Her Own Boss #BossesGiveBack Edition:
Debbie Farah is the CEO of Bajalia International Group (BIG), which is a Fair Trade retail and wholesale provider of home, fashion and jewelry goods handmade by artisans in underdeveloped economies. BIG connects consumers and retailers with the stories of the sustainable global impact their purchases make while taking Fair Trade products to the masses.
What motivated you to start your business?
What motivated me was going overseas to Kenya and later India as a volunteer photographer documenting the work of a non-profit, while being exposed to extreme poverty for the first time. Seeing women and children living in slums, being exposed to violence and other related social issues changed my life forever. I began to feel called to creating jobs for women.
What is the greatest barrier you faced in launching your business and how did you overcome it?
The greatest barrier in launching was managing growing the company with limited access to capital for growth!
As a WBENC certified women-owned business, the greatest challenge Bajalia has is accessing capital for growth. Typically the investors in the Florida market are not accustomed to fashion or consumer goods companies. These investors are found more in the LA or NY markets. Being a native of Florida and having spent 20 plus years outside of the state, I want to keep the company based in Florida. Receiving investments from other markets usually comes with strings attached and a request to relocate the company. The lack of an investor pool here makes it difficult to fund Bajalia’s growth. Other consumer goods companies can rely on trade credit but due to the nature of our production workforce, they are not in a position to extend trade credit and many times Bajalia must advance on purchase orders. In the early stage of the company, Bajalia made some mistakes by taking on high interest rate loans. These loans have prevented the company from showing a profit. This high interest rate loan taught Bajalia a lot of what not to do, although in the early stage the company did not have much of an option. Lessons were learned.
Bajalia cultivated one major Angel investor over time that has become passionate about the company’s social mission and is very knowledgeable in other businesses. He took the time and was willing to learn about Bajalia’s business and help to grow the company through private loans, investment, and securing a building for our growth. Conversion of high interest loans to equity will help the company begin to show a profit in 2016. Bajalia’s business growth projected for 2016 should put the company in a position of almost doubling its revenue, therefore enabling Bajalia to secure traditional financing options and taking it away from higher interest rate loans. Being able to have access to SBA lines of credit or traditional loans will be a game changer for Bajalia’s profitability and the company’s ability to fund purchase orders.
Do you have a mentor? How did you find him/her?
Yes, I have several. I found them through consistently relationship-building – having a key understanding that relationships are everything in business. Some of the smartest moves have been fostering a relationship with our client HSN’s CEO Mindy Grossman, bringing on Allan Keen as a business investment partner, formalizing a corporate board with Cari Coats and Marni Spence, and working with my fashion celebrity friends like Iris Apfel. Putting the time and effort into building these relationships, my internal team relationships, and others have been the wisest business moves. People do business with people not companies. Building trust in relationships is key to growing a successful business.
If you could go back in time to when you were first starting, what would you tell yourself, with the intention of avoiding mistakes and heart ache?
Stick to what you believe in at all costs, and create a corporate culture based on your own core values and non-negotiables. A tried and true leader who builds a good foundation will attract a great team. I would probably tell my younger self to believe in yourself more.
What resources have been most helpful to you?
I believe one of the keys to success is to consistently keep yourself aware of the world around you through reading. I love to read the latest business bestseller books as well as magazines such as INC, Harvard Business Journal, Success, and daily Smartbrief emails. I love reading about leaders and how they have navigated their way to success and their lessons learned. I also love reading about authentic leaders who talk about their failures.
Another valuable resource has been Bajalia’s partnership with area colleges and universities. Our partnerships on capstone projects have been instrumental in moving our business forward. Lastly, my participation in professional associations and programs to increase learning and grow my network like ATHENA Powerlink, has also been instrumental in moving our business forward. With the help of ATHENA, Bajalia was able to grow the company from 2 to 11 employees, surpass the million-dollar mark in revenue, and launch three major initiatives with new wholesale customers: including the launch of our jewelry line on HSN and the launching of 3 new clients. Bajalia would not have reached these new heights or grown past a second stage company without ATHENA’s help. From legal advice and accounting help to connecting us with potential staff members and people in the community, their time and talent was invaluable.
What does success look like for you?
I really have a passion for watching people succeed. It is nothing greater than the opportunity to be in a financial position to help others build their dreams. I have worked with women around the world to help them grow their dreams to reality and I hope to soon be able to invest in other entrepreneurs dreams here.
What do you do to recharge?
Being a creative spirit – I love to do things that will spark my creative juices to refresh my self. Gardening, antiquing, redecorating are my absolute favorites. I am a Florida girl so I always love to go to the beach. As an entrepreneur I build in recharge time and I must admit sometimes my beach time includes catching up on reading.
What’s your advice for a young woman that’s considering starting her own business?
I believe a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Very few successful people I know have gotten one big career break. Lies like this are harmful to the next generation. There are many small moments of decision that impact one’s career. The steps of the journey are long and hard. Instead of one moment it’s about being consistent, having integrity, being excellent at strategic problem solving, leading well, and being open to new challenges. Some people are so busy seeking an adventure in place of a career while others seek their passion persistently and in return gets a great adventure. Enjoy the adventure!