Times of E reporter Skyler Rossi spoke to social entrepreneur Radha Agrawal on Oct. 5 about building socially driven companies and building successful businesses.
Agrawal is a serial social entrepreneur, having co-founded a New York City-based gluten-free pizza place, the period-absorbing underwear company Thinx, and, most famously, her morning dance community Daybreaker.
I asked about Thinx, which was the center of a media stir over a toxic work environment back in 2017 when her twin sister Miki was CEO. “You’re welcome to talk to her about that,” Agrawal said. “It’s not about me.” Miki Agrawal stepped down, and the company was sold in 2019. Thinx is doing close to $80 million in sales, thanks to its new CEO, Maria Molland.
Last year Agrawal opened for Oprah Winfery on her tour, getting audience members out of their seats to dance and bond with the others in the room with her company Daybreaker before Winfery came onto the stage. She also invests in primarily women-founded companies, focusing too on social impact.
Achieving entrepreneurial greatness requires not only finding the best product — “the best idea is queen,” she says– but being resilient and relentless. She describes it as having the courage to run into the darkness with a machete.
Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
What does social entrepreneurship mean to you? Why is it important?
Especially now that the earth is on fire, the DNA of every company shouldn’t be at, ‘Let’s do another T-shirt business and slap on a logo and try to sell it and deplete the planet with fast fashion.’ There’s an opportunity for us as entrepreneurs to be mature and thoughtful in the foundation of the business that we create. And so social entrepreneurship, the definition of it is building enterprise that has social value. So it’s an answer.
Nonprofits, while beautiful, are often sort of in the position of asking for grants all the time, whereas in social entrepreneurship, we’re building a product or service that is intrinsic to that social problem that we’re trying to solve. That’s much more interesting to me– bringing profit and purpose together. When you feel like, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ you can always kind of anchor back to what (you’ve created.) ‘Oh, right, the DNA of this is … really whatever you turn to.’ During the pandemic, we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing this for?’ To serve our community. We’re here to invite more celebration. We’re here to invite more self expression. we’re here to invite more belonging. When you return to that as the DNA, you just feel like you’re consistently finding new passion, purpose and inspiration for the work that you’re doing.
How did you navigate building your companies and getting to where you are today?
With a lot of effort, and a lot of grit. Especially as a woman, and a brown woman and a small brown woman — I’m five-feet tall — so it’s like multiple challenges. I think the opportunity actually for me as a woman is not to be leaning on that I’m brown, I’m a woman, but it’s to create the best-in-class innovation, the best-in-class brand, the best-in-class community. To me (leaning on being brown) can feel either tokenistic or… even less equal.
Yes, on my website, I’m proud to say ‘minority women-owned business.’ We have that there to inspire other women who are coming to our website to know that a big global movement can be led by a minority female founder. That’s cool to me. I honestly don’t even think of — I don’t know, it’s just like identity politics, like all of that to me is so important. In this space, where I’m coming from, the best idea is queen. The best idea wins.
Daybreaker and also your book Belong focus on building community. How do entrepreneurs build successful communities and networks?
In my book, I write about a method that I developed around building community, building resilient, building loyal, building scalable communities. It was a method that I developed called the CRAWL method for community building. CRAWL is an acronym. (C) for defining your constraints, where are the constraints for the community that allow them to want to be part of it. What are the rituals — the R in CRAWL– that we can do that align with our community so that people can then really feel connected. As we know from church, birthdays and football stadiums, all of that is so deeply connected to the chats in stadiums, a birthday song or church chats, that’s all ritual. So defining a ritual for your community is important. The aesthetics of your community. The brand is the ethos. Yet many community leaders forget that and their designs are very dated, or not thoughtful or intentional. The W in CRAWL is defined in why. Why does a community deserve to exist? Why can you be financially viable over time? Most communities don’t remember the importance of the revenue plan for how to keep the community alive. Then lastly, L in CRAWL is your language. How are you talking to your community? What is the language? I really go deep into each one of them in my book, but that’s sort of like a quick teaser.
What are some of the most important parts of building a social impact company? How do you make it a successful one?
There’s so many things. It starts with a value system. So, we developed five core values at Daybreaker, even before we launched our first event. So there are five core values that are the lens through which we look at any partnership, any employee, just any vendor relationships. The values are wellness, camaraderie, self expression, mindfulness and initiative.
What made you want to start investing?
I love supporting big ideas, new ideas. Passion, energy, and if it’s a good idea that is a winning one that is socially interesting, and thoughtful, I want to be part of it.
What do you look for when you’re investing in a company?
The founder, the team, the idea. That it’s one that solves a major social problem. That it is creative. That it is a one-on-one product or service. But I mainly invest in the founders.
What qualities and founders stick out to you the most?
Relentlessness, resilience, loyalty, a sense of adventure, innovative characteristics, and someone that I I genuinely like as a human and I would hang out with outside of the investor relationship.
What’s your advice to entrepreneurs, particularly women and women of color, who are just getting started on building their company?
Really ask yourself, why are you doing it? What problems it solves. Can you be passionate about this issue, cause or community for at least 10 years? Are you going to be relentless and resilient in moments of struggle, in moments where you feel betrayed and others feel disappointed?
Entrepreneurship is running into the darkness with a machete. And I think that’s the magic of entrepreneurs who create something from nothing with just your sheer will and sheer courage. Then they turn around and look behind them and see if anyone’s there behind them following them as they make their way. So it really is a remembrance of your role in this space.
Really work on communication. I think my biggest learning was not being a courageous communicator, not being graceful in my communication style in moments of stress or moments of high urgency. Communication is such a needed skill as a leader and founder. We’re not taught how to communicate with employees or team members or clickbaity press with the media and reporters. I just think that learning how to communicate from across your investor relationships, your employer relationships, your media relationships, in ways that are very courageous and graceful and crucial, I think is the greatest advice I can give to new entrepreneurs. Bone up on that now to save yourself from heartache and struggle.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.