re generally doing between 10 and 15 hours a week. You mentioned ethical internships. That’s something that’s been also interesting because that’s not something I knew a lot about for my first round. These people were knocking down my door looking for an internship so I didn’t have to think about it. I have since then learned a lot about unpaid internships.
There is some implication there of not paying people what they’re worth. That is not super ethical but then there’s also something I’ve learned more recently that under-resourced and marginalized communities can less likely take those internships because they don’t have the financial safety net to take an unpaid position. Other than not giving people money for their work, it’s also sometimes discriminating against marginalized communities especially communities of color who might not be able to take those internships. That’s something that I’ve tossed around in 2019. I’ll land somewhere else in the future but for now, I’ve landed that these people are looking for these opportunities. I try to make it extremely flexible so that it can be on this person’s own time. They would be able to do it around a full-time job.
We make it a little bit more accessible to people in those communities who might not be able to do it usually. That’s never going to be perfect but it opened my eyes as a recruiter and as a boss. Making sure that I’m being open to people’s mental health challenges, financial challenges as they’re working for me. That’s been interesting in 2019. The great thing about interns is that these people are making real changes in our company when you’re working for a small company like ours. One of my interns now is totally redesigning our blog. This isn’t a typical internship where you’re grabbing coffee for the boss. This is like, “I don’t have time to do this major structure of the company. Do you want to take a stab at it?”
They get to move forward into their careers with things on their portfolio and resume that they would’ve never been able to glean before. It’s super fun. Now that the pandemic has hit, the last two rounds have been virtual. I’ve been able to have interns all over the country which has been fun. I miss having in-person intern meetings because I miss all people. It’s cool to have this group. Now, I have an intern handling our email systems. One who’s revamping our blog, one who worked closely with me on releasing the app, which is a huge deal for our company. One who is doing some website navigation and then because it’s Christmas time, she also worked on a lot of gift guides. One who is single-handedly running our ambassador program. It’s a big part of a company. They’re the ones making it happen.
I have a lot of respect for that. What you shared there was helpful in the sense that the first round was messy. That’s always true. It’s the same with writing a book. I love Anne Lamott who’s a great author on the experience of writing her book, Bird by Bird. It was great. She has a chapter titled Shitty First Drafts for a reason because the first rendition of anything is going to be messy and probably not great, but that’s where we got to start. I love the distinction of the difference between manager and leader. When you think about the role of interns and managing well, what would you say are a couple of principles or key lessons or components that is front of mind for you now as you think about your next round of interns?
I can’t place where I heard this concept but surrounding company values, I’ve heard people say it’s important to have your values not only be something externally or something that people have to memorize or know about you or something on your website. Have them be both external and internal. If they don’t apply to your workforce as well as the company that you’re presenting externally, then they’re probably not a thorough and good value. When I train our interns, I run them through the values and then talk about how each of them is both external and internal. For instance, the Tamarisk tree, which we talked about is one of our values. I talk about Simple Switch and the impact that we’re making. I want to be something that’s leaving a legacy for future generations. Internally, I also want the work that they are doing at Simple Switch to be something that’s going to help lead them into more fulfilling jobs in the future and leaving a legacy in their own life.
That’s true for all six of our values. That’s cool that we put it in the training, but that’s where most companies stop. One thing that I have found valuable and I’ve gotten feedback from our interns that has been cool for them is that I have them fill out a survey, especially because we’re virtual now. I have them fill out a survey each week about, “Here’s what I did. Here’s what went well. Here’s what didn’t go well.” I frame each of the questions in that survey around one of our company values. For instance, iterate often is one of our values. Externally, that means that we want to be learning from cutting edge science about climate. If we need to make a change in the way that we’re affecting ecosystems, we’ll do that or we talked about the white savior complex.
If we’re hearing that we are having more harm than good then we’re going to change what we’re doing. That’s iterate often on an external scale. Internally, that also is that feedback thing of, “I’m going to iterate the way that I’m working. I’m going to iterate the workspace I’m using even some of those little things.” If you were using a different design program and you realized, “This doesn’t work for what we’re doing,” small things like that. That’s a big one. It’s keeping those values front of mind because if they’re not active values, they’re not worth having. Managing myself around the interns has been an interesting journey. Learning how to do that work in between meetings to make sure I’m set up to give them the best chance that they can to make the best projects that they can.
That’s probably the trickiest because it’s easy to fall into a rhythm of we do one team meeting a week and then a one-on-one a week with each of the interns. It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of checking in during those one-on-ones, and then putting them out of my mind, but then they’re not able to leverage. I’ve been working on this company for years, so there’s a lot more in my head that I can divulge to them that will allow their projects to be more successful. Scheduling in that time to prepare for those meetings and to do the work that needs to be done is a big deal for me and one that honestly I still show them.
It is such a dance but what a cool tool to be able to leverage and what a great value add to them. That’s an honorable way to pursue it. The more it would do well from the following suit. Kudos to you on that. We could keep talking for a long-time but we’ll have to wrap this up at some point. Let’s end with a handful of one-offs here before we go. Before we get there, I’d love to know, as you look towards the future and even the next year or the next three years. What are some of those goals or vision that you see maybe not in that long-term but in the more midterm range for Simple Switch and for what you’re doing there?
One of the most nitty-gritty and boring, but not boring for me, a goal that I have for 2021 is getting to a place in sales that I’m pulling a salary. Every dollar that we make from Simple Switch, we are pouring it back into growing the company which is awesome. When you and I are talking about sustainability, I want this to be a sustainable company not only environmentally but also socially and financially. If it’s not something that we can support, not only me but future interns, future employees then I don’t feel that it is sustainable. The good news is we’re on track to get there. It’s a goal that feels achievable, but the days when I’m like, “I don’t pull a salary yet, it doesn’t feel as good.” I’m excited for that in 2021.
The other thing I’m super excited about is that for 2021, we have ten people prepaid to do this with us. It’s another goal that we’re looking towards that’s been derailed by COVID. We will be taking groups of Simple Switch customers or fans on trips to meet our partners around the world. I’ve been able to do this in several countries and several states. I did a three-week road trip to visit a bunch of our domestic partners. We didn’t end up getting to go to Haiti yet because there was political unrest but Guatemala and Bolivia. I’m looking forward to sharing that with our customers.
I have traveled to 28 countries. I love traveling. The selfish side of me is excited for this but the big reason for doing it is to create a more personal connection. When we talked about change capitalism, one of the things I said was making it something that’s connecting people better. I think that these trips will be a way to help connect both sides of that market, and help create fanatics not only for Simple Switch but for this more meaningful and in-depth purchasing that we offer. I’m looking forward to that.
That’s great for people to know some of the reality of entrepreneurship of being three years in and not pulling a salary. That’s common. You’re not alone in that. It’s often not the financial gain that most people think especially early on. What do you believe to be true that you wish everyone else believed?
That we have the power to change the world.
What can you not imagine living without?
Pizza. It’s not profound but that’s what came to mind first. I love pizza. It’s a big part of my personality.
What question do you ask yourself the most?
“What’s next?” I say that because it’s true that’s the thing that I asked myself the most. It’s also something I’m training myself to ask myself less to be a little bit more present and not focused on what’s next.
If you could study one other person for an entire year, who would it be and why?
Nelson Mandela. I love him. He’s an incredible leader. I think South African history is interesting and he is wrapped up in that.
What book or books have had the biggest impact on you?
The first thing that comes to mind is The Power of Moments. It is by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It talks a lot about how we can create amazing, magical feeling moments for people both in business and personal relationships. I think that’s important. It’s amazing.
They are prolific and profound. Their book, Switch: How to Make Change, is good. They have a handful that I’ve always heard recommended too.
I pulled their book off my shelf and they’ve got a bunch here on the back but it says Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact is the tagline. That’s my personality to want to have that. I can look back on those moments that have had an extraordinary impact in my life and they systemize how to create those for people, which is lovely.
The final question that we ask every guest that comes on the show is if you could send a morning text reminder to every up and comer out there, what would you say and why? This would be a short reminder they get from you on their phones every morning.
You can do it and don’t do it alone.
Rachel, this has been such a fun time knowing from you and your experiences. It has been helpful. Where can people find out more from you, Simple Switch and get involved?
The big landing place for you to find us is SimpleSwitch.org. That’s the website. You can also google Simple Switch and you’ll get there. If you are looking for me, you can follow @RachelFromSimpleSwitch on Instagram. If you’re looking for the company on Instagram, it’s @Simple.Switch. Feel free to find me on LinkedIn and send a hello. I can also offer a discount on Simple Switch if you’re interested in that. Let’s do code, UpAndComers, and we’ll do 20% off people’s first purchase. If you’re hearing all of this, you’re excited, want a little treat, you made it all the way through the interview, congratulations.
Sometimes they can be lengthy but worth it. Rachel, thank you. This has been wonderful. I can’t wait for people to visit your store. For the readers, we hope you have an up-and-coming week because we are out.
- Apple Podcasts – The Up And Comers Show
- @TheUpAndComersShow – Instagram
- Compost Colorado
- rePurpose Global
- Dare To Lead
- When Helping Hurts
- Lollipop Moments
- Conversations with Tyler
- Bird by Bird
- The Power of Moments
- Switch: How to Make Change
- @RachelFromSimpleSwitch – Instagram
- @Simple.Switch – Instagram
- LinkedIn – Rachel Kois
About Rachel Kois
Rachel Kois is the CEO & Founder of SimpleSwitch.org, an online marketplace for ethical and impactful shopping. (Think “like Amazon” except every one of the 3,000+ products has a positive social or environmental impact.) They aim to shift some of the TRILLIONS spent online this year to everyday products and gifts that support orphan care, plant trees, combat climate change, and more. Rachel believes deeply in the power of entrepreneurship to solve some of our worlds most serious problems.
When she isn’t working to harness the power of capitalism for positive impact, Rachel loves rock climbing, drinking craft beer, and taking care of her vegetable garden and 5 back yard chickens. Her first ever entrepreneurial venture was a knitting business, and she’s traveled to 28 countries. She’s a stubborn idealist committed to authenticity and making a difference.
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