Meet Fiona McAlpine, Co-Founder of The Fabric Social
Some of the strongest brands start with an inspiring story, and The Fabric Social is no exception. Inspired by one woman’s struggle in an oft unheard of corner of northern India, Fiona McAlpine launched The Fabric Social to empower women to create sustainable change in their own communities. Today, Fiona’s role as the “Communications Overlord” combines her love of storytelling, her passion for ethical products, and her desire to travel the world in search of the stories we don’t often hear.
From international volunteer to social entrepreneur. Tell us your story! We’re dying to hear more about your professional evolution from volunteer to lawyer to business owner.
I’ve been really lucky to see a lot of the world and my professional evolution is a bit all over the place. I’ve spent time working halfway up a volcano in West Africa with an awesome activist newspaper. I’ve lived in the Himalayas teaching English to adorable children and eager teens. I’ve worked with the main English language newspaper in Nepal. I’ve been a Security Council intern in New York. I’ve spent a year living in Delhi collecting testimonies for the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings. And I’ve served up a ton of coffees in Melbourne, New York and San Francisco.
Before we started The Fabric Social, my co-founders and I found ourselves in the far-from-unique situation of having degrees coming out of our ears, but weren’t able to find work that lasted a long time and was truly fulfilling. I was working as a barista throughout my Juris Doctor to fuel those international trips so that I could spend each 3-month university break living and working somewhere interesting. But I knew this wasn’t a sustainable system - not for my bank account or for the awesome organizations I was volunteering with.
So how did you end up marrying your love for adventure and storytelling with social entrepreneurship?
I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but the more I researched and wrote, the more I realized that communities can tell their own stories. Not only is the industry shrinking, but we are becoming more accustomed to local stringers and bloggers telling the real stories from the ground in real time. There’s no reason why we need a white girl telling our Aussie audience what’s happening in Delhi or Bagan. Social media has diversified our news sources, and I think that’s probably a good thing. But it also means the career I dreamed of probably won’t exist much longer.
I still get to be a storyteller, which is great. As ours Comms Overlord (as my team call me, haha) I try my best to tell stories from the field as truthfully as I can. And especially working in Northeast India, we have access to a lot of untold stories. Most people have never heard how incredible this region is nor that it’s been suffering from armed conflict on and off for half a century.
You’ve traveled all over the world but have fallen in love with India, in particular. How has your time abroad inspired and influenced this latest venture?
Ever since my parents took me traveling to India when I was 7, I fell in love with the country.
The first idea for The Fabric Social came out of working in India with the incredible women’s rights and demilitarization advocate Binalakshmi Nepram. When I was a UN intern I went to see her speak about Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman who was arrested by the local armed forces, tortured and raped. Following the incident, local women’s groups staged a large and compelling protest in which they marched naked straight up to the heavily guarded military base. These ladies in Manipur were not cowards. When I heard this story I cold-emailed Bina and asked if I could come work for her organization, and amazingly she said yes. I worked with her documenting extrajudicial executions in Manipur, and that’s when I totally fell for the Northeast. 40 million people, 220 ethnic groups, a third of the world’s tea and some of the last matrilineal societies live in Northeast India, but it is a total blind spot in our world view.
Creating sustainable incomes in these areas of protracted conflict is not the sexiest or easiest impact outcome to explain in Tweet form, but it’s something I find incredibly powerful. I was inspired by Bina to try to generate income for women in post-conflict communities who have been forgotten by the world, but also to tell their stories. They deserve to be told.
Your company is striving to create sustainable change through better business practices. In your experience, how has traditional charity failed to alleviate poverty around the world?
I don’t think charity is a failure, but I do think social enterprise is going to be a big player in the international development space in the coming decades.
You can’t tell these communities to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, when they have no boots, and no straps. Someone needs to make an investment in equipment and training - and grant money is very useful to this end. That said, programs that have income generation as a goal but fail to respond to market needs are not going to continue without handouts, and are unlikely to thrive independently. What we want to see is skill and business development to the point that, after some initial hand holding, we can step back and have a regular buyer relationship with the producer group.
You can take Srishti Handlooms as an example, our partners in Assam. They live in an ex-rebel stronghold of the Assamese liberation army. A group of women started a weaving unit to generate some income, and when we first came to visit, the looms lay dormant. Three years on, we are able to place back to back orders, and quality control mechanisms and fair trade payment systems are in place. We no longer need to come visit on the regular, and the organization can take silk and cotton orders from others. This is our end game - to invest in the women through placing regular orders and growing the producer groups into self sustaining small businesses.
Investing in women, in particular, can have a tremendous impact on the entire community. In what ways has Fabric Social witnessed this influence thus far?
The main investment we make is providing sustainable, regular income where there was none. As loads of young women know, the ability to plan beyond a single paycheck makes a world of difference - being able to plan your future is a massive weight off the shoulders.
Confidence in the women is a big deal to us, and they have their own plans for expanding their impact locally. One of our weavers, Mira, wants to save up to have an at-home loom so she can teach unemployed women back at her village how to weave. We want to get some bicycles so that women who live further away are able to join the weaving cooperative, and that the existing women can cut down on their long walk commute. We want to build digital literacy so that the group can take orders from other international buyers who are interested in peace silk.
We have so many plans for how to build community impact beyond pure income generation to the community at large, and we think listening to the women is the best way to achieve this.
Let’s get personal. How have the values you’ve built into your business been reflected in other areas of your life? What qualities do you look for in the brands that you support?
One thing that’s nice about the social enterprise space is that we are very supportive and collaborative with our ‘competition’. We hold parties and pop ups with our social enterprise brand friends, and are often invited along by them to participate in opportunities in turn. I’m not sure if that’s because the ethical fashion space is dominated by like-minded women or whether the co-op practices we have grown to know and love in the field have rubbed off on us.
I wouldn’t say that the way we built our business has influenced my personal life, I think it is probably the other way around. Having worked in the feminist peace advocacy space, I would say that my co-founder and I brought this approach to the business space, insisting on feminist supply chains, fair labor practice and environmental sustainability. These ethics were a no brainer and deal breaker for us. It is pointless trying to overcome disadvantage using exploitation. No one wins.
What does a day in the life of a social entrepreneur look like for you? Are you still finding the time to travel?
My days change a lot! I live in San Francisco with my partner and my dog. I’m in charge of all of our communications and in overseeing a couple of our volunteers. I’d like to say I mainly work on strategy but when you run your own business there is a lot of DIY - I do the lion’s share of our web admin, advertising, publicity, outreach, social media and random digital tasks.
At the end of last year, I spent two weeks hiking the Annapurna trail with my Co-Founder Sharna because it’s important to get off grid sometimes. We then spent two weeks hosting our first fundraising tour in Northeast India, taking some Australian women to visit our producer groups. Then I spent a month in Myanmar working on our project there, interviewing producers and conducting social media training. We are all over the place and we all wear many hats.
When I’m not traveling I have a Skype meeting with Australia, India or Myanmar almost every day. I spend time in the field interviewing our producers and then even more time trying to digest and tease out these stories. I’ve also started dabbling in photography, which is a fun new challenge.