About this episode:
Rachel Faller, an artist and entrepreneur, grew up with firsthand knowledge of how much time and effort goes into making things, clothes especially. Though she didn’t set out to helm a business, her relentless dedication to community, inclusivity, reciprocity and zero waste sets her company, tonlé, apart in the fair trade fashion space.
About our guest:
Rachel Faller is an entrepreneur by trade and a creative at heart. She dedicates most of her time to rectifying harm within the garment industry using a systemic approach- encouraging people to think about the root of systemic injustice and tackling these issues at their core rather than simply treating the symptoms. Rachel is a co-creator of tonlé – a zero waste, ethical and sustainable fashion line that is both a brand and a manufacturer.
Where to find Rachel Faller online:
Other Resources Mentioned:
Become a Supporter:
If you like what you hear, please consider making a donation on our Patreon site!
Kristen Cerelli 0:05
On this episode of shift shift gloom,
Rachel Faller 0:08
I started making clothes when I was in third grade. My grandmother actually taught me how to sew. I think my grandmother's generation, a lot of my grandmother's generation made clothes for themselves and further kids because they had to. And I just did it because I enjoyed it. Right. I started knitting, I started crocheting, but in through doing that, I had a sense of like, garments are hard to make.
Kristen Cerelli 0:33
Today I'm talking with Rachel Fowler, co founder of tone lay, an ethical Zero Waste fashion and textiles company, based in Cambodia. I'm Kristen Cerelli. And you're listening to shift shift bloom, a podcast about how people change. shift shift Bloom
Tim Fall 0:57
is new podcast, and for now a small podcast. And we're thankful that you found us. In addition to the fascinating interviews in our regular episodes, we thought you might like to know about our bonus episodes, featuring host Kristen Cerelli and Dr. John Lyons in conversation about each guests journey. If you already know John Lyons, then you know that his insight his curiosity, his humor, shed a new light on almost any subject. If you haven't met John, well, you're in for a treat. Bonus episodes are available to our Patreon supporters for as little as $3 a month. At higher levels. Patreon subscribers receive merchandise offers and other ways to interact with C coms first podcast, including the opportunity for you or your company to be thanked at the end of every episode, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org forward slash shift shift
Kristen Cerelli 1:56
Rachel Fowler is a maker, artist and entrepreneur whose contemporary clothing designs are sustainably made from garment factory remnants. She grew up in the Boston area and studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Soon after graduating, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to research artists in groups in Cambodia. In our conversation, Rachel told me that even as a teenager, she had developed an awareness that the fashion industry wasn't playing fair.
Rachel Faller 2:25
And I would go to stores you know, I remember like in high school, I Abercrombie was very trendy. And I did not really like Abercrombie, but I felt pressured to kind of go there and shop there because of my friends. So I would go in there and I'm like looking at these clothes. And already at that time, like I remember seeing a skirt for $25 or $30. And I was like, There's no way that somebody could be paid a fair wage to make this. Yes. And I had that sense, because I knew what it took to make a piece of clothing like that. And I remember thinking that and then again, that kind of coupled with these, like being around these sweatshop protests is like, I know something's wrong, but I can't quite I don't quite know what it is. But it made me really think like, I don't want to go into fashion because I know that industry is really toxic.
Kristen Cerelli 3:13
So as a teenager, you're so enraged by these unsustainable practices in the fashion industry, that you are marching in the streets against them. Take me back to these sweatshop protest days and tell me more.
Rachel Faller 3:26
So So middle school, high school, that was like the late 90s. I don't know if you remember. But it was like all about like the sweatshop protests against Nike and against KKR. And it was like I was kind of growing up around that. I mean, I was in like a very socially engaged demographic of young people. I had a lot of like, we I went to protests, I was going to punk rock shows making my own clothes, like all involved in like the kind of DIY movement. You know, I was politically active. My first year of high school was 911. So as you can imagine, that's like a very, that was a very formative time for me to a lot of anti war protests against both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And so all of that led me into kind of like a very global like mindset. So I had this idea that like, oh, there's people overseas making clothes and it's unfair, and there's sweatshops and it's bad and,
Kristen Cerelli 4:24
and I'm guessing that you decide right then and there that you do not want to have any part of the fashion industry. You want to do something else with your life.
Rachel Faller 4:33
Funny enough, like I was scattered to be a model when I was in like, I don't know what I was, like, 14 or so as well. Uh huh. And I went into this modeling agency for a little while. And I was like, this is going to it was very toxic and just the way that they treated women and the way they talked about girls bodies and the things that they wanted me to do. They gave us this book that was Like, these are all the things that you need to do, and it was so atrocious. Do you remember some of them? It was things about like, I mean, it was all about like weight and
Kristen Cerelli 5:11
look, okay, what what you should be eating and what you shouldn't how much? You know, yes, that kind of stuff
Rachel Faller 5:15
like that it's like, and even just think like they made you sign a contract that was like you will not cut your hair, you will not dye your hair, you will not get to 10 you will not get to like, without our permission, you cannot get a tattoo, you cannot pierce your ears you cannot you know all these things and just even being told, like what I couldn't couldn't do with my body. I was like, No, that's not cool. I was just like, this is going to turn me into a person that I don't want to be. That's pretty mature. Uh, yeah, I don't know, I was, I think I was really lucky. Like, I don't know why. And I think I was really grateful to have some good role models. But you know, I think just getting a peek into like how the fashion industry also treated women from that side in terms of like the way that products are marketed to especially young women, all kinds of women, I think, and the fact that the advertising industry is very much and the fashion industry is still very much largely driven by men. Yet the majority of the consumers are women that are spending more money and basically being told, like you have to behave this way to get a man to like you. And you have to buy this thing to get a man to be attracted to you, which is the fundamentally the like, you know, the underlying message of fashion really, I think I did not like that.
Kristen Cerelli 6:32
So Rachel turns her back on fashion, and goes to art school to study painting. Guess what she finds out? It too is hyper dominated by ego. And in her own words,
Rachel Faller 6:44
kind of I idealizing, the sort of soul lone male, the
Kristen Cerelli 6:48
idealization of the lone male genius in his studio. So if the whole thing is such a crazy testosterone trap, why do you stay in art school? And why do you study textiles,
Rachel Faller 6:58
the reality is that we all wear clothes. And it actually is a very much a part of our lives, in our identities, and our culture, in our history. And I mean, Tex, what, what kind of ended up drawing me back to textiles was that textiles are like, they are important, we can't just say like, we can't just ignore it, we can just be like, I'm not going to participate. That was my first reaction, I'm not going to participate. But the thing is, like we all are participating, because I was drawn to this story of how textiles are connected to all these parts of our lives, and how they represent every single culture in the worlds has textiles as an art form. And, you know, they are both functional and are an art, right? They are both, you know, integral to our lives, but also a way that we express ourselves that way that we express value. And in a lot of cultures, textiles are made by women. Oftentimes, they represent a community value rather than an individual value. I think textiles are so much more interesting, because they do represent history of culture and tradition and tradition mixed with kind of individual values and visions. And so there's this ebb and flow of kind of the community and the, you know, values of a community versus the individual, right, because I think in modern fashion, it's like, there's this merging of like, I want to be individual, but I also want to be the same. So, you know, it's, that's a interesting reflection of textile history.
Kristen Cerelli 8:35
Walk me through how a collegiate interest in learning about textiles as a community art form, plants, the seed for a sustainable fashion business based in Cambodia.
Rachel Faller 8:46able to travel to Cambodia in: Kristen Cerelli:
Did that question emerge through your, through your time there and your research? Or did you kind of go in with that question?Rachel Faller:
I think I went in with a pretty open mind in terms of just one like wanting to see, you know, my, my initial question of the research was really can Fairtrade be a vehicle to give people you know, decent and safe jobs, okay, and help create a more sustainable economy.Kristen Cerelli:
And here's where I no pun intended step on a landmine. Because I asked Rachel to define a fair trade for me. And she goes on to give me the entire history of fashion and colonialism and sexism and unfair labor practices. It's an education. But it's too long for this episode. So I'm going to bullet point it for you now. Bullet point one, we're going back to the 1800s. And the European imperial powers who are basically stealing natural resources from the countries they were colonizing bullet point two, they take these resources, and not just the resources, but the designs, and they bring them back to their home country, and they create very successful products in fashion. This translates to very successful clothing, couture houses, who made names for themselves on the backs of designs and materials that are not their own bullet point three, let's go to the Industrial Revolution, when two things happen. One, there's more demand for products close in this case. And two, there's more ease in importing and distributing. Okay, and two, there's more ease in importing and distributing these products. The problem is these quote unquote, newly independent countries are still steeped in the structures of colonialism, so they're not reaping any of the benefits. The powers that be are still reaping all of the economic benefits. Bullet point number four, fast forward a century and we still see powerful multinational corporations, primarily European and American abusing their power through exploitative economic practices, Visa V developing countries.Unknown Speaker:
Wow, that was really good. Look, you fit it in like the old family had a lotKristen Cerelli:
to say. So is it fair to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that these corporations and countries are just pulling a geographical, like just taking something that we no longer do in this country? Because it's not okay. And going and doing it somewhere else,Rachel Faller:
though. We don't permit slavery here in America anymore. We certainly allow American corporations to go overseas and participate in Yes. And I think that and to profit from it, and I think that it is really the same people who are in power who are still making the money from these exploitative practices, they've just moved to them abroad. And so I think there is a tendency to point the finger at other countries that have been historically exploited, and say, you know, you're exploiting your workers, and those bad factory managers over there are doing this and that bad thing. And the brands can kind of claim that they don't have responsibility, because it's not under their wheelhouse, you know, the brands don't own these factories, right? They're just commissioning them to make these products. And that is intentionally designed that way, right? So that the brands don't have to have responsibility for the problems that are happening. But the brands are the ones that are driving the relationships with the manufacturers and the suppliers. And incentivizing them to behave badly by not giving them fair prices by not giving them fair lead times by not paying upfront by not having good terms, and by honestly, turning a blind eye. So I think outsourcing is more than just, oh, there's cheap labor over there. It's actually about the fact that it's the whole dynamic. I'll give you a really potent example of this. So Cambodia, in the last decade, Cambodia has had one of the lowest minimum wages in Asia. And so American corporations have, you know, essentially leveraged that to produce products very cheaply. Now, the Cambodian government gets a lot of pressure internally, from activists within Cambodia to raise the minimum wage. However, government officials in Cambodia know, if we raise the minimum wage, these companies will go elsewhere. Yeah. So how do you how does a country like Cambodia say, Yeah, we're gonna raise our minimum wage when they no permit work is the most critical work for people within Cambodia, it is by percentage is the highest percentage of their GDP? And so how can they say no, right, their hands are tied. And these companies in America know that they know they have the power, right. And they're taking advantage of that. So I, you know, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I think for a long time, American and European corporations have continued to wield this power that they have, while at the same time pretending that they're the good guys that they're the ones that they're not doing anything wrong, because they're not actually operating these so called, quote, unquote, sweatshops. So So outsourcing is not just oh, I want cheaper prices I want, it's also being able to take advantage of horrible situations that they oftentimes created. So you know, the US waged a war in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia, and absolutely decimated that country, and then has the nerve to turn around and say, hey, now we're going to come in and be the good guys. And we're going to provide you jobs. And we're going to bring these garment factories here, and yet not take any responsibility for the fact that we were potentially the cause of a lot of this poverty in the first place. And that's why I think it's so important to go back, you know, and look at this history of colonialism. Look at this history of enslavement, you know, and who participated in that and who is currently benefiting from it.Kristen Cerelli:
So it sounds like you're saying Fair Trade doesn't really exist. A lotRachel Faller:
of Fairtrade businesses operate out of a principle of like, we're going to give you jobs, we're going to give you fair wages, we're going to provide you x, we're going to help you in this way, we're going to save you from this, but that we're recognizing that maybe I actually contributed to the problems that are existing in this community. Maybe I actually participated in the exploitation of these people. So then to come in and say, hey, now I'm going to be your Savior is very disingenuous. Also recognizing that when I'm buying a Fairtrade product, I'm actually very lucky and privileged to be able to buy that product to get a supply chain created in order for me to be able to buy a Fairtrade bar of chocolate where the person was actually compensated fairly, was no small feat. And it's very rare in our global society to be able to buy products that are truly made ethically, and I mean, I think they're very few and far between. And I think without radical upheaval of these systems, I don't think anything can really be made truly equitably because we are operating within very inequitable frameworks. If I'm buying something, if I'm buying a bar of Fairtrade chocolate, it's because I want that chocolate. And I'm lucky to be able to buy that chocolate, frankly. So recognizing that somebody put like their time and their labor and their knowledge and their values in into that bar of chocolate, so that I could have a bar of chocolate. I mean, that's a gift right? And so yes, I should pay a fair price for that because not because I'm helping that artists and I'm hoping that maker because I should pay a fair price for that, right. Like to receive the privilege of being able to eat that chocolate,Kristen Cerelli:
but what's a fair price and who determines what that is?Rachel Faller:
I see this a lot with people who are going to start Fairtrade businesses. And they might say, they might go to an artisan group and say, what is the fair price for this item? And artists group says $5, let's say, and the person is like, Okay, this must be the fair price because the artists and told me, it's the fair price. And I've literally heard a lot of people say that, like, this is the fair price, because that's with artists, I'm paying the price of the artist and told me to bake. Well, again, why did that person give you that price? Did they give you that price? Because they wanted to give you the best price? Because they don't want you to go somewhere else? Do they really need that income? Are they outsourcing their products to somebody else? That's what that's something I see a lot to where it's like, you go into the markets in Cambodia. And in the majority of the stalls, those are the makers who are making the craft. So they're saying, oh, yeah, this is the price, but it's like, how much did the maker actually make? How much did you know? And I think that if you take what people say at face value, you're not necessarily analyzing the underlying power dynamics.Kristen Cerelli:
So these people who hope to start businesses in developing countries, are they not asking the right questions? Are they not asking questions at all? It's not just that people aren'tRachel Faller:
asking questions, I think that you have to think about the person you're asking questions of like, in my case, it was the the artisans I was I was meeting and working with because I didn't have because I didn't have a specific agenda. I could ask people questions and get a better response. But at the end of the day, they have their own agenda. And they have their own needs, and they have their own wants, and they have their own cultural biases. So even if I ask the questions, what is the power dynamic? And am I going to get an accurate response?Kristen Cerelli:
So wait, let's go back for a second. Can you clarify what these agendas are on both ends?Rachel Faller:
I think you know, when I'm first moved to Cambodia, so after a year of research, during that time, I was one of the groups I was working with was this nonprofit hospital who had been in introduced through through these family friends. And they had basically come to me and said, Hey, we want to help start a business for this group of people who are part of our clinic, who have ongoing challenges that make it difficult for them to be in the workforce. So I was essentially originally starting with working with them to help them start a business, okay? And that was the original goal, like how am I going to, you know, help them get this business up and running, and it was going to be designed as a cooperative model. And then within one year, I'm going to leave and I'm going to go back to the US, okay, you know, as designing products with them, and also teaching them how to sew and do all these other things. And through the course of that time, it became very clear that, you know, my original mindset, and I think that this was also the time when like micro finance was really hot, Muhammad Yunus and all that stuff. And it's like, just give people a sewing machine, and they can start a business and sell products. And I just think it just became very obvious that there were a lot more barriers, and there were a lot more and again, going back to like, kind of what I said, the beginning where it's like, people were really starting from, like, I think, because of this history of extraction. And again, just war and genocide, that everything that had happened that coming out of that is really hard, like just even doing, like, even just holding, if you've gone through, like I think every single person in Cambodia, who was, you know, within the generation that had experienced the war in the genocide would have had multiple members of family killed. Sure. And just the collective trauma. And just like even even dealing with the collective trauma, and being able to hold a job and being able to provide for your family would be really hard, let alone like starting a business, or becoming an international like being able to start a business that competes with the international fashion Mark too much. Yes. You know, like, the idea that you could just, all you need is a sewing machine and you can set up a business is like a bit absurd, right? But I digress. So I realized I'm like, maybe I'm being a little unrealistic. And what I think that, again, like, am I being that person that comes in and says, This is what you need. And all you need to do is set up a sewing business. I don't think I was quite doing that. Because it was people at the clinic who were, you know, saying, Hey, this is what we want. But I think at the end of the day, I started having a lot of conversations with the the women in that in that group. And I said, Do you really want to run a business, like if you really want to run a business, like here's what it's going to take? And at the end of the day, all of that were like, you know, honestly, what all I really want to do is have like a stable job and be able to provide for my family. And so I said okay, like I made assumptions, and those were not the right assumptions. And so they they basically all were like, can you stay here and we can run this business together. And I was like, Oh, that wasn't really my plan. But Okay, interesting, but I'm loving this. I'm, I'm like feeling like, I found like new passions here. And I think I told you before that I had planned to actually go back to the US and finish I was I started a master's degree program. Okay, while I was an undergrad I did one year of the program, it was for art education, okay. And then I was going to complete the second year when I got back, okay. And so I said, Okay, I'm not going to do that I'm going to stay in Cambodia to work on this business. And I went back to the US for a month, I basically just raised a bunch of money. And I went back to Cambodia and continued to work on this business and we actually opened a store that was like our first income stream was that basically just have a store in Cambodia on on in Phnom Penh on one of the kind of like tourist areas. And we started selling products to like tourists and locals. And that was really like the first iteration of the business. And we then opened a store in Siem Reap, which is kind of, you know, was a tourist hub as well. And then, yeah, I kind of grew from there.Kristen Cerelli:
Something I realized prior to this interview was that I love the etymology of words. And I was really surprised that I had not looked up the word change, having taken this podcast on it, so I looked it up. And it's actually from the Latin camp era. And it means to barter. You know, it comes from this, this route of bartering or exchanging and also has a Celtic origin, to bend and to crook, like to bend with a sense of evolution. So I asked her, How does that sit with you in terms of the environment you're trying to create in your own company? What do you feel like, you barter or you exchange or you bend with a sense of evolution as as a business leader?Rachel Faller:
It's interesting, it reminds me of the word reciprocity, which was something I was introduced to a concept I was really introduced to through Robin Kimmel's work, she wrote braiding sweetgrass, which is a book about indigenous plants, and wisdom and what we can learn from plants. And she talks a lot about this concept of reciprocity, which is everything is an exchange. And the way that I've kind of applied that idea to my business, is that everything should be an equal exchange, if we want to create true modes of equity, true pathways to equity, we need to think about every interaction that we have with people, and how it is really about exchange, it's not about me giving you something or you taking something from me, or me taking something from you. If I want to have equitable relationships with people, I need to recognize that when I'm giving something, I'm also receiving something. And if I'm receiving something and I'm not giving anything, then that doesn't feel equal. If I'm if I'm giving something and I'm not receiving anything back, that doesn't really feel equal either. And it can lead to these kind of Savior dynamics that we see a lot in the kind of ethical fashion space and Fairtrade space. And I think that, again, comes from a legacy of colonialism, right? Where it was like you had colonists going and going to these other countries and taking things but actually saying, Hey, we're helping you by Helping you modernize or helping you believe the right things or, you know, practice the right social norms. We're helping you but actually, you know, it was a relationship of takingKristen Cerelli:
the Savior dynamics are so deeply entrenched in our culture as Americans and in our relationships with each other that I couldn't help but wonder if Rachel had to confront that in herself, as she was starting her business.Rachel Faller:
Guys still had this idea of fair trade and sustainable fashion, and I still kind of definitely treated it like, I'm helping people. And this is meaningful to me. And I'm kind of like, I definitely had like a murder complex. Tell me more, let's say I was I was not taking very good care of myself, because I was seeing a lot of suffering around me and, and I was seeing a lot of people struggle around me and because of that, and not just not just like within our team, but also like, in general in Cambodia, like if we want to, there is a lot of suffering. And there's a lot of people who are really struggling with extreme poverty, with trauma with all kinds of stuff. So I think when I was seeing a lot of people around me who were going through really hard things, I didn't feel like I could have like, things that I needed to take care of myself because I was like, I need to like, give that money to other people. Like I could get a gym membership or I could pay like somebody furred entire month or like things like that, or I could go to this yoga class or I could like pay for somebody dinner. At one point I was underweight. I was also like living in the back of the store with like three plays who didn't have homes? Yeah. And so I think I grew up in a very Christian context. And I think that kind of like the Savior martyr complex, especially for women, and femmes I think is really, like simultaneously, you're supposed to sacrifice yourself and give everything to everyone else and put yourself last priority. And I, although at that time, when I was living in Cambodia, I was kind of distancing myself from the church. I also was still had that mindset,Kristen Cerelli:
it sounds to me from the outside, almost like, you had another baptism, like you went down this dark sort of road, and you had to see the worst of it in order to kind of like, come out on the other side and get healthy and be productive and figure out that you could be in a reciprocity state with these people, and it could be a win win. So how do you go from living in the back of a store and eating rice and vegetables? And, you know, that state of mind that you're into to the other side, how do you get to the other side,Rachel Faller:
I'm giving you some of the highlights, but I saw some really, really horrible things. Like To be honest, I saw some really traumatic things while I was in Cambodia. And I think, because I wasn't allowing myself to recognize that I wasn't okay. I was just going and going and going and feeling like Well, other people have it worse than me, which they did. You know, no doubt. But I wasn't recognizing, like, you know, is this the thing about trauma. And the thing about suffering is that, you know, from the outside, it can look like, well, this person has definitively gone through this much trauma, and this person has gone through this much trauma, yes, but we aren't affected in the same way. And when people have undergone extreme trauma, versus things that might not appear to be as traumatic, we still feel it equally, and it can still affect our nervous systems equally. And I think, having come out of when I was growing up that I actually did experience religious trauma. And religious religious trauma is not on the surface. It does not appear to be as bad. But it's very psychological. And it can really like mess with your, your mind. So in the last couple years, I've actually been seeing a therapist, and the therapist was basically telling me like, you have symptoms of PTSD. And I was like, I don't understand, like, where that could come from. And she's like, well, she's just like, you have basically complex trauma from childhood. And I was like, Well, I don't think I was like, literally abused as a child. And she was like, Okay, but what about like this, this and this thing that, you know, you've told me and I was like, Oh, yeah. And then, as I started thinking about it, it was like, there was actually memories from my childhood that I had repressed Wow. And a big part of it was kind of purity culture, and being told, like, as a young girl, you're responsible, like, if any, if a man like abuses you, or a man like treats you badly, that's basically your fault, because you tempted them into sin. And I did experience some sexual abuse, and I buried it, because I thought it was my fault. And kind of like learning that growing up in a context that essentially allowed that and allowed like young girls and women to be abused and not be able to speak up for themselves. At this point, I'm really angry. But I also recognize that, you know, because of that, like my body, like went into hyper vigilance, and was constantly like, hyper aware of all the danger and risk around me, because in the church, you know, in this kind of conservative, dogmatic church context, you're told, like, you're safe, but you know, like, your body knows that you're not safe. And you're told that you're supposed to feel safe. But then everything inside of you is like, run, you know? So it creates this like cognitive dissonance. Sure. And then when I went to Cambodia, because I didn't understand, like, why my nervous system was behaving that way and I didn't think that I had experienced real trauma. I almost like expose myself to it intentionally because I was like, everybody is, you know, around me is like suffering more than me, but somehow I am. I feel like I'm suffering but I don't know why. I almost had to justify it.
By like, running after, like these difficult situations and trying to like help save people who had also gone through like difficult things. And I think that was somewhat of a response to like me not feeling safe as a child and me not feeling safe as a young woman, that I wanted to create safe spaces for other people. But you have to recognize at a certain point, like it isn't your job to save everything. One and also recognizing that this savior complex or this martyr complex is not really healthy for anybody. And you can't really truly help any. I mean, everybody says it's cliche, but you can't help anybody until you help yourself. And this is where like, I think, for me running a business, even though, like, I think that I was practicing, like, some modes of reciprocity, and I was trying to create non hierarchical structures, and I was trying to create more equity in my business, because I fundamentally still felt like I needed to save people, I was still embodying that Savior mindset. And by not, not prioritizing myself, I was, in a way, like making myself more important, because I had to be the one to save everybody. And so I can only identify that it was really unhealthy now, because I recognize that, like, I just wore down my nervous system to a point where I couldn't recognize what was safe, and what was it because I wasn't making that a priority. Basically hitting like, a really unhealthy point and recognizing that, like I physically and mentally and spiritually cannot run my business, and be healthy unless I actually deal with this stuff. And unless I design this business model in a way that actually can support me too, because like, and financially, like I wasn't paying myself enough, I still don't pay myself enough. So I think just actually getting to a point where like, my body and my nervous system was so shut down, that I couldn't function. That's what it really took for me to realize, like, I actually can't run this business, physically and mentally, unless I'm taking care of myself. So I have if I'm talking about fair wages for everybody, if I'm talking about, you know, equity, if I'm talking about creating a safe and positive work environment, it also has to be a safe and positive work environment for me.Kristen Cerelli:
Yes, you're you're part of everybody. You're not separate from everybody.Rachel Faller:
Yes, yes. And that led to actually structures that were more equitable, it actually led to our business being more successful, because I could think more clearly about what was going to be good for everybody, right? So I was like, I'm gonna give it one more shot. And then the year after that, lo and behold, the business actually doubled. Because having that mindset, and just being like, we have to design a business model that works for everyone really led to, like growth, and happiness and productivity, and you know, all these things. So, you know, I think that's a good lesson, it was a good lesson for me. And I would say like, since then, like, we just keep getting, improving that. And, you know, I'm not saying it's been perfect, and there's definitely been highs and lows since then I have to kind of had to keep learning that lesson, again, and again. But I think that since then, I've been able to have better boundaries and take better care of myself. And also just I think that's allowed people at tonight to also have the freedom to feel like they can take care of themselves, like they don't have to be a martyr, either. Their job doesn't have to be their whole life. They don't need to feel guilty, if they need to leave and do something else, you know, like, and I think that's led to people being more happy. It's It's definitely been a journey. But I would say that's the biggest change I've experienced in my life. And in my business.Kristen Cerelli:
That's incredible. Once you had that, let's say rock bottom moment or realization that you had to change and you had to take care of yourself in order for you to be a source of care for others and to run a successful business. What was the first thing you started to do?Rachel Faller:
Well, that was the year that I left Cambodia. And I think that part of it was because I was I had been in Cambodia for seven years. And a part of, like, part of it was that just being in Cambodia was making it hard for me to focus on what I really needed to do to make my business work. Yeah. So it was like, you know, I would get pulled off to do like, all these other things that weren't necessarily related directly to like making our business successful. And at the end of the day, like, what my team needed for me was to make the business successful so they could get better jobs and better salaries and all that and I'm like, so I'll give you like another really heartbreaking example we had during that year. So we had an employee who I was very close to who had experienced severe trauma as a child, she needed a lot of help and more help than I could give her. And I had tried to get her support and nothing had really worked out. And there were a couple times when she ended up living with me where I was like financially supporting her beyond like her salary, and she was only like three years younger than me. At the time, you know, when I met her, she was 18. And I was 21. And for a while, so from, I kept trying to fix it and trying to help her and give her all these opportunities, and it was bringing a lot of stress on me. And it was also taking me away from all the other people that tell me who I needed to focus on, right. And then just recognizing like, I'm not your mom, I'm not your parent, I'm not even I'm not your therapist, or your social worker, I'm actually your employer. And as much as I cared about her, I had to recognize that, like, if I'm making these exceptions for her, and I'm enabling her and like, allowing her to depend on me for all these things that she needs to get from someone else, it's not creating a healthy balance in the workplace or for me, or for other employees, and recognizing that like, that would potentially be something that actually hurt other people. So and a really good example of that is, so she would bring abusive people into her life. And at one point, she brought people into the workshop who were abusive, basically, her mother, who was abusive to her, and in a very extreme way, she decided to try to have a relationship with her mother, and the mother verbally abused people in the workshop while she was there. And so I'm like, Okay, I recognize everything you've been through, and I recognize, like, the behaviors that you're exhibiting that are a direct result of your trauma. But now, this is affecting other people. So I had to, like, let her go, basically, you know, at some point, like, if I'm saying, like, it's okay for you, but not for other people. That's not really fair to my other like, employees and other team members. But that was really, really hard, you know, because it's like, it is not my job to, unfortunately, fix you. Nor can I fix you like I am not capable, I do not have the training or expertise. What I am directly responsible for is to create a safe working environment. And I am directly responsible to make sure everybody gets paid, and make sure everybody can get their jobs done. And they can get paid and they can support their families. I cannot just like go and do all these things, because I'm like a not capable of it. And be I'm not going to be effective.Kristen Cerelli:
I want to ask you, because when we talked last week, you said something that really hit me, you said you didn't think that there was much difference in your point of view, in being an artist versus being an entrepreneur. And when I say it hit me, I don't know what I even mean by that. I think it just it got me in my heart and in my head, because coming from acting, being an actor, I don't think anyone ever really told me, I would have to be a business person, or I would have to be entrepreneurial. And when I really started to realize that myself, I got very angry because I felt like, I do not have this skill set. I do not know how to develop it. And it didn't feel natural to me. So I'm fascinated by your feeling that for you, there wasn't much of a difference between your art, your identity as a maker and a creator and a sower and a designer, and being a businesswoman. So can you kind of unpack that for me a little bit?Rachel Faller:
Yeah, I mean, I think from a young age, I was always both artistic and entrepreneurial. And I think when you're an artist, you really have to think outside of the box. Like I think one of the things I'm really grateful for and having an art education and going art school. The thing about artists, there's really no rules. It's not about what you can or can't do. It's about what you should or shouldn't do, and what is beneficial versus what is not beneficial. You know, there's no right and wrong. It's up to each of us with with an art is a framework for each of us to decide what we want, and what we don't want and what we think is good and what we don't think is good, rather than a societal structure of what is right and wrong. Art and studying art creates pathways for new thinking and creative thinking and problem solving. That is, it's not about finding the right answer. It's about finding a new solution. And a new way of doing things that is good for you or for other people. And entrepreneurship is kind of a similar way of thinking where it's like not just about finding the right answer, but about finding a new solution to an old problem that people haven't been able to solve yet. And so I think that, you know, yeah, that is kind of why I think they're very they take very similar mindsets.Kristen Cerelli:
What would you say to a young woman who wants to start a business? Who, knowing we all knowing we all whether we grew up in purity culture or not, that we were American, we grew up with this patriarchal, Christian, you know, the way our country was founded, and we all have these things we've internalized? How could someone sort of avoid the path that you had to go down to get all this information, if that's even possible?Rachel Faller:
I mean, I think that, you know, we haven't even really talked about this. But after I moved back to the states, so I had been running a business right with all women, primarily women. And we had a couple men, but they would be, you know, really special and unique kinds of men could work in this environment. And I never, I didn't experience a lot of sexism in Cambodia, I think partially also, because again, I like my white privilege kind of trumped my lack of privilege in Cambodia as a woman, and so like, like Cambodian men, for example, like they sort of deferred to my whiteness. So I didn't experience a lot of sexism. The only times I did experience it was with white men in the business community in Cambodia. And that was very triggering, but it didn't prepare me for what it would be like to move back to the states and be in a business community in the States. And when I first got back to the States, I actually joined a, I joined a an accelerator program. And I know that in this was an impact. This is an impact driven accelerator. I know they were doing their best to form like a diverse cohort and all that, but it was majority men, and there were more white men. And on top of that, the majority of the mentor mentors were white men. And then it turned out that somebody they paired me with as a mentor had actually sexually harassed me in the past. Which is pretty hard to imagine, considering I had lived in Cambodia for the previous seven years. So it had it had happened at a conference that I had been to a few years prior. And I just said, I can't have this person, as my mentor, I just said, Please, like, take them off my mentor roster list, I can't interact with this person, which they did. And they didn't have any questions. Okay. Then it turned out that another one of the mentors in the program, my colleague, who is at the program with me, also told me that another one of the mentors had sexually harassed her. And I'm just like, in this tiny community, like, how is it that both me and my colleague have experienced sexual harassment from somebody in this community already, and at that time, like, I experienced having a panic attack while I was trying to give a pitch. And again, at the time, this has gone through a lot of therapy, and you know, tried to, like, unpack these things. But I was told that, oh, you're just having nerves, you just have to practice again and again, and I remember, like, I was on stage trying to give this pitch to this group of people who were all like, lovely people, I don't have anything against any of them. But I'm like, why is my body going into what I can now identify as this sense of hyper vigilance. And it was because you know, now I can look back and be like, oh, is because of the patriarchal context I grew up in and that white, like most of the leaders in the church, I grew up in who I experienced some abuse from where white men like, this is not surprising.
So first of all, like I would find myself getting really triggered, and really, like, really anxious to a point of like, bordering on panic attack, but having those like physical sensations in my body of trauma that we're like to run, you need to get out of this situation. But then, when you're trying to raise money, and you're trying to build your business, you can't run, you have to stay there. So it's like, what are you supposed to do? What are women supposed to do with that, and I think I've talked to the group, you know, the folks from this group since then, and they've been really responsive to the feedback. But I'm like, You have to understand that most women who are coming into these context have experienced some form of harassment or abuse. And it's going to be harder for them to just even give a pitch. Not to mention that the in the majority of investors being white men have biases as well. And they think that women are bad at math, and aren't going to be as good as running a business in like, that is just there are statistics out there, right? Like these are the biases they have. So you're up against this double barrier. One, it's like your own body and your own, like experiences are basically telling you like get out of this unsafe space as fast as you can, but you're trying to stay so you can kind of wiggle your way through it, so that you can like make your business successful. And at the same time, you're being subjected to this extra layer of judgment because the man is like, clearly she doesn't know what she's talking about because she's having a panic attack. Like they don't know that you're having a panic attack. They just think you don't know what you're doing. And then you know, every woman we have, like, you know so much imposter syndrome. so much. I have a friend who has said that imposter syndrome is just a symptom of oppression. You know, it's not, it's not imposter syndrome, it's actually a normal reaction to being subjected to oppression, right? So blaming women, they Oh, they just have imposter syndrome, they just need to build their confidence, like, well, that's kind of victim blaming, right? It's like basically saying, like that woman who is having a very normal reaction to the oppression or the trauma that she has experienced, is the problem, all she has to do is learn to be more confident. So I think we're really still up against a lot of barriers. And honestly, I was totally unprepared for that I moved to the Bay Area. And I was like, oh, it's such a liberal place. And as soon as I started pitching to investors, and started to have meetings with people, I found myself experiencing sexism, like experiencing the offhand comments experiencing the like, you know, the microaggressions, the assumptions about my capabilities, the underhanded comments being at, you know, a mentoring or a networking event, and not really knowing if somebody's hitting on you, or if they want to, actually, if they're actually interested in your business, you know, all these things, and it makes you either want to be like, let me just get out of this completely, or you miss out on opportunities, you know, and, and so it's this no win situation, right? And I think I would like to see that responsibility put back on men, rather than on women. Like you just have to push your way through it. Like no, like, the men are the ones who created this problem. They need to be the ones to step up and be like, well, if it takes extra work, to listen to women, if it takes extra work to get them to be to trust me to be feel comfortable, like I'm need to be the one that's willing to do that work.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you have hope that that's a possibility?Rachel Faller:
Not right now really? Like? I mean, I guess what I'm kind of hoping is that, you know, I have a lot of friends who work in the investment and tech communities, and I've had a lot of conversations, like one on one with men who are in those communities. And their reactions are by and large, very defensive. Which is discouraging, but I would say like, some people are coming around, and they're starting to think about it more. But what I have hoped for is, this is why I want to see more women in positions of power. And women of color, especially, because I think they have like and again, like I think I have this dual experience, like being a white woman and being you know, being a white woman, you know, it's like you experience like privilege in some ways, but you also experience especially in the business and tech communities, I think there's so much sexism. So I do I have experienced a lot of sexism, sexism, and, and that made it hard for me to run a business. But what is exciting is that I was able to raise investment entirely for women. So, you know, I think what gives me hope is not so much that men are going to come around, but that women are getting more power. Yes. And then investing in other women. Yeah. And then especially like seeing women of color who are investing in women of color owned businesses, because I think they are getting, they have it harder than me for sure. I want to see more of that. And I want to see white male investors who have had power for a long time, rather than just being like, How can I, you know, continue to make money while holding my power? Like, I'd really like to just see them give up some of their power. That's kind of what I'd like to see.Kristen Cerelli:
I'm with you on that step back. Step down a little bit. Tony means river, is that correct? Yes. Where would you like the river to take your next?Rachel Faller:
Well, I think that, you know, over the last couple years, obviously, you know, throughout the pandemic, and then throughout this year as well, business has been really difficult. And, you know, we've really just focused in on well, how do we not just keep doing what we're doing, but also just be like, continue acting with integrity during a time when that's very hard, because I think that a lot of businesses have had to make compromises, you know, initially, like at the beginning of the pandemic, I definitely faced a period of time where it was like, we might have to shut down because we had hundreds of 1000s of dollars of orders cancelled within the first week of the pandemic, because we sell to retailers, and they were all shut down. And I got advice from a lot of people. I'm like, I don't know what to do. This is so unprecedented. I mean, that was the word that everybody was using, right? And a lot of people were like, well, you could close your production and you could just, you know, outsource your products to other people. And totally has always been very much like about the community. To me, I was like, I don't this business isn't worth running without my team. Like I don't want to hold on to this brand if I can't work with this team because they are the heart and soul of Tony. But I said you know if I have to shut down, I want to shut down in the most ethical way possible, which would mean like paying everybody severance and empowering them with their next steps. You know, so like, maybe we give all of our equipment to everybody. And they go and can start their own businesses or something, or we work with them to find new jobs or whatever we need to do, you know, talking to everybody at told me, they were like, We want to keep working here, if you can make it work, like please like, we do want to keep our jobs. And so I was like, Okay, I'm going to try to make this work. And I think the decision to stay true to that, and not just like, compromise, when things got hard, was really keeping in true like with what we've always tried to do, having that integrity. And then and then just recognizing, like, throughout the whole pandemic, and even this last year has continued to be really hard because the pandemic is still going on. And it's still definitely like affecting supply chains in Asia, as you, as we all know, at this point, right. So they're out this year, you know, we've still had a ton of business challenges a ton of unexpected things not being able to get the things we need, not being able to get things shipped on time. So for us, it was just at a point where we're like, we don't have to grow, we just want we would rather just stay like the size we are and actually try to do it well rather than than being big. And so just honing in on really like making sure our team is taken care of that we take care of each other as a first priority. And then see what we can do if we have extra capacity, but not trying to overdo it when everyone is feeling so stretched. No. And I think even just like the stress of the pandemic weighs on everybody. And so we just have to be flexible with like, time off, and mental health days, all kinds of stuff, right? So and then going into, like what I hope will be the model of Tommy, which is really centered around community care and creating a work environment where people actually want to work and that they believe and are passionate about what they're doing. At every level of the business. You know, it's just like, staying core to what you do, and not not valuing growth over integrity.Kristen Cerelli:
That's beautiful. It's also a to me, it says you're talking and just get the visualization of not that you're floating. Not that you're skating through anything, but just that the river can hold you and it can you don't have to do more than you're doing right now until the time is right, you can kind of lay back and let it be what it is. Yeah, I do want to do just a few rapid fire questions with you. So don't just with the first thing that comes to your mind. Okay, this is a fill in the blank. Change requires blankRachel Faller:
and open mind.Kristen Cerelli:
If you could go back in time and change one thing and only one thing about your past, what would it be?Rachel Faller:
I don't think I would change anything.Kristen Cerelli:
Fair enough. Good answer. What is one thing big or small? You would like to see change in the world?Rachel Faller:
I would like to see borders abolished? What isKristen Cerelli:
one thing big or small? You hope never changes?Rachel Faller:
human possibility?Kristen Cerelli:
What is one small or superficial thing about yourself? You would change?Rachel Faller:
I don't like this line on my forehead.Kristen Cerelli:
Is it just one or do you have the elevens? Like me? Are thinkers. Yeah, we're deep thinkers. Yeah. How often? Do you change your toothbrush?Rachel Faller:
once every six months?Kristen Cerelli:
I know we all have each aspect of this in ourselves. But are you primarily a change maker, a change seeker or a change resistor edge maker? What does your next change look like and feel free to be aspirational or fantastical or imaginative about it.Rachel Faller:
So I want to be a farmer. A certain kind of? Well, I actually have a little so I mean, it's kind of a side project. But I have a little garden that was actually very prolific this year. And I'm planning to start a mini CSA next year. Wow. Which is really still going to be a part time project but it was so good for my mental health this last year and also for my physical health because I was eating all garden fresh veggies. So I'm hoping to kind of scale that up a little bit.Kristen Cerelli:
We'll have to do a follow up. What would you say to someone who is looking to create a change in their life that lasts?Rachel Faller:
Find a good therapistKristen Cerelli:
That's great. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know we kind of went down the river together and we took some twists and turns but love it. We got some we got some good stuff. So I wish you health and peace and self care before anything else.Rachel Faller:
That's very that's really wonderful and I wish she the same thankKristen Cerelli:
you so much and I look forward to the next time we can chat.Rachel Faller:
Yes me too. Okay youKristen Cerelli:
shift shift Blum is a co production of T comm studios and actually quite nice. engineered by Tim fall and hosted by me, Kristen Cerelli episodes are available wherever you download your podcasts and are made possible by listeners just like you. Please consider supporting our work by visiting email@example.com forward slash shift shift bloom, where you can access bonus episodes and other special features for as little as $3 a month.