eMinutes Client Profile: Stephanie Ly
Tell us about the project you’re currently working on.
Emprofit, “Empower through Profit,” is a social business creating economic opportunities in resource-poor settings. Beginning in the squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Emprofit employs vulnerable Haitians in a commission-based, door-to-door sales team. Sales associates sell on consignment, eliminating debt. Profits are recycled into Emprofit to scale up and provide employee benefits. We have worked on various aid and nonprofit projects in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Rarely do we encounter requests for handouts, but are constantly approached by intelligent, motivated Haitians—resumes in hand—seeking employment. Returning to IDP camps multiple times during the two years since the quake, we have become galvanized by seeing friends living in the camps becoming sicker and thinner. The sense of urgency to create long-term, income-earning sources is reinforced daily by incoming requests by Haitians to work with Emprofit. Haitians will have the opportunity to lift themselves from poverty through the creation of Emprofit.
Why did you become an entrepreneur? Is starting a business something you always wanted to do?
We say we operate with humanitarian hearts and business brains. We see ourselves as entrepreneurial in that we are launching something new. Where we are not entrepreneurial, in the traditional sense, is we are not profit-motivated. Perhaps a better description would be that we are accidental social entrepreneurs. After working in the non-profit setting in Haiti, we began seeing the unmet need for economic opportunities in Port-au-Prince. Emprofit was formed as a business to address the lack of jobs and options for Haitians. The profit motive is for scaling up to hire more people in resource-poor settings to create a sustainable, long-term solution to poverty. It has been an exciting and challenging journey so far, but we are glad that we started on the path to entrepreneurship.
What is the number one thing you wish you could learn more about, and how will you learn about it?
We would like to be experts in manufacturing within resource-poor areas. This is a limited and slightly unchartered field. Our hope is to receive mentorship and more experience to be able to scale our operations within Emprofit. The rest we will learn by working on the ground. We’re all about getting our hands dirty. That’s the fun part.
How has technology impacted your business?
Even in Port-au-Prince, the advent of cell phones has been essential. Nearly everyone has a cell phone, so we are able to communicate in real time. We are also creating a system of daily accountability for our business through texting and SMS messaging.
How do you use social media in your business?
Emprofit has found many supporters in the US and hopeful Haitian applicants through social media. We have a presence on Facebook (facebook.com/emprofit), Twitter (twitter.com/emprofitinc) and Google+. We are aiming to use social media to create a unique voice and inspire followers to our cause. Amazingly, Haitians have also used Facebook to find seek us out with requests for work. There are internet cafes everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Haitians are so motivated and savvy. They find ways to get online, use Google Translator (many have taught themselves English) and seek us out, often via Facebook.
Did you have a business plan when you started your business, and, if so, how much did you vary from it?
We have been using shortened business plans and pitch decks to convey our model. Since the beginning, we have shifted some of our ideas and further developed others. Our first idea of creating economic opportunities was naturally microloans. After some research and a few trial microloans, we realized that this was not the best option and shifted more towards a debt-free economic opportunity.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
We are still relatively new and have not had a chance to make too many big mistakes and learn from them yet. Although the first product we envisioned to jumpstart the sales team was not as great of an opportunity as we had thought. We learned that this particular product was oversold with too little profit margins by talking to Haitians through focus groups and surveys. We also realized that by introducing a product already being sold by local women selling on the streets, we could potentially negatively affect their already sparse livelihood.
What advice would you offer to a first-time entrepreneur?
As fellow first-time entrepreneurs, our most helpful advice is to learn as much as possible. Nobody knows all the ins and outs. As an entrepreneur, you have to know everything about your product or service, as well as legal regulations, marketing, finance, pitching and endless new challenges. There are many avenues to increase your knowledge, namely by talking to other fellow entrepreneurs, mentors, field experts, online resources and networking events. Utilize as many free resources as possible, and fill in the gaps as you continue.
Have you received funding from an outside source, and how has funding (or the lack of funding) impacted your ability to achieve your objectives?
We have received a bit of funding from outside sources. One source was from winning a pitch and another from another entrepreneur that believed in our idea. We continue to be amazed that we have such strong support in our model and organization. Our overall lack of funding is a positive aspect since this automatically forces us to carefully scrutinize all spending.
How do you spend your workday?
Since Emprofit is still in the early stages, we have full-time jobs and are forced to work on our social venture at night and weekends. We spend our time juggling the many hats of entrepreneurs from researching legal regulations, to answering emails or calling Haitians to discuss our plans. As first-time entrepreneurs, the learning curve is steep, and we absorb as much information as possible through mentors, peers, online articles and seminars.
Who do you rely upon in your business most, and what does he or she do for you that is so invaluable?
We rely pretty heavily on our Haitian board member, Faine Lartigue. He heads our operations and is a native-born Haitian. Faine is able to translate documents into Creole, directs us on the right people to hire, communicates to anyone in Haiti and has awesome ideas for our team.
Do you believe that “luck” played any role in the success of your company?
We do believe that things have come together at the right place and time. We are incredibly grateful for all of the people that we have met along the way and any progress that we have made. As phrased best in The Alchemist, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
If you had an extra $25,000 to spend on your business, what would you spend it on?
As a start-up, $25,000 would allow us to make significant choices that would allow us to purchase more inventory for our door-to-door sales team. This would then contribute to more regular inventory flow and hiring of more Haitian staff. The social impact of a $25,000 infusion would be significant since more Haitians would be able to lift themselves from poverty through a job.
How neat or messy is your desk?
Our desks could be described as an organized clutter filled with paperwork and notes but functional for the multi-tasking that goes on. This probably reflects our thinking process balancing different projects within our cluttered brain.
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