Many know Jenny Nuccio as the founder and CEO of Imani Collective, an ethical impact brand, based in Mombasa, Kenya, where Jenny has lived for the last 12 years. The brand makes interactive products for kids, as well as banners, pillows, and totes, using local-to-kenya materials. Through broken English and Swahili, Jenny and 16 Kenyan women created a deep friendship through shared experiences. While the women taught Jenny how to wash her clothes, carry water and cook over an open fire like a local, she taught the women how to sew in return. Hence, Imani Collective was born, a place where Jenny was able to provide these single mothers a steady income.
Jenny is also the co-founder of the School of Ethical Impact, a platform that bridges education and real-world social entrepreneurship experiences. The school teaches entrepreneurs how to create a business built for social change by focusing on areas of ethical business and operation models, financial management, how to raise capital, community development, product development and more.
I’m so happy to have Jenny on the #GoodTribe this week. She has such a good spirit and has encouraged me and everyone who has acknowledged her message that radically listening to a community in need is the most effective way to becoming a world changer. As long as you listen, you can help identify the problem and find a solution. Jenny has created some revolutionary business tactics built on social change and creating an ethical impact especially in communities that need economic assistance. Keep on reading for an insightful interview with Jenny Nuccio, from Imani Collective.
1. What made you decide to create Imani Collective?
Imani Collective was developed as a training program. I’ve always loved our genesis which was really rooted in friendships. It happened very naturally, I sat with the community, just radically listening to them and understanding the gaps of what was happening and just wanted to be there to help drive that ship out a little bit. Imani Collective, as this training program, met the needs of empowerment through education. Then as we started training more and developing more, I realized our first location was in the middle of nowhere, it was just a small village. Realizing there wasn’t a market, or a place that these women could go to after, for a job, that is when Imani Collective organically developed into a marketplace and then became the leading ethical impact brand that it is today.
It’s always fun for me to look back and be like, that was not the direction I intended to take but it's really cool to have just gone through those steps. So I started out just wanting to radically change the narrative for some of my friends and be able to give them a space where they can start to really believe in themselves.
2. How did you come up with the name Imani Collective for your brand?
Originally, Imani Collective started out as Imani Tumaini Upendo, but that was a mouthful. It means faith, hope and love in Swahili and I just wanted to encompass what we were offering. That’s who we essentially were in broad terms, but as we rebranded into a market for products, we had to question what name would encompass what we’re doing now. We settled on Imani which means faith and it has been a faith journey taking these really big steps, some that are risky and just leaning into our faith and truly believing it’s going to work out. This journey has also been possible because it has been a collective. I always say we’re not just better together, we’re our best and I truly believe it’s not just the Jenny show, and it’s not just our designers or just our artisans, but it’s a whole team and we couldn’t do it without each other.
3. We noticed that your products’ colour theme is very earthy and neutral. Was that something that happened naturally or was it a part of your strategy?
It was a bit of both. We knew what we wanted to be in the market and we knew we wanted to forecast trends and stay ahead of the competition. In 2017, we rebranded Imani Collective from these bright coloured, Kitenge patterns to where we are today. The new branding was intentional, and a part of my partner Hailey’s vision for the direction of the company. So it was intentional but there was some strategy behind the rebranding and the neutral tones. In terms of supplies, we’re not keen on importing, so we source locally for our products. We ask a lot of those tough questions of what our natural resources are, what we can get in Kenya. This way we’re staying true to our roots and really empowering the community economically, but also paying attention to our planet and how our importing and exporting practices are affecting the environment.
4. Your brand has advocated a lot for fair wages for all and access to education for all. What is something you personally learned in this process?
I could tell a lot of stories but I think the overarching view of my ‘walking into it’ is one. When I first started living in Kenya, I was helping build child sponsorship programs with a nonprofit that built a school. I would go and do these home visits and what I realized was that the kids that were struggling the most were coming from single, widowed, disabled women homes. What I also realized was that the organization would get these kids sponsored but it would only be for things like medical needs, food needs, uniforms, etc., but the monthly school fee was the mothers’ responsibility. They didn’t believe in the handout mentality, it was about total empowerment.
So the organization and donors were sponsoring most of the fees except for that payment of like one dollar a month for a child to attend school. What ended up happening for those mothers with multiple children was that they couldn’t afford to send them to school. Instead these kids provided help on the farms or around the house because in addition to not being able to afford the education, these mothers didn’t grow up understanding the value of education, because they themselves were never educated. It was then that I wanted to help these women in third world and second world countries understand the importance of education and that they didn’t have to be scared to go back to school, just because society told them they couldn’t. It all came back to this societal pressure of what women could and couldn’t do and then you saw how it had a ripple effect down to their kids. That’s when I started pushing into the artisan sector.
5. Can you tell us a bit about Imani Collective’s holistic business approach?
When we’re looking at ethical brands, we’re looking at how they’re impacting people, the whole well being of that person. It’s not just a transaction. With a holistic approach, that’s where I challenge Fairtrade companies to go beyond just fair wages and fair working conditions and partner with your artisans over the long term. At the end of the day what they want is consistency, and if you can create consistency, then you can create stability and then you can create the transformation where they can start planning, saving and looking at the future for their kids. So what we do differently at Imani Collective is that no matter what our sales are for that month, our artisans know that every month they’re going to get a consistent salary. They also know that they have opportunities for bonuses, childcare and free meals. And we do this so that it alleviates the pain points for most of our women. Our first holistic program was our child care program because I knew most of our women couldn’t come to work without having someone to care for their children.
We took this holistic approach of caring for the entire wellbeing of the person rather than just the economic development side because we’re all whole beings and there are other sides of us that also need to grow. As the company grew, our holistic approaches also grew stronger and I didn’t realize how dramatic the positive effect could be for when you can create consistency in payments, rather than a one-off donation. Our women are so much more confident in who they are and it has been really cool to watch them grow in this holistic approach and hopefully our brand can become a model for other businesses to follow.
6. Here at The Good Tee, we're all for making sustainable choices. What does sustainability mean to you?
For me, it’s not just an environmental standard. We view it in five, I call it the Five P’s Sustainability Framework, which is what I developed out of the School of Ethical Impact. When I define ethical impact, I always say it’s progress over perfection. We’re never going to be perfect at this but we have to look at it through different lenses to see our impact on people, profit, purpose, the planet and partnerships. And ask the tough questions: Does it align with our values? Is it going to be sustainable? Are we able to provide a long term solution, not a short-term transaction?
7. What has been your proudest moment as a woman entrepreneur as well for Imani Collective?
As an entrepreneur, you get a lot of no’s and a lot of doors shut in your face. But as a woman entrepreneur you also get a lot of “oh that’s cute” looks and pats on the head. So for me, it has been fun to flip that script and watch how those impact investors I sought out are now knocking on our door ready to invest. It took a few years but now I just like sitting back and smiling and remembering that proud moment of knowing that even when the people thought it wasn’t possible, I didn’t change myself to fit their mold. I stuck with my vision, my mission, my alignment of who I was and didn’t let others deter me off that path, just putting on those blinders and continuing straight forward. And now it’s crazy to see I’m being invited to these panels to speak and it’s empowering because I now have every right to say no to them, if I wasn’t interested.
I have two proud moments for Imani Collective. The first is just how quickly we were able to reach sustainability and profitability. They say in any regular startup, it takes three to five years, but for a social enterprise, it takes about eight. And it took us eight years. We did a rebrand in 2017, so I think it’s safe to say it actually took us four years to reach that good place. And that’s really incredible for our team.
My second proud moment is also one of my happiest moments of seeing the growth of our collective. We have these themed days, every month and so back in March we had a traditional African Wear Day. And I was very curious to find out how this would be received by our Old Town location. It’s our main location but also a huge hub for many religions, ethnicities, tribes and beliefs. When we first started working in this community in 2016, our women had a really hard time immersing with each other because some women came from one culture and were trying to work with another tribe. And normally in their household, that person would be their house help and normally they shouldn’t be talking to each other at all. So it was very interesting to see how their dynamics were, where they disrespected each other, where they wouldn’t even talk to each other, where they were just turning their shoulders to each other. And breaking through that and learning the dynamic of culture, like this is not how you treat another human. No matter where you come from, we are all humans, and we all need to treat each other with dignity and respect and love.
So when we had this African Wear Day, I was like “oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?” And so I walked in with my Kitenge dress on and everyone was dressed from head to toe in Kitenge pattern. Everyone was so joyful and laughing and what I really saw there was them completely respecting their sisters and matching with all different women from different cultures and it was truly fascinating to see how much they grew in the last five years, where at the beginning they wouldn’t even acknowledge each other and now they’re best friends. It just shows how no matter where you come from, tribe, religion, ethnicity, you can love, respect and celebrate each other. And I got to see that love and respect trickle down through the community as well. Those women walked into the workshop and out of the workshop together and the community saw how they were loving and respecting each other. So that was a really proud moment for me to just see how much our culture has grown and shifted, and how these women are now a great example for other people in the community.
8. What is your advice for today's entrepreneurs?
I always say ‘you do you’ and what I mean by that is, there is no perfect model for everything. So put on those blinders and you do you because you’re the one with the vision. You’re the one that is authentic and truly calling the shots. Also be very careful with the people you allow to speak into your life, they have to earn that spot. And if they haven’t earned that trust, then they shouldn’t be giving you advice.
9. What's a quote on one of your products that really resonates with you?
So it’s actually a quote on one of our accidental success products. It says “girl, you are a world changer”. I’m not even sure the full story of that, but it was a custom product that ended up resonating with a lot of people. And this message is what I want my daughters to always know and just believe that anyone can change the world right where they are. You don’t have to be like me and sell everything and move across the ocean, it doesn't have to be a grand story, but I believe everyone was born innately good. We were all meant to change the world, we were all made unique. So just start with the simple steps, align yourself with your heart, don’t compare yourself to others and just be your zone.
10. Where do you see Imani Collective and yourself in five years?
For Imani, even amidst COVID, this past year was our biggest in sales. I think retail ecommerce grew a lot because people were just sitting and shopping at home, so that really helped. But also we got to really hone in our strategy of where we wanted to grow, so we’re really cognizant of what we grow and how we partner with people. We’ll be launching new collections and lines that aren’t just banners, and we’re really excited to diversify our product lines very soon. That’s for the near future, but in the next five years, I just see our impact growing 10 times, and not just being in Kenya, but in other regions like India and potentially Uganda. Also with our strategy we want to expand our impacts and show them a little more clearly on our website. So redoing our website is also one of our priorities, we want it to be cohesively clear that this one specific product helps create nine hours of dignified work and just really hone in our impact numbers and transparently display them for our customers to see. I want Imani Collective to be a model that other brands can look at and follow, like “oh Imani did well, let’s follow the Imani model”.
And for me, in five years, I just really want to be a disruptor in this place. And keep speaking these harder narratives to corporations and teaching young entrepreneurs how to do it. And at the School of Ethical Impact, we’re growing an impact fund, so hopefully in five years, I’ll be able to actually invest in people as well. I just want to continue to see that growth and see people win and do good in this world. So hopefully I will continue to grow as a thought leader in this space. And also I’m finishing up a book right now! I’ll be launching that at the end of the year and it’s called Let It Be Wild, which is about my story of growing a social enterprise. That’ll be really exciting as well.
Jenny is truly a good human. She’s created not one but two sustainable businesses and has such an incredible energy to do good in this world. If you’re an entrepreneur trying to use your business for good but struggling to balance people & profits, a leader who is burnt out in your 9-to-5 but apprehensive about making a change, OR a dreamer with a big ethical idea and a long to-do list who is unsure where to start or ask for help, apply for the School of Ethical Impact. Jenny and her business partner Hayley are currently accepting applications for Fall 2021.
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