Sydney Sherman is on a mission to help lift 100 million women out of poverty. Yes, you read that right. This goal may be possible because of The Etho, the business of which Sherman is co-chief executive officer and co-founder.
The Etho is an online marketplace that partners with artisans. The Etho provides its partners from marginalized communities with an entry into the online market space and other business support. The ethical production standards The Etho practices ensure that producers have access to fair compensation and working standards.
Artisans that produce for The Etho are free from forced labor, child labor and gender discrimination. Of course, in an ideal world such unfair labor practices would never occur. The Etho ensures these high working standards for their artisans through an ethical verification process. This often includes pre-checks, questionnaires and site visits to observe that the standards are being met reliably.
Sherman believes that The Etho is on track with its mission to help 100 million women fight poverty by 2030.
“We have supported nearly 6,000 women through our efforts at The Etho but that is also without marketing or partnerships, and with COVID-19 all in our first year of business,” Sherman explained. “So yes, I believe we will hit our goal, we do have nine more years but we also take it very seriously and talk about it often so that we do not get off track.”
However, the effects of COVID-19 on businesses worldwide is rampant. The Etho has not been an exception to new challenges in achieving their mission. “I would say the biggest challenge for me right now is deciding where to invest our funds internally because of COVID,” Sherman revealed.
“We were beginning to fundraise in January when the pandemic hit and we have had to focus more on conserving cash flow like many other businesses which makes making decisions about the future that much more challenging. Right now, I am tackling a decision around technology – how to make our short term needs work while considering the long term with essentially no budget.”
We were excited to chat more with Sherman to learn about her roots and vision to help eradicate extreme poverty.
Gaining inspiration from others
Where does Sherman get her remarkable ambition?
Well, it seems to be partly environmental. “Both of my parents are entrepreneurs so I grew up with that mindset and it has never left me,” she revealed. “I really appreciate this problem-solving way of thinking because it has served me in all areas of my life.”
Sherman agrees that she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Since I was a little girl I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was always running things – I started clubs, the traditional lemonade stand, a newspaper company and led my sports teams, etc.,” she said. “At my business school [Acton School of Business] they liked to say ‘How you do anything is how you do everything,’ and for me it means I don’t see anything as impossible in any area of my life.”
“Sometimes that can get me into trouble but for the most part it has been a huge positive. Most of the obstacles in business and life are really just puzzles to solve, nothing more! Looking at it that way for me also relieves the pressure around situations that would otherwise feel very difficult,” Sherman said.
That explains why on a world-traveling trip and witnessing the pervasiveness of poverty firsthand, her mind readily jumped to how she could be part of the solution.
“It was during this trip that I visited Delhi. I’d seen poverty in various places growing up, and even on trips before, but there was something about Delhi … people sleeping in the streets, missing limbs and obviously hungry and ill. I needed to help and knew that it was bigger than one trip,” Sherman explained.
Establishing personal values
Sherman advises others to make decisions based on their personal values. A few of her core values are “integrity, connection and service,” she said.
It’s clear that The Etho is in alignment with Sherman’s values – as, not only does it offer a marketplace for ethically sourced products, but it also offers transparency. For example, the seller’s story is available for every product for sale through The Etho.
So, if you were to buy the Miriam Post Earrings from The Etho, your jewelry wouldn’t come from a faceless source. Instead, you are actively supporting a woman-owned company owned by the daughter of Colombian immigrant parents who gives back five percent of her earnings to the Wounaan community in Colombia.
Sherman’s motivation to live ethically is not only observable through The Etho. Another business she started, Admin Boutique, is a customer-service oriented venture that helps support small businesses in various ways. Sherman has also been very involved in volunteer work, from working with Refugee Services of Texas to being engaged in more current volunteer efforts from where she is quarantined now in Guatemala.
According to Sherman, she was asked to join the board of a nonprofit in Guatemala as well as another venture helping the dog population in her small town. She’s also worked on efforts to feed some of the surrounding families, but found some obstacles maintaining that venture without relying on donations.
“I don’t want to be asking for donations, but instead want to generate revenue to fund them,” she explained. “During the peak of COVID here, I had started a mini-project and was feeding about 40 families by the end of it, but just closed down those efforts now that we are coming out of the worst of it.”
“I find that people become very dependent on freebies so I would prefer, in more normal times than now, to have something that serves people in a way where they can also serve themselves,” Sherman elaborated. “That is why I am so attracted to business, it’s extremely challenging but very rewarding and empowering.”
We were happy to chat further with Sherman to be inspired by and appreciate her journey more.
How did you feel when you realized you could go into entrepreneurship full time?
Well if I am honest – and I don’t talk about this side much because when you’re first starting, in order to be taken seriously, you often have to put your best foot forward and not point to fears and failure – but my first business’s biggest clients were family members for, I think, a solid year. That led to me not fully feeling the complete independence I believe you’re asking about here until they weren’t my biggest clients.
This business, Admin Boutique, was my first successful business (meaning I could live off of it) and I started it within a year of graduating from college. So, this feeling of “WOW, I am an entrepreneur full-time” didn’t come as strongly as others might experience, because I only worked for someone else outside of college for six months before starting Admin Boutique.
From there I didn’t wait long before I started The Etho. But, that did feel great to start because I had been working on it in my mind and on paper for years before starting it.
You created The Etho to provide access to marketplaces for women in poverty and also give consumers access to ethically sourced products. What inspired you to start this venture?
I started this venture because I learned “too much” about extreme poverty and what it was doing to women in particular. I have been to over 40 countries, and the majority before I turned 25, so I was seeing a lot of really extreme poverty in mass in a condensed period of time, and for me I couldn’t not do something about it. Because of the business mindset I already had, I immediately thought that the only sustainable way to solve this was through business, for-profit business, because it could show other business owners that they could have it all too – making money and doing good!
The Etho is a company with a charitable mindset and value system. How do you balance the goals of a for-profit business with the goals of your social-minded mission?
For me, this is easy because the business was built with our values strongly rooted in everything we do. We vet the brands we have on our site very thoroughly, so only the brands that are very focused on serving people and the planet are welcome. We decided in the very early days that we would not accept a brand under any circumstance if they did not meet our requirements. Because of that, the rest of it is easy!
We can market, develop software products, etc. as we please knowing that we are only serving those who share our values. We try to make our own operations as ethical as possible, down to composting after team meetings, buying food from locally sourced restaurants, etc. We strive to do the best we can, even purchasing carbon offsets for our heavy computer usage. This is just how I live my life now, and so do many on our team, so we are doing very well.
When we scale, that might present different growth opportunities, or it might not – when people join our team, they know they are working for a company with values. I will say we talk about our values regularly and go over them in team reviews, meetings, and more. We implement them in every way we can, keeping us oriented around them always. I believe this is key, especially for businesses like ours that are built on values.
What are a few of your favorite products available on The Etho right now?
I love these woven basket products because I met the women when I was on a trip with my mom and because I managed to bring a few down to Guatemala before I realized I was going to be living here all year. Their bright colors and unique designs brighten every day.
It’s cool because they are in full control of the design, when we order them we can only request colors. They are so talented, and I find it empowering that they are not told what to do.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
I have a ton of ideas all the time. It’s as if my brain doesn’t ever stop. It’s awesome and sometimes too much, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The inspiration comes from connecting with our brands or learning more about them, seeing the issues they deal with firsthand, etc. I genuinely want to help them; it’s a pure motive of mine and why they are my inspiration matter in everything we do.
They are really the ones doing the heavy lifting, and I wouldn’t say what we are doing is easy, but they find and train the workforce that we strive to serve. I really just want them to succeed, and if we can support them in that, I am happy. The more I connect to the root of what we are doing, the more inspired I feel.
What’s something, personal or professional, you’re currently working on achieving?
Slowing down! I move very quickly in everything that I do, and it has led to me getting very sick recently. I am learning to pause, breathe and take care of myself first. I love it, but it has been challenging for me to learn. I am very stubborn and find myself resisting more often than not, but I know I will get the hang of it.
What is one critical moment in your life that has shaped you and where you are today?
When I was around 20, I studied in Salzburg, Austria in a program on Media and Global Change. There were students from all over the world – from war zones, extremely impoverished countries, LGBTQ members living in countries where being in love with the same sex is illegal and so much more.
I came in with one perspective that was very small and came out with a very open mind about people and the world. I am very grateful for this experience and the people I shared it with, and some of these people are my closest friends. They taught me an invaluable lesson and were forgiving as I learned it ungracefully at times.
Who did you look up to as a kid?
My family and friends, which still stands true today – my heroes are the people I watch fall down and get back up.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your intuition. Get quiet before making decisions and listen to the inner you. You already know the answer, but there are also no wrong answers, only learning and opportunities, so don’t be so tough on yourself. And more than anything, you are ENOUGH, and you don’t need to see that yet but know that you will.
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