An Ethical Marketplace: Jessica Willison, Co-founder of Enrou

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Jessica Willison of Enrou

What happens when a couple of young women who love to shop and create an impact join forces? A beautiful platform of thoughtfully curated ethical artisan products is born. We recently sat down with Jessica Willison, co-founder of Enrou to learn more about her unique business model which leverages a for-profit structure for social and environmental change.

From shopper and young professional to social entrepreneur and global change maker - tell us your story. How did you end up as the Co-Founder of Enrou and what inspired this bold career decision?

Ann and I started Enrou as a way to make lasting impact in our daily lives, and to give others an opportunity to do the same. We saw an opportunity to disrupt the status quo of poverty on a global scale with something that is so simple and already embedded in our daily lives — shopping. With our backgrounds (hers in international development and mine in fashion) we realized that we could activate a generation to care through their purchases, to make one decision differently and understand the massive ripple effect that one decision can make on another’s future.

We’re inspired by your approach to leverage a for-profit business model for social and environmental change. But what really has piqued our interest is your partnership model. What led to this decision and how has it enabled Enrou to expand its impact?

When we first started Ann & I knew that 1) Employing people and creating job opportunities for them by making and selling goods has the potential for lasting impact 2) People wanted to shop these goods. Initially we thought we could be our own brand, go into production and sell that product. About five minutes into that conversation, we knew that that made no sense for the two of us to do since we had never produced a product before and had no experience in design. When that idea was crossed off the list what we did realize that there were so many brands doing that already. Why add another (with fewer skills on the onset) when these ones already existed, but many were not well known? That’s where our partnership model comes in. It’s actually very similar to what I had been doing with online editorial before – sharing the coolest new brands I could find with my readers. The difference this time is that we do it through shopping. This power of numbers mentality – bringing together like-minded brands in a central location to make it easier for people to discover more products – is what we’re all about.

The downside of partnerships can be a real lack of transparency and control. To mitigate against this, Enrou appears to have built some very deep relationships with the artisan partners in your network. What type of impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase a product from your collection?

There’s quite an extensive process for vendors that join Enrou filled with multiple conversations, answering questions about their business and impact models, and other vetting criterium. All in all, our customers can expect that their product was made with dignity, meaning work that is paid at fair wages and made in safe conditions. This individual impact level enables the people making the product to continue this job as more customers purchase their products.

On a higher level, each of our partners also contributes to building the local community. Whether that’s through microfinance, education workshops that span anything from nutrition to financial savings, and gender equality - there’s a secondary impact that our customers are part of when they shop Enrou to help build a sustainable infrastructure around the community.

Anyone who likes to shop can only imagine how fun it is to to curate a collection of gorgeous products from around the globe. What does a day in the life really look like as the Co-Founder of Enrou?

I do have to agree and say that I have a crazy cool job when it comes to sourcing and curating these products. My team always teases me because I will sit at my computer & “ooh” & “ah” at new finds. More than that, I also get to work with the amazing people behind the brands we carry. Listening to their stories, their experiences and time spent on the ground. How we’re contributing to that story is really inspirational and hands down the absolute best part of my job.

Buying and merchandising is only a small portion of what my days consist of though. As every entrepreneur knows, my day is so varied. Over the course of Enrou I’ve touched every part of the business: from recruitment, to legal, to marketing, to creative concepts, photoshoots, business development, and even web development my tasks vary so much depending on what needs to be done. It makes for a lot but I also have an opportunity to learn about so many things. I’m constantly learning which I absolutely love so it’s impossible to get bored!

That passion absolutely shows. It is clear that you’ve built your business on values of responsibility and partnership and compassion, but I can’t imagine that you easily turn this off at the end of the day. How have the values that you’ve engrained in your business influenced other decisions in your life?

I actually think it flows in the opposite direction whereas the values I have in my life (and my co-founder Ann’s life) have influenced the values we’ve engrained in Enrou. Ann and I really believe strongly in the potential everyone has inside of them. And when you can tap into that potential and pair it with a person’s passions, beautiful things can come from it. From our artisans, to our customers, and definitely our team, too, we bring this value throughout the brand finding ways to be that catalyst for anyone part of the Enrou network to reach their fullest potential by means of doing something they are passionate about.

The fashion industry, in particular, is filled with choices that can overwhelm even the most educated consumer. What do you look for in the brands you buy from? Where do you love to shop guilt free?

There are so many different ways to shop responsibly: shopping vegan, shopping from local vendors, shopping environmentally conscious, or like Enrou’s model, shopping in ways that provide safe and ethical job opportunities for the people making the goods. In many cases these overlap. I think what I look for most in brands that I buy from is transparency, effort, and intent. We’re experiencing a shift in our culture where we care about the effects of the things we buy. I really respect brands that are leading the way in that conversation: ones like Warby Parker, Everlane, Reformation, and Zady. I also really appreciate the brands that are realizing the effects of their decisions and making conscious decisions to change to become more sustainable and more ethical. It’s definitely a long road to get to, but I think it’s on the right path.

Talk about the right path - you’re a young woman with a world of opportunity in front of you, that much is clear. So what’s next on your list for Enrou? Where do you want to go from here?

We want to be known as the place where people can shop to make a positive impact in the lives of other people all around the world. That of course stems from our desire to continue to create more dignified hours of work for our artisan community and to continue to offer this same opportunity to more and more people who are lacking it. Making ourselves more accessible, providing even more opportunities to share the story and the effects of every purchase are ways that we’ll get there.