335 Maria Murphy: Evolved Ecommerce
How can we all as entrepreneurs do well by doing good? We can all make a meaningful difference in the world by innovating “give forward” evolved and conscious business practices that lift others.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who is changing the game in fashion – with a “four R” methodology – the four R’s being “reduce reuse reclaim and recycle”.
Maria Murphy is the founder of Lei-Lei, a socially conscious Ecommerce fashion marketplace that showcases handmade fairly traded items by women artisans around the world.
She says her company is based on the belief that helping others in need makes the world a better place.
Today we’re going to learn about her highly scalable evolved enterprise model, fair trade, and how to create a social impact globally and apply her strategies to your own business.
Maria grew up in the fashion world, her mom a showroom model, and as a little girl, she knew she loved to dress up and shop. Starting in High School she worked the floor at Macy’s and rose to executive positions in the fashion world across retail, wholesale, buying, merchandising and beyond.
With over 30 years of experience, Maria took the leap into entrepreneurship and founded her passion project Lei-Lei – the socially conscious ecommerce fashion marketplace – while holding the position of VP of Sales for Tahari Arthur S. Levine.
Lei-Lei showcases uniquely designed handcrafted items by women artisans from impoverished countries around the world. And Maria’s mission is to connect fairly traded businesses that give back to their artisans through social and economic advancement with eco-conscious consumers who care about helping others. Her goal is to inspire positive consumer behavior to bring about real change, both in society as well as to the environment.
So are you ready for Maria Murphy ? I am. Let’s fly!
Melinda Wittstock: Maria, welcome to WINGS.
Maria Murphy: Hi, Melinda. Thank you so much for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I am so excited to talk to you. Doing businesses that have an evolved social impact or are good for the world is a personal driving passion of mine. I always get excited to talk to entrepreneurs who are doing that, and are really showing up in that way. With your long background in fashion, what was the spark or the aha moment that led you to create Lei-Lei in this particular way.
Maria Murphy: Well, first of all, I’m so happy to hear that you’re so into this kind of business model that I have. That just makes me, that jazzes me very much. I have spent over 30 years in the fashion industry in roles of a senior executive. I enjoy the creation process and the sales process behind it that I’ve been a part of for so long. I really over the years felt that it was important to me as a woman to be able to help other women. In the role that I do by day, that wasn’t something that I was able to just feel that connection and have that aha moment that you talk about.
The light bulb went on about six years, when I just, I said, “You know, I have great talents and ideas. I want to have an opportunity to blend the knowledge that I have, the sales background, the marketing background, the merchandising background, and do something of good. Do something where I can help other women around the world lift themselves up, and create a platform for them to showcase handmade artisans and their products.” That was my aha moment, saying, “Let me take my experience and build something with it that I can showcase these products.” I realized that the internet was really the way to go. I built a website. I built my own website, and started to put these handmade products online so that I could offer them to consumers.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s a fantastic model, and it really is close to my heart. The whole reason for WINGS or this podcast even is really to help women, women lifting women. The fact that you’re doing this globally is so, so important. Was it hard to get buy-in to begin with? I’m thinking of like, what does it take to execute on this, where you’ve got to go do all the deals with all the women all around the world? Tell me a little bit about the model and how you got that going.
Maria Murphy: Sure, absolutely. What I first started with was these handmade beaded bracelets from Nepal. Again, something that was really important to me was how in the world young girls, and my being a mom of four and two of them being girls, how they can be exploited through this horrible industry of sex trafficking. There was-
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, oh my goodness, yes.
Maria Murphy: Oh, it’s just terrible. These bracelets were very meaningful to me. I was fortunate enough, after doing some very diligent research and finding a connection that was in Nepal and the United States, to create bracelets that would help the end of sex trafficking as much as that we could empower these women and free them from that terrible life, and learn a little handicraft. Through that, build that a fair-trade model, and offer them a safe working condition, and offer these bracelets and then sell them. It started out with the bracelets. It was just a very focused, one item, but a very varied selection of colors and patterns and such. Also, something that was really trendy, and that we could appeal to a broader range of women, young to older, that just loved wearing them, and still do. We still carry them. They’re still our core product.
Melinda Wittstock: I love it. When you were setting out to find all the artisans and all the women, how did you pick the countries? Did you just find yourself like a global nomad for a while, traveling around, doing these deals? What did it take to set that up?
Maria Murphy: Well, this as I said was through this gentleman who was my contact person. He had the feet in Nepal. He was the one who worked with a Christian community in Kathmandu. We connected really through the internet in that regard, and through multiple phone calls. That was the first in. Then after that, it was a word-of-mouth that I actually met other owners of artisan groups. I deal directly through these artisan groups, through the owners, and they are the ones who then employ all of the individual women around the world in these-
Melinda Wittstock: I get it.
Maria Murphy: … impoverished countries.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, so you don’t have to actually manage all of that yourself.
Maria Murphy: Absolutely not.
Melinda Wittstock: Originally when I was looking at your model, I was thinking, my god, how’d she pull that off? That’s daunting.
Maria Murphy: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: You did it the smart way, using this wonderful magical word that I love, leverage.
Maria Murphy: Yeah, yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s obviously a highly scalable and repeatable model as well.
Maria Murphy: It absolutely is. It absolutely is. I have repeated it with other products, and with other artisan groups in other countries. It’s really repeatable, and it’s been just amazing because it’s offered a nice breadth of assortment. I look to find things that are unique and unusual. That’s where my training in fashion… I don’t like to have everybody look carbon copy. You want to be unique. You want to have your own individuality. I try to find things that are really a bit unusual, and things that speak to me. I think that’s been cultivated showcase or marketplace of products.
Melinda Wittstock: This is so interesting, because not only is this social good, but it’s also really good business sense. I know this because one of my companies, Verifeed, looks at social media data to kind of understand what people value, which companies are valued the most. One of the things that started popping up for us some years ago actually, was simply the fact that companies that had a do-good mission, or a buy-one give-one kind of model, or some sort of evolved enterprise, or some sort of clean supply chain or diversity, or however this conscious capitalism or evolved enterprise was expressed, those companies were wildly outperforming others when it came to social media attention. Even in the mergers and acquisitions space in terms of valuation growth, on every single metric. Do you think it’s because people want to belong to something, or want to be part of a mission bigger than themselves?
Maria Murphy: I think so. I think they do. I think it’s becoming much more prevalent now than it had been years ago. There’s been companies out there like TOMS, the shoes, that have brought this type of thing more to the forefront. I’m thankful for companies like that. I think that’s helped great strides to make people want to be part of a tribe. They want to feel like they are doing good. I love that you use that do-good. I use that a lot in my social media handles, #DoGood, because I really think that’s what it’s about. It’s about coming together, and looking to help other people, help those that are less fortunate, help the environment. Everybody’s eyes I think are becoming more and more open today, and I’ve seen those changes over the six years that I’ve had with my business where it’s changing and it’s evolving. I think people are growing, and they want to be more socially conscious. I think also some of it is just people think it’s kind of cool. There is a bit of that too.
Melinda Wittstock: Maria, you’ve been in fashion for a long time, in fact you go way back to your high school days on the floor of Macy’s, and a mom who was a showroom model. You have fashion in your blood. Tell me a little bit about where you think the industry, no. Tell me a little bit about what that spark was. Did it just, you always knew that you were going to be in fashion?
Maria Murphy: I think I always did. I think a lot of that did come from my mom. She always believed in looking sharp and looking her best, even when it came down to just putting a little pin on a sweater. She just had this style. I watched her. I used to be in awe of her when she would get ready every day to go to work. I thought that it was just such a glamorous type of thing and type of industry. I think I just always knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I was pretty good at putting things together, and dressing for myself. I also came from the background of working very hard. Starting off at a very young age of 14, and wanting to help take care of myself.
When the beginnings of being able to work for Macy’s, which is funny because even until today I still work with Macy’s all these years later, that just grew and grew over the years. I ended up going to college in New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and studying fashion merchandising and marketing. I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, and then went directly right out into the workforce. Then thereafter, switched into the wholesale side from retailing, and though now have come back in my own way into my own business with Lei-Lei, which is an interesting business model that kind of mixes it all. It kind of mixes the merchandising, as well as the retailing.
Melinda Wittstock: What was it that finally made you take the entrepreneurial leap?
Maria Murphy: I really wanted to do something that I could look at and call my own. It’s almost like a legacy type of thing. I feel that this is something that is mine, but I’ve also had my family involved with as well. Starting with my daughter who now is in her mid-20s, and she helped me with this when she was starting off in college. I really wanted to do something that was going to help women, but also empower my children, and have my children learn what it was like to, A, start a business, but also, B, be involved with helping others.
This moment for me was important to be able to do something that could help other people, but could also be something that I felt great about. That I could look myself in the mirror and say, I am doing good. I am helping others. I am not just in this for making a buck, but also how can I do something that’s impactful in this world. And that, you know what, one day in the end when people look back on me, I want those positive things to be said about me. That’s really just something that drives me, and something that’s a passion of mine.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. What a great motivation. I think women in particular are very suited to these sorts of models. I think often we choose to go into business to begin with because we’re interested in actually solving a real problem. Not just building something for its transactional value, but to actually make a change in society. I see more and more women doing these sorts of businesses. What is it about us that make us good at these sorts of businesses?
Maria Murphy: I think it’s just the mothering and caring nature that we have as women. I think that’s probably what it is. I think you tend to have a nurturing DNA. It’s just in our body and our makeup, and I think we want to just kind of hold people and mold people, and grow, and watch them grow, and do whatever we can to help them become stronger and better. I think just as women, that tends to be our nature.
Melinda Wittstock: I agree. I think we’re really quite uniquely suited for it. I think of when we think about the kind of archetypal masculine and feminine energies, for instance, right? You think of a masculine energy as focused, a little bit more linear, kind of get it done. Women being very intuitive, more relationship focused, these sorts of things. Often, we spot business models that are a little bit different than men. They tend to be a bit more ‘matrixy’. They have different elements. They’re not as linear. We have this much more relationship focus. Do you think that women really are now stepping into a unique role in entrepreneurship? Do we have a role to play in just really changing the way business is done?
Maria Murphy: Yeah, I think so. I think that for way too long, many women just kind of hung back. I don’t think that they stepped forward and felt that they had enough of that energy perhaps, that male energy that they needed to really stand up and take charge and do something. I think that there’s so many more women now. It used to just be you’d see so many housewives out there that were staying at home, and they maybe were happy, maybe they weren’t happy, but they weren’t sure how to cross the bridge. Now, I think that they’re seeing more and more women doing that. I think the social media, being able to see people post things on Facebook and such are enabling them to open their eyes up more and see that they too can do that. I think that’s something that I’m seeing a lot, especially in the last year to two years, that change.
Melinda Wittstock: My theory is that we have to balance the masculine and feminine energies within ourselves. That’s true for women, as well as true for men. There’s an aspect of just speaking up, not making perfect the enemy of the good. Just getting it done, understanding leverage, all those things that are sort of traditional masculine in a way. We have to be able to do those things to succeed in business. At the same time, we don’t want to be like dudes in skirts either, right?
Maria Murphy: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: [inaudible 00:25:10] authentic, and it doesn’t really work, because we’re not that. I always think, how can we leverage really these authentic feminine kind of ‘supershero’ powers, that somewhere along the line we got persuaded to thinking were weaknesses that are actually strengths?
Maria Murphy: Right, right. Yeah absolutely, I agree with you. I think that there hasn’t been enough of that. I think that you also, women tend to think you can’t harness those types of male tendencies, and that it’s looked on unfavorably. You need that balance. You have to have that yin with that yang, and be able to blend them together. That makes you a stronger, essentially a stronger female entrepreneur, that’s for sure.
Melinda Wittstock: Let’s go back a little bit to that evolved model that you have. You talk about being able to kind of give back to a community or a charity, the artisans themselves. I like to call it, give forward. There’s nothing that you’ve taken.
Maria Murphy: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: You’re creating all this value. You haven’t taken anything from anybody. If anything, you’ve given, right? I like to change the framing of that, so like the give forward. Let’s get into the specifics of how that works, in terms of what the community gets from this, what the charities get from this, and what the artisans get from it.
Maria Murphy: Absolutely. I think the thing that is the most important is that the artisan groups that I deal with follow fair-trade principles. That’s really important. I don’t know how many people really understand what that actually is about. There is multiple steps about it, but some of the biggest ones are that they’re paid promptly and fairly. That they’re able, the actual producers, we empower the producers to set prices for the true cost of their labor, their time, their materials and sustainable growth. And in the end, their distribution, their payment, and their income is distributed equitably. Equal pay for equal work, and prompt payment. That’s very crucial. They also need to have safe and empowering working conditions. They need to know that it’s healthy, and the area is free of discrimination. Never is child labor ever used. We also love to use the lingo that you hear a lot today, which is, reduce, reuse, reclaim and recycle wherever possible. That’s really crucial as well. I’d like to get into that later if we can too.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s something that can be applied to any business. When you think about the supply chain of everything we do, to bake that into the business models at the get-go, right at the inception when you’re starting a company. How can these ideas be applied? Beyond fashion or anything, it really can be in any industry.
Maria Murphy: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. It’s really such an important aspect of businesses, and hopefully that’s just something that we’re going to see more and more of go forward. The beauty of the model that we do, as well this whole fair-trade principle which is the core, is that through the purchases, through my marketplace, you as a consumer purchase the product. As the purchases happen, and through the continual purchasing, it then enables these artisans, these women that are so incredibly talented to continue earning a living. They just keep producing and making what they love, what their hands create, and they’re then continued to be fairly compensated.
Maria Murphy: In turn, depending upon the artisan groups, they are able to take care of their children, their families. They have a sense of self-respect, and they feel that they’re contributing. Now they’re doing something. There’s one artisan group that I deal with that is a deaf community of women. In Kenya, they are thought of as being almost second-class citizens. They are now taught a trade in metal smithing. They hold their heads up high, they make these beautiful, the most beautiful jewelry, some of the most beautiful things I carry. They now are able to take care of themselves and their children, their families, get an education and have a job, have a career. It’s just so exciting. That’s just one example.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that, because you’re empowering people at every step of the supply chain. You’re giving consumers a good deal, the artisan, everybody along the way. It sounds like you’re very thoughtful and very purposeful about how this works at each step. I do really want to get into this reuse, what was it again? Reuse, recycle-
Maria Murphy: Reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle.
Melinda Wittstock: Reduce, oh, reclaim, that was the other one what I was missing. Okay, so take me through that. I love this.
Maria Murphy: Yeah, well, there’s several products that I carry on the site, in our company. I’ll give you couple of examples of them. One is our Moroccan market baskets. They literally are made from wild palm reeds and leaves that grow wild in Morocco. These talented women take these reeds, and they weave together and form these gorgeous market baskets. There’s palm reeds, there’s bulrush, there’s [inaudible 00:31:29]. There’s all different types of natural substances that they use, natural plants that they use. They create these gorgeous baskets, and then they take… In some cases they’ll make appliques, or they’ll add sequins and stitching. It’s very multifold, and it’s very labor intensive. They’re very hands-on with beautiful detail and very one-of-a-kind looks. They mix some leather for strength for the straps. These are baskets that can withstand years of use.
I’ve had my one basket for six years. I am telling you, I use it and reuse it, and travel with it, and this thing looks gorgeous and like brand-new. That’s just one example. There’s another group in India, and they take their reclaimed saris, these beautiful dresses and fabrics, lots of fabric, and they’ll up-cycle and recycle these saris. They make beautiful necklaces. They take the fabric and wrap them around wooden prayer beads, and stitch them in between and make these gorgeous necklaces that I offer. One other example are in Guatemala, the Mayan women taken their [inaudible 00:32:50], which is their skirts, and they make beautiful bags and wallets and cases, jewelry, all different types of accessories. They’re so incredible, because they’re one of a kind. They’re unique. They’re made out of the fabric that they wear. Just a few examples.
Melinda Wittstock: Is this starting to influence the rest of the fashion industry? I know, folks like say Nike have come under a lot of fire for how they source, for instance. Fair-trade has become an issue in the fashion industry. Are these sorts of models starting to get more buy-in? What’s the tipping point there to get more companies, more established brands having this sort of four R, I’ll call it the four R-
Maria Murphy: Yeah, model.
Melinda Wittstock: Right?
Maria Murphy: Right, right. I’m seeing more and more of that happen. I think that there’s glimmers of it, and there’s definitely more sustainability in business models of these big companies, these big corporations. I know that there’s something with the plastics that they’re taking in and melting down, and recycling the plastics that are used. I see it in flip-flops, for instance. They’re able to take it and actually recycle that kind of element that is thrown out and discarded and put into landfills and the seas. I think that there’s more pressures out there based on how the environment is being polluted. I think that there’s a lot of that pressure these big fashion giants are feeling. I think that they’re trying to incorporate them into their sustainable offerings. It’s maybe not as much as we hope to see just yet, but I think it’s coming. I think we’ll see it, it’s just going to take a little bit more time.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, and there’s real potential for a very grassroots consumer movement, as more and more consumers just demand this.
Maria Murphy: Definitely.
Melinda Wittstock: And more transparency about how things are sourced, and fair-trade, fair treatment of labor, all of this. You see Millenials really in particular kind of spearheading this, and the folks coming up behind them that want to know how everything is sourced, won’t buy anything unless, et cetera, et cetera.
Maria Murphy: I agree. I agree. I do think it’s interesting, because the millennial generation, it has been pinpointed to be the one that is really in a way almost spearheading the grassroots movement of this the most. I do think from there it does carry down. I would hope that the children of those Millenials will see that. I think that it’s also important to get your kids involved, and to recycle. It starts in your home, right? Everybody has now these recycling containers and elements that you have to follow. You have to follow these strategies and these principles in your home. Just taking that from that tiny bit of core, and watching how that blossoms and can become more and more important in businesses.
Melinda Wittstock: Really, it can. Hats off to you for the work that you’re doing. It’s so, so important that we lead by example. I always say we need to be the change that we want to see in the world, for that to happen.
Maria Murphy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melinda Wittstock: You’re helping many, many, many women all over the world. Maria, take me through sort of the next five years and how you see your company growing. What are some of the milestones? What’s the vision? Where do you think you’re going to be five years from now, 10 years from now?
Maria Murphy: Well, I would absolutely love to just take my business and have it grow in a much broader way. Right now, I ship domestically and I do not ship internationally. I have had many countries, many consumers from other countries want that to happen, but I really needed to keep a close tight rein on it currently. That’s something that through time we’ll grow into. I’d like to see that the network of my followers, I like to call it the Lei-Lei tribe, I’d like to see word-of-mouth, and for it to have this organic growth. I have so many loyal followers that are repeat followers. They, through their gift giving, I’ve watched it blossom, and in turn grow through them and their word-of-mouth.
My hope is that’s going to continue and it’s just going to blossom in a much larger way. I need to get the tribe to become a big tribe. I’ve also been very fortunate in having influencers and bloggers follow my growth over the years, and help in getting the word out to their tribes and to their followers. That’s been something that I’d like to see grow in a larger vein. I think that there’s a lot of micro influencers that I need to get into my fold, so that’s something that’s within my growth platform.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, it’s true, and we all have these challenges, especially when we’re doing something that’s a little bit different and we’re pioneering, and there’s so many different pieces of the puzzle and all of that. I think the companies that really do the best these days are the ones, they’re more than companies. They’re movements. It gets beyond the transactional into the transformational. I think you’re sort of playing in that space, which is really exciting.
Maria Murphy: Right, I would agree with you. I would say so too.
Melinda Wittstock: I had Tina Sharkey on the podcast a little while back: with Brandless she is really kind of spearheading this movement. Everything is three bucks, everything’s non-GMO, like cleaning products and food and the like. All a clean supply chain, all movement. Her whole theory is, the only companies that are really going to survive actually, let alone prosper, are those that have this movement piece. So-
Maria Murphy: Right, and it is really interesting. I guess that’s really the core of my mission, is to have that movement and continue and grow that movement. I think that I have a great product offering. I think the theme will be over the years, I’ll watch the diversity and I’ll watch the growth within that, and just continue to offer products that are inspiring and tasteful, and also continue that give forward. The pay it forward model, and help others and more. I think that my biggest goal is just to continue on that track, and watch the lives that I am able to impact and touch, and just do more of that.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s wonderful. Well, Maria, you’re so inspiring. Thank you so, so much for putting on your wings and flying with us. I know that you have a special offer for all our listeners today, which I want you to describe.
Maria Murphy: Absolutely. I’d like for your listeners to go onto our website, to onto the lei-lei.net website, and input the email address. What I’m offering is 10% off the entire order through June 30th. Use the code InspiredWings10, a capital I and a capital W.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. Well, thank you for your generosity, and I can’t wait to see what transpires. Everybody go out and use that special offer, and get the word out about Lei-Lei. Congratulations again, Maria, and thank you so much for lifting as you climb.
Maria Murphy: Thank you so much, Melinda. This is a great time. Thanks again.