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FashionABLE CEO talks social entrepreneurship with Belmont business students

CEO Barrett Ward spoke with Belmont business students Friday morning about re-branding and auditing his women’s apparel company, FashionABLE — now called ABLE.

ABLE emphasizes the idea that shoppers are able to empower women by making informed consumer choices.

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Ward described a cycle in which large clothing manufacturers — like Target and H&M — often underpay women across the globe, many of whom need to work second and third jobs, often times in the prostitution industry.

In an effort to disrupt this cycle, ABLE will publish an audit called AccountABLE in November including the wages of its workers, and it encourages other companies to do the same.

“The challenge for you is that you don’t have access to that information, and people don’t want you to have it,” Ward told students. “If we’re going to truly protect women at the bottom of the supply chain, we have to get transparent.”

ABLE’s first audit of its jewelry manufacturing and home offices in Nashville was conducted by a third-party auditor and pulls from anonymous employee surveys, bank statements, receipts, employee handbooks and safety reports. ABLE plans to audit its manufacturing centers in Ethiopia, Peru and Mexico as well.

Ward decided to launch his company after seeing firsthand how poverty and extreme circumstances forced women into prostitution through Mocha Club, a nonprofit he created in Ethiopia in 2008.

He decided to use his background in business to change this trajectory and employ women in sustainable ways.

“Before we knew it, we were in this position where hundreds and hundreds of women had jobs because of us,” Ward said.

Many of these women have a criminal background and struggle to find jobs elsewhere, he said.

The company, unlike comparable social impact companies like Thistle Farms, is able to help people in need and still make a profit.

“That’s a rarity in today’s world,” associate professor and Enactus sponsor John Gonas said.

Gonas, a longtime friend of Ward, offered the Enactus house to Ward back when FashionABLE was a small, online startup selling only scarves.

“If it wasn’t for Enactus, I think, confidently, we wouldn’t be here,” Ward said.

Ward spoke with students about the importance of marketing, branding and competitive pricing, saying that many customers are willing to pay a bit more if they know their purchase is making a difference.

“There are not enough people using their business intelligence to create serious solutions to systemic poverty,” Ward said. “As much as I believe charity is critical … at some point charity stops and economic opportunity has to pick up.”

Ward said he chose to focus on helping women because “when a woman is invested in, she has a larger impact in her community than a man does,” referencing the Clinton Global Initiative statistic that for every dollar a woman earns, she invests 80 to 90 percent in her family while a man invests around 30 to 40 percent.

He also referenced a 2011 UN gender report statistic, saying that women perform 66 percent of the world’s work and produce 50 percent of its food, but they only earn 10 percent of its income.

“I think it’s really easy to forget what all actually went into a piece of clothing being made when you are buying it in the store,” Enactus President Rachel Masterson said. “I think AccountABLE is going to spread awareness about the industry-wide issue of fair wages and challenge consumers to think twice about what they are buying.”

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This article written by Sarah Everett. Photos courtesy of ABLE and Sarah Everett.

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