Anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never tried to fall asleep with a mosquito in the room.
-Christine Todd Whitman, paraphrasing a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama
This book is about how ordinary people make extraordinary change. It's not about politicians or CEOs of large companies who are already bestowed with enormous power and responsibility. It's about how your teammates, your neighbors, and you yourself can mobilize the people around you to bring your visions to life. So how does that happen?
Five minutes after nineteen-year-old Manal Rostom switched seats with her cousin on a bus from Cairo to the Red Sea, the bus blew a tire and swerved into the desert, rolling over three times. Manal was okay, but her cousin, Mohammed, was instantly paralyzed. He died three weeks later. This shook Manal to her core. Her faith helped her cope with her grief and trauma, and though she had been only moderately religious before the accident, the experience strengthened her relationship to Islam. Two years later, although it wasnÕt necessarily expected by her family, Manal decided to wear the hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering. ÒIt was a way to say thank you to God,Ó she told me, Òfor giving me a second chance to live.Ó
Manal wore the hijab for the next fourteen years. While she faced some criticism from Westerners who were either unfamiliar with the hijab or believe it is oppressive to women, she generally felt accepted in Egypt and Kuwait. And then something changed. More and more women she knew stopped wearing the hijab, anti-hijab articles started appearing in the media, and in Dubai, where she lived, Muslim women in hijab faced criticism and were not allowed into some public spaces. Manal didn't judge others negatively for choosing not to wear the hijab, but she felt that for herself and many other women, wearing the hijab provided a sense of connection to their faith. "I had a moment of epiphany," she said. "If I was to give in and just follow the crowd, then how would anything change? I felt like a dead fish who was just going to 'go with the flow,' but then I decided I wanted to go against the current. I wasn't a dead fish."
In 2014, Manal started a community of women to support each other through a group on Facebook called "Surviving Hijab," a name she chose because that's what she felt she was trying to do. That night in April, she invited eighty women, mainly her friends and family, into the group. When she woke up, she found that the group already had five hundred members. Within months, the community had grown to more than forty thousand women who supported and encouraged one another to be proud of wearing the hijab. Today, just three years later, Surviving Hijab is nearing five hundred thousand women from around the world and clearly fills a need for hijabi women to have a supportive community. Manal's desire to take action has created a movement.
With so many supporters behind her, Manal knew that more was possible. In addition to her job at a pharmaceutical company and her role leading this community, Manal is also an athlete-an avid runner. She faces even more criticism as a hijabi athlete, with people constantly asking her things like, "Won't you be hot running in all those layers?" She is often the only hijabi runner in races she competes in, and has seen it as an opportunity to help reduce stereotypes of Muslim women. But she wanted to do more. On the recommendation of a friend, and with the support of all the women in Surviving Hijab behind her, Manal wrote a letter to Tom Woolf, the head coach for Nike in the Middle East, titled "Nike Middle East-Veiled Women Runners. :)" In it, she described her community of women and how she wanted to empower them to be active and do sports, even in the hijab. "The reason why I'm contacting you is because I have noticed that all pics featuring the Nike Club runners have no veiled women in them!" she wrote. "It's the Middle East, shouldn't we have some?" When she hit send, she was terrified.
But her terror was unjustified. Not only did Tom reply, he said, "Thank you for your email. Its timing is perfect and I have been having similar conversations with the Nike team here. How are you set to meet . . . at three p.m. tomorrow?" Of course, Manal agreed. And just two months later, in January 2015, Manal became the first hijabi woman featured in a Nike ad campaign. In March 2015, Nike invited Manal to become the first coach of an all-women's running club in Dubai. And finally, in March 2017, Manal was invited to Nike headquarters in Dubai for a big surprise-the company announcing Nike Pro Hijab-a line of athletic wear for hijabi women that would launch in early 2018. When she heard the news, Manal says she broke down in tears for every struggle that she'd read about on Surviving Hijab. "It was magical," she told me. "It was the first time that a multinational brand said they would cater to this segment of Muslim women. That swoosh gives us power."
Nike highlights on its website how Manal and other Muslim female athletes tested prototypes of the product for features like fit and breathability and also gave important cultural feedback, like the fact that it had to be completely opaque. And though Nike was not the first company to make a hijab for Muslim women athletes, having such a big brand behind her gave Manal an enormous sense of accomplishment. She felt that she and others in Nike Pro Hijab gear could be role models for young girls, who would now see that it's possible to both support your faith and achieve all that you want to do in the world. Manal learned that shared purpose can help a community overcome stereotypes and drive change.
Neil Grimmer still describes himself as a misfit and a punk rocker. Though he has held senior positions at IDEO and Clif Bar, his early life as an artist and as a musician in a punk band plays a huge role in informing who he is today. And when Neil became a dad, it was the misfit in him-the questioner of authority-who rebelled against the options available to parents to feed their children. There were no organic baby foods on the market, so Neil and his wife, Tana Johnson, cooked their own baby food. As two working parents with a toddler and a newborn, they were knee-deep in caring for their kids, often staying up late at night to cook baby food and pack healthy lunches for their older daughter in daycare. After ten oÕclock one night, while they were pureeing the Òvegetable du jour,Ó Neil thought, ÒThere has to be a better way. There must be a way for working parents to feed their kids healthy food, without having that trade-off between convenience and health.Ó He committed to find a solution that could fit into busy parentsÕ lives. With that inspiration, Neil used his creative and entrepreneurial spirit to create Plum Organics-a company built to help parents raise healthy kids with healthy food.
That purpose informed every aspect of the company-from product creation to team building and hiring to how they ran their weekly meetings-and helped them get through even difficult times. It wasn't always easy; Neil told me how he and his cofounder, Sheryl O'Loughlin, sometimes felt as if they were on an island surrounded by sharks. They had never started a company and were learning on the job. It felt as though there were many hazards, from which investors to work with to how to run manufacturing, and later to personal health issues that can arise from the stress of running a startup. They weren't sure whom they could trust. At the same time, the company's clear purpose to help families be healthier allowed them to build a close, intimate connection with everyone who worked at the company, the people on their island. Their faith and hard work paid off. Millions of parents bought Plum's food, catapulting Plum Organics to become the number one organic baby food company in the United States.
Plum sales grew to $80 million in six years and received enormous interest from strategic partners and private equity firms. After a key meeting with Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison, with whom Neil felt a strong connection, he and his board decided to sell Plum Organics to Campbell Soup in 2013. Campbell's delivered on its promises both to invest resources in Plum and to stay true to its mission: that same year, Campbell's allowed Plum to continue its conversion to a public benefit corporation (PBC), a type of legal incorporation for social enterprises that compels them to serve stakeholders as well as shareholders. At the time, Plum was the only wholly-owned subsidiary of a public company to legally become a PBC. Not only has Plum Organics continued to grow, but it also was at the forefront of an enormous trend driving gains in the organic baby food category. Due to the growing concern parents have about the safety of the foods their children eat, the organic prepared baby food segment is expected to account for nearly 76 percent of the total baby food market by 2020. As Neil saw, a sense of shared purpose can be incredibly powerful fuel to help a new idea catch fire.
Megan Grassell wasnÕt even a senior in high school in 2014 when she founded Yellowberry, a company that makes age-appropriate bras for tween and teen girls. On a frustrating shopping trip to look for a first bra for her thirteen-year-old sister, they spent hours going to different stores but couldnÕt find a single bra that wasnÕt highly sexualized, padded, or push-up. ThatÕs when Megan decided to make her own-even though she had no idea how to start a business or create an undergarment from scratch. She told me, ÒI had this epiphany: Why couldnÕt I make this product and create a brand to make this an empowering time that every girl goes through in her life?Ó
She became obsessed with the idea and jumped in right away, even though she wasn't familiar with all the details. Some things went well from the start and others didn't. She thought, "Okay, to make a bra, I guess you need fabric," so she shopped for material on the Internet, choosing fabrics by color and not realizing that she had chosen sailboat canvas material, which didn't make a great first prototype. She was ultimately able to find a seamstress to work with her to create several different prototypes and used the bulk of her savings to hire a manufacturer to make the first four hundred bras, which was all she could afford.
After creating that first set of bras, Megan realized she needed more funds to help get the company off the ground. So she did what thousands of cash-strapped entrepreneurs do: she launched a Kickstarter campaign. It got off to a slow start. For the first few months, she raised only about $200-especially embarrassing because her friends and classmates could track her Kickstarter online and see that she had raised less than 1 percent of her $25,000 goal. Instead of giving up, Megan started looking online for companies or people who might support her product. She sent cold e-mails explaining her mission and her story to about two hundred people, and although just one of them responded, it worked. A company called A Mighty Girl posted about Yellowberry on its website and Facebook page after receiving Megan's message. Less than twenty-four hours later, her Kickstarter campaign had raised $25,000. Getting these early influencers on board as supporters of her movement was critical to its success.
Ultimately, Megan raised over $40,000 in her Kickstarter campaign, and her first line of products-with style names like Bug Bite, Tiny Teton, and Tweetheart-sold out quickly. Her commitment goes beyond just business success; she put her college career on hold and even gave up dreams of competing in the Olympics (she was a nationally ranked competitive ski racer) to continue to fight against the sexualization of young girls. She had a clear sense of her vision from the beginning, wanting to be a brand that could develop alongside girls, supporting and inspiring them and letting them know it's okay to grow up at their own pace.
She called the company Yellowberry as a nod to how important it is to give girls time to develop-to have "yellow" stages before becoming a red berry. The vision for Megan's movement is to "support girls through each stage of their journey to become confident and extraordinary young women." And her movement is growing, as large retailers like Nordstrom carried Yellowberry bras, popular brands like Aerie partnered with Megan to spread Yellowberry's message, and sales grew all over the world. As Yellowberry expanded, Megan was widely applauded: she was featured in the 2014 lists for Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Teens and the Huffington Post's 14 Most Fearless Teens, and the 2016 list of Forbes's 30 Under 30.
Megan's customers love Yellowberry, and you can see their deep appreciation in messages they post to the company on Facebook, with comments like, "FANTASTIC bras for my girls. Just got our first order and we are thrilled. I'm thinking about hosting a trunk show to pass this wonderful product along to my friends," and pictures of girls enjoying wearing their Yellowberries (all taken from the back, which is the company's mission-aligned approach to taking photos of young girls in their bras, "standing behind them to support them as they take on the world"). This appreciation from her customers reaffirms her purpose and propels Megan; as she described in a Forbes interview in 2017, "One of my absolute favorite things is that we have a lot of people in our community who write incredibly heartfelt messages to us about their experience with Yellowberry and how their daughter feels now that she wears Yellowberry products. To this day, it's a really easy way for me to get teary. I respond personally to each and every one that I can, and I am forever grateful for not only their business but for their support in our mission." Megan realized that tapping into a community's shared purpose could help make her dream a reality.
The Leadership Thread
Why is it that Manal, Neil, and Megan succeeded when many other entrepreneurs and activists with equally noble goals failed? Is it because they were effective leaders with good ideas that came at the right time? Perhaps. But if you look closer, they all have one thing in common-what they did was start movements.
Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Dulski. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.