Female Disruptors: Jessica Honegger wants you to practice Imperfect Courage
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Honegger, the Founder and co-CEO of Noonday Collection, a socially responsible business that uses fashion to create meaningful opportunities for people around the world. Honegger launched Noonday Collection in 2010 as a fundraiser for her she and her husband’s adoption of their son from Rwanda, but the brand soon grew into a multi-million dollar business that today impacts 4,500 artisans across the globe. In 2015, Inc magazine named Noonday Collection the 45th fastest growing business in the US. Honegger shares the full Noonday Collection story and challenges women to get out of their comfort zones and go scared in her new book, Imperfect Courage, available now.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My story starts in San Antonio, Texas, where I grew up in a beautiful tight knit community. Sometimes tight knit communities have tightly woven scripts and the script for little girls in my community expected young women to follow a very specific path: a debutante party, followed by marriage, followed by life as a stay-at-home mother and wife.
Despite those expectations, I always took after my Texas spitfire of a father and shared his entrepreneurial spirit — from the jewelry stands I set up to hawk my handmade wares to the summer camps I set up for younger kids when I was in junior high to earn money for a new bike.
When I traveled to Kenya at age 16, I experienced the realities of global poverty for the first time. I also met a woman who was the recipient of a microloan and was changing her reality through entrepreneurship. It was then that I first realized that business had the potential to change the world.
A series of winding career moves later, including a stint training midwives in Bolivia and a gig as a house flipper, I founded Noonday Collection in 2011. Today, Noonday Collection is the world’s largest fair trade accessories brand, creating dignified work for 4,500 Artisans across the globe who craft our exclusive collection of jewelry and accessories by hand.
Why did you found your company?
Noonday Collection started as an adoption fundraiser to bring my son Jack home from Rwanda. My husband Joe and I already had two biological children when we decided to grow our family through international adoption. We were still working in the real estate business when the market crashed in 2008, and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of an expensive international adoption with several unsellable houses and mounting debt on our hands. So, naturally, it was the perfect time to launch a bold new business venture, right?
Joe and I had both spent time working with Food for the Hungry in South America, and our experiences living among and learning from the rural poor solidified our desire to do something impactful with our lives. So when I found myself in need of a serious side hustle and was presented with the opportunity to sell some jewelry made by a struggling couple in Uganda, I jumped in.
Soon, I was selling their products and others from across the globe in my living room faster than I could purchase them. My friends loved the stories, style, and impact behind the jewelry, and women from across the country started asking how they could get involved.
I launched the Noonday Ambassador Opportunity to empower women in the US to earn an income selling Noonday’s products at Trunk Shows in their communities — and today we have Ambassadors in all 50 states!
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
There is so much about what Noonday Collection does that is disruptive. When I started this business in 2010, this space of fashion that does good just didn’t exist in the way it does now. It was sometimes a tough sell getting people to understand that we weren’t a “give-back” company — rather, we were all about creating sustainable work by paying fair prices up front and building strong partnerships with our artisan partners.
Today, we continue to disrupt across several industries: in the fair trade space by designing on-trend, stylish accessories that can compete in the wider market; in the direct sales space by empowering women to not just earn an income, but make a meaningful impact; and in the fashion space by bringing consumers styles that tell a beautiful story of transformation.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
My first business mentor was my dad, a gregarious man with an entrepreneurial spirit who was always up for adventure. Growing up, I soaked in so many life lessons for him, not least of which was the oh-so Texan “Money talks, bullshit walks.” My dad has experienced a lot of business successes in his life; but he’s also had his fair share of brave failures. Through him, I learned that there’s no reward without risk, and that safety isn’t what’s going to get us where we want to go.
Another of my mentors in more recent years has been my Noonday Collection co-CEO, Travis Wilson. I think we often think of “mentor figures” as the people who are way far ahead of us on the path. But in my experience, peer mentorship is often the most powerful form of mentorship.
Along those lines, I also have a “brain trust” of close women friends and mentors who inspire me every day. These are women who are fully committed to living purposefully and to pushing themselves and their careers to the next level.
We stay in close contact via text, Voxer, and occasionally, when our crazy schedules allow, in person — and having their peer mentorship has been such a gift. It’s incredibly valuable having people to help us navigate our wins, losses, and everything else that comes with juggling career, family, and womanhood.
How are you going to shake things up next?
What I’m feeling passionately about these days is taking the popular idea of “women supporting women” and helping it become a real-life movement. Right now I’m hearing from a lot of women who are saying, “I see all of these posts on social media talking about women being ‘for’ other women and sharing in their successes, but in the real world, I’m not seeing that happening.” I think we have to take the seeds of this movement that have become popular to talk about on social and figure out how we apply them to our lives in a nitty-gritty, everyday sort of way.
It’s going to be a lot harder than it looks on social media, and a lot less glamorous, but it’s essential. How can we find space in our lives to empower other women? How can we make time to celebrate other women’s successes and live out the idea that “her success doesn’t diminish mine?” And how can we use our voices to elevate the voices of women who aren’t being heard? This is the movement that I’m excited to be a part of!
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
One of my favorite words of advice I’ve been given is this: Take the long view. This wise advice was given to me during a particularly hard season as CEO of Noonday Collection. After a period of crazy growth, during which we were named #45 on Inc’s list of fastest growing companies in the country, we had hit a slump, and I was struggling to see beyond our immediate challenges.
I shared this with a friend, a successful figure in the investing world. He looked at me and said, “Take the long view. Let all of your actions now be about where you want to be years from now.” Noonday Collection had been such a fast-growing success that I hadn’t stopped to think about what taking the long view meant for my day-to-day decision making. That advice shifted my mindset, and helped me realize that sometimes you need to choose short-term pains on the path to building a long-term foundation.
Another of my favorite mottos: Stop saying “It’s hard.” Start saying “It requires effort.” Yes, parenting in the summer is hard, running your business is hard, starting that thing is hard. But what if we quit saying “hard” and started owning this truth: I have what it takes to do it. When we change your words, it reshapes our thoughts and trickles down to our souls where the shift needs to happen.
A third piece of advice that’s changed me on this journey came from brilliant author and thinker Andy Crouch, who talks about the importance of having rhythms for your life and holding yourself to them. That includes not just having rhythms for working and being productive, but for rest, too.
I’m a future-oriented person, so it’s hard for me to make space for rest. I am always thinking ahead to the next thing I could be doing. But by committing to a life rhythm that includes space for rest and holding myself to it, I’m able to remember better that life is not all about the hustle. And, ultimately, that rest is going to allow me to keep going for the long haul.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
All of Brené Brown’s work has had a huge impact on me, not just personally, but in my business as well. She is all about helping people get free from shame and embrace vulnerability. I used to think, like many of us do, that vulnerability was weakness. But Brené’s work helped wake me up to the idea that there is actually incredible strength in vulnerability. If we aren’t vulnerable and honest in our relationships, they will stay shallow. If we aren’t vulnerable as business leaders, we set ourselves up as infallible, and miss the opportunity to show others that owning your worries and mistakes doesn’t exclude you from being a strong leader; it actually builds trust with those you are leading.
In my book, Imperfect Courage, I tell a story about how this principle played out in my role as Noonday Collection’s CEO. A few years ago, we hit that very unexpected slump I mentioned earlier and found ourselves with way too much inventory, which resulted in us not being able to place as many orders with our artisan partners across the globe. I was having a lot of sleepless nights because I was thinking about how we had let down the people who trusted us the most. But, rather than try to sweep everything under the rug with our salesforce, my co-CEO and I elected for vulnerability instead; in a live call, we owned the planning mistakes we had made, asked for grace, and laid out a plan to fix things. The community responded to our honesty and transparency, and we were able to walk through the challenges we were facing as a united front. It was a great reminder for us that sometimes what feels like way down is the way up.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
If I could have lunch with anyone, I would choose author and activist Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that confronts racial injustice, advocates for equality, and creates hope for marginalized communities. He is also the author of the world-shifting book Just Mercy. I would choose to spend time with Bryan because he is disrupting the social justice space by getting us to see our justice system differently. His work is helping America deal with our past history of injustice so we can address it, reform it, and move beyond it into a different kind of future. He is literally saving lives, and I have so much respect for his gracious and empathetic approach to advocacy.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@jessicahonegger on Instagram is the best place to follow! You can also subscribe to my email tribe at jessicahonegger.com for the latest updates on my life as a CEO, mother, and accessories-addict. And finally, my podcast is called Going Scared and covers all things entrepreneurship, social impact, and courage.