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Actress, entrepreneur and Fonkoze supporter Yeardley Smith shares why she supports Fonkoze. Leave a comment to share your own story!
This interview was conducted in December 2013 by Alex Counts, the immediate past Chair of Fonkoze USA and Co-Chair of the Fonkoze Family Coordinating Committee. This is an edited transcript.
Alex Counts: It’s great to have this opportunity to catch up with such a great supporter of Fonkoze as you, Yeardley. First of all, what has been happening with you generally?
Yeardley Smith: Well, I started this shoe line called Marchez Vous in Fall 2011. We make the shoes in Italy and now we’re in about 50 boutiques around the US and Canada. Typical of me, I didn’t know anything about shoe making before I started, but one of my mantras in life has always been “Screw it, lets do it.” So I thought, I love shoes and that passion should be enough for me to have success in this business! [Laughs]
My business manager and the people around me, I think, had a heart attack as I marched down this road and never looked back. But I’ve always said my true talent in life is gathering the best, smartest, like-minded people into my orbit and getting them to “drink the Kool-Aid,” as they say. The only reason Marchez Vous has been a success, so far, is because I have a great team around me. You have to surround yourself with the best people.
AC: In certain ways, your situation and that of a street vendor in Haiti couldn’t be more different, obviously. However, after having a lot of success in acting you went off to do some new things that you were untrained for. And that made me think of Haiti women who, with support from Fonkoze, have gone into a type of business, or business at all, that was unfamiliar ground for them, in order to address very basic needs they had. You had naysayers and many of them do, also.
YS: The scale is different, obviously. But the dream is the same. And the resistance from people on the outside looking in, is the same. I’m sure they’ve all heard, “This won’t work, you don’t know what you are doing. This will fail. You’ll go broke.” The laundry list of why Marchez Vous wouldn’t and shouldn’t work was very long! And yet, I looked all that in the eye and said, this isn’t about commerce, this is about my soul. The business fills a creative gap in my life. And while it’s not a basic needs, survival situation for me, like it is for many women in Haiti who start their own businesses, I think both ventures address something fundamental in us.
AC: When you think back to your times in Haiti during three visits, what stands out in your mind now?
YS: I saw so much of what I had never seen before. I’ve lived a very comfortable life, and I had never been to a Third World country before. When people ask me about microfinance and why I’m such a huge supporter, I think back to the first client meeting you and I went to, when I slipped and fell in the mud, and when we took a boat that was a hollowed-out log. Oh, my God, it was such a trek! But then you see those women, and you can see that you have given them … their lives back. And they say that they never thought they would have a chance like this. And you’re hooked for life.
When I came back from Haiti the first time, people asked me, “Did it make you feel guilty about what you have, because you have so much and they have so little?” And I said, no, it just makes me want to work harder, so I can do more.
But I admit, the elimination of poverty feels like an enormous task to me. I wonder if the women in Haiti would be surprised to know that someone in my position feels utterly powerless to actually change the world. And that I feel like what they’re doing, and what the Fonkoze staff are doing, seems so much more significant than anything I could ever contribute. But the puzzle has so many pieces, and hopefully if I contribute what I can, it will help them do what they need to do. And this creates a wonderful connectivity.
And maybe the Fonkoze borrower or staff member feels like they’re making only a small amount of progress and they’re discouraged that it’s “just a drop in the bucket.” But the bucket doesn’t get filled unless it holds onto every single drop. It all counts. So the message is, just keep doing it, keep doing your part in whatever way you can.
AC: A lot of the discussions in Fonkoze these days have been around “talent optimization,” getting everyone to pull in the same direction in the best way, in a chaotic environment like Haiti, though a start-up business is also chaotic. What lessons have you learned about getting the most out of your people, beyond what you said earlier?
YS: On my recent trip to Italy I realized that while I’m the one who writes the checks for this company, because I’m the founder and its leader, my responsibilities are much broader than that. There are things only I can do. So while I want to know what my team thinks, especially If we’re trying to solve a problem. In the end, I need to step up and make the final decision. Because my team wants a leader.
This means that when a mistake is made, it falls on me. It’s mine, and I don’t blame anyone else for it. It also means when there’s success, I acknowledge it, and include all the people who helped me get there.
AC: Clearly we live in a celebrity culture that credits the leader, the entrepreneur, and does not pay attention to the “intrapreneurs” who made so much possible.
AC: What I hear you saying is that the outside world may analyze success this way, but the team is looking to the leader to share the credit and glory not so much publicly, but rather within the walls of the organization. They want to know how you, as the leader, regard them and their role.
YS: Absolutely right. And it’s 1000% more fun that way! You don’t want to party alone, do you?!
AC: You have been doing speaking and writing about leadership. How did you find time for that?
YS: I started writing a blog, in part, because in business nowadays you have to have a social media presence. But my blog is about a variety of topics, not just leadership. The blog post specifically about leadership came out of someone asking me what it’s like to be the head of Marchez Vous. And it made me think about how, throughout my life, I’ve always been hyper-independent. So the notion that I’m now a leader with followers is very new to me. Anyway, Anne Hastings read the blog about leadership and really liked it.
The speaking engagements came about because it turns out that the “Screw it, let’s do it” story never gets old. People seem to like hearing about risk-taking and things like that. So I promised myself I would tell people all of it, not just the good parts of my experiences. Here’s where I screwed up, here’s how I learned the hard way. And also, here’s what worked out incredibly well that I didn’t anticipate! People seemed to appreciate my candor. It’s been great. I’ve always loved connecting with an audience. This is just another way that’s different from acting.
AC: Any other ideas you have been sharing about leadership?
YS: Maybe this… It’s very hard to make a fatal mistake. You can make mistakes that bring you to your knees, but unless you’re literally dead you have an opportunity to get back up. I had a situation like that a year ago where I had a falling out with a friend/business partner, and it was devastating. In order to get back on my feet, I had to keep telling myself that there was an opportunity hidden in the mess somewhere. And probably more than one. I was right. If nothing else, the situation taught me to ask for help. This isn’t something I do well or easily, so it was a great lesson and I’m so thankful I learned it.
AC: You’ve somehow learned to generate optimism, which happens to be one of the personality traits most associated with effective leadership.
YS: Oh! (Laughs) I guess so! It’s important to remember that it’s not all about me. I mean, I now have 10 people working for me! That means a great deal to me. I’m deeply honored that they all agreed to take this journey with me, despite the fact that I had no experience in shoe making when we started!
AC: Any final thoughts to convey to, say, a branch director for Fonkoze who is at the top of that branch’s pyramid, perhaps leading a team of ten people, facing many challenges every day, with hopes of growing as a leader over time.
YS: I have learned that if there’s an issue, or a problem, not to draw any conclusions until I have all the information. We sometimes think we know people, and we assume we know what the issue is– but we might be completely wrong. A genuine inquiry can bring a watershed of useful information.
The other thing I would say is, It’s OK to change your mind. I used to make a decision and think, that’s it! But it’s far more effective, and more fun, when you stay nimble. Staying nimble and curious will save your life!
Also, delegate. And I mean, truly delegate. Don’t “faux delegate” where assign someone responsibility and do it for them. Give your team a little more responsibility than they feel they can handle, and let them run with it and feel victorious. I’m a firm believer that that’s how you inspire them to grow.
AC: Any final thoughts to people who contribute financially to Fonkoze, even if not on the scale that you do?
YS: If you take the attitude that, “Well, I only have ten dollars and that’s not going to move the needle at all as far as poverty in Haiti is concerned” … Well, it brings us back to the “drop in the bucket” analogy. If you have ten dollars and two hours to give, that’s awesome. But then if you get your friend to do the same — now we’re twice as far along.
I don’t think it’s for the giver to judge how effective their gesture or action of giving will be. Let the organization worry about that, and if they need more, they’ll ask! You don’t need to worry about that. I think there’s an entire narrative that goes on inside our heads about philanthropy that’s utterly useless, and serves no one. So tell that voice to go off and have a conversation with someone else, while you go ahead and give whatever you can and fell the joy of that because that’s how we change the world.