A Step in the Right Direction
15 August 2016 at 9:53 am
Hassan Ahmad is the co-founder of Conscious Step, a social enterprise that makes socks that fights for causes that matter. Ahmad is this week’s Changemaker.
Ahmad was a doctor interning at the World Health Organisation when he first learned of the United Nations Global Goals, a development framework agreed upon by all nations to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change, for everyone, in the next 15 years.
Along with two of his friends and fellow UNSW graduates, Adam Long and Prashant Mehta, who shared a passion to change the world, and all wore socks, Ahmad founded Conscious Step.
With these goals as inspiration, Conscious Step exists to raise funds and awareness for organisations that are fighting the biggest problems of the world.
Each pair of socks is uniquely designed, ethically manufactured and partnered with Not for Profits that have a direct impact on the world’s biggest challenges; from planting trees to feeding children, the enterprise looks for the small actions that add up to big impact.
In this week’s Changemaker, Ahmad talks about conscious consumerism, why the Global Goals are so important, what he’s doing to help solve the world’s biggest problems and why you should never shy away from a challenge.
How did Conscious Step come about?
So basically, three years ago I think, myself and a friend from New York, who I’d met through uni, he’d basically just come over here after graduating, wanting to work in Australia, and we were sort of thinking we wanted to work on something together, and just fairly organically this idea just came up. It was Prashant’s idea, and it came to him fairly formed, just this idea of socks that contribute to various causes.
And we’d been looking for something, or just sort of thinking about, what’s an idea that will allow people to easily contribute to the causes that they care about. Because I think that everyone has good desires and good intentions but making it convenient and making it simple is the challenge. So we hatched that idea back in 2013, or whenever it was, and we brought on board a third co-founder who was also from UNSW and we did a crowdfunding campaign at the end of that year which was really great in proving the concept for us. And then after that I made the decision, I had graduated at the end of that year, and I moved over to New York and focused on growing that start up for the next two years.
Why did you choose a social enterprise model?
After we had come up with the idea and had this concept, it was then that we learnt about what social enterprise was. And it’s funny to think back, after having been so involved in it for years, that we weren’t even familiar with the concept, and I think even a few years ago it was sort of less mainstream than it is now.
For us it was just about, what is a sustainable way that we can grow a concept and allow people to give back, as I mentioned, but do so in a way that gives us the flexibility to grow how we want, that is also sustainable in terms of the business. And so it was just sort of the best fit for the overall goals, what we were trying to achieve. It was just lucky I guess that the environment and the market was right for social business I think and you know we have sort of seen in the last few years that has really taken hold and gotten more of a mainstream interest.
Why are the United Nations Global Goals so important?
I think they are really important because this whole notion of, I mean even finding the language now is hard but, solving the world’s biggest problems, which is essentially what everyone in social enterprise and Not for Profits and so on, are moving towards. The breadth and the depth and the complexity of the issues, are just so vast, it really allowed the world to sort of identify some tangible, discreet, a framework, but as they are goals, that we can all be working towards, be it as a small startup social enterprise, or within government or in larger Not for Profits.
So not only does it help, I think, the people working towards achieving those goals, in sort of structuring their efforts and breaking down barriers and working towards a unified outcome, but it also has been great for getting the public’s investment as well. Because at the end of the day you can have fantastic organisations working to these ends but they really need the support and the recognition of society at large. And I think the goals have been really instrumental in allowing the public to sort of identify what these issues are and also, the organisations that are moving towards them.
So it is almost from a PR point of view, it has been really great for that as well. You know that’s really why we have chosen them to structure our causes and our organisations, to align ourselves behind essentially humanity’s best effort of cataloguing these things and get on the same page and speak in the language that a lot of people are familiar with. So I think it has been a really great development from that point of view.
Each pair of socks is connected with its own charity, how did you choose what causes to support?
So, in terms of the causes, again it just goes back to the global goals… I worked at the WHO during uni and that’s when I was first introduced to the goals, and at that stage they were the Millennium Development Goals, there was 12 of them I think, and I was like this is a great structure that we can use to align the causes that we support. Because there is no use reinventing the wheel, if there is something we can attach ourselves to and align behind that already has some recognition, then all the better. And it is also, just the fact that we can take comfort in the fact that thousands of the most brilliant minds in the world have come together to form these goals and they really do represent what are the biggest problems right now. So for us it was a very sort of logical decision to support those, and again, now they come in this new iteration of the Global Goals, that’s been even better for that.
And in terms of the organisations, obviously they have to be aligned to those goals and working towards positive outcomes, although there are so many organisations doing that. So for us it was just which organisations share our vision, which organisations are excited by the idea of a simple purchase and a simple product that you can wear to spread awareness, but also something really important for us was to have the tangible impact.
So rather than just being “x dollars goes to planting trees” or whatever, in order for people to have a memorable story that people can speak [about], have conversations with one another, which is really the idea of why they are socks, why we support these causes, so that very easily you can wear them and speak to people about the impact you are creating. But it was about finding organisations that could give us that tangible impact, so be able to say “yeah for every sock that you sell for us, that equates to two books or a week of antiretroviral therapy or 20 trees or whatever”, so that for us as well was a really big prerequisite of working with those organisations. And like anything you just want to be working with great positive people that share a common goals and common values, so that personal aspect of things was very important too.
What is the importance of platforms like Good Spender, which connect consumers who want to make a difference with social enterprises, in helping you achieve your goals?
So, a platform like Good Spender, and specifically Good Spender, has been amazing, because it really goes back to the public perception, and informing them and educating them about these issues and things like, not just the issues of poverty and education but also the stuff like sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism.
For a platform to sort of bring together both other businesses and social enterprises that are doing that great work and matching them with the people that care about these kinds of things and are willing to purchase and to put their money towards good causes, I think is invaluable. Because at the end of the day, while public perception is growing, it’s still doing exactly that, still growing, and the community is only of a certain size, and so to bring them all together around this platform and to encourage other businesses and… to facilitate connection, and at the same time create a community of conscious consumers around that is excellent. And frankly, certainly for us and I’m sure a lot of start up social enterprises, we are focused on delivering a product and partnerships and there is so much that we are doing day to day, building the community can often be something that is not neglected, but to have another organisation whose sole purpose is to facilitate those connections and raise awareness is invaluable.
And so that’s why the partnership with Good Spender for us has been incredible. And then they sort of go on to do great things and you know, do their own partnerships with Aus Post, and you know put us in connection with publications such as yourself, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened so we are very, very appreciative of the partnership and think it is really great.
You mentioned conscious consumerism before, Conscious Step’s socks are made in India and you have made efforts to ensure the workshops maintain a fair and ethical workplace. What can be done to encourage more people to consider the origins of their clothes?
It’s a great question, the million dollar question isn’t it. I think at the end of the day, lead by example, I think is the best thing we can do. Currently in the position as a fashion business, more or less, is I guess have that all sorted out, committed to a sustainable supply chain, and if you just show people that you can produce a great quality product, at a palatable price point and then at the same time it happens to be done in a way that is careful of the impact on the people involved and the planet that sustains it, then I think that’s one of the best things that can be done in terms of educating people and really showing them.
Because at the end of the day, you can educate people and that’s really important, but to deliver on something and to show people that it can be done is I think paramount because… people need to be shown. Our spending habits and you know our consumerism is here to stay, it is what it is, so you really have to work within people’s existing buying habits and their existing attitudes about this kind of thing to show them that it can be done rather than just fitting on the sidelines and saying we need to be more conscious about our consumer choices.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
There are so many, I think they are really in two baskets. There are the challenges that any start up faces, of creating a good product, delivering on customer service, growing your customer base of people that really love your product and what you stand for and continue to come back, which I think isn’t unique to us, that is what every small business and probably every business, particularly in consumer products, need to do.
Then there are also the challenges of remaining sustainable, committing to that supply chain and educating people along the way about some very complex issues which often can’t be distilled down to a 140-character tweet or whatever. So yeah, for us it is those two things, it is growing as an organisation, continuing to release new products that people love and support our organisation to do good work, and making sure that we do do well by the social good aspect of it. For us that is really part of the DNA of the company, they are not separate for us but I think it can often represent some additional challenges that businesses that aren’t social enterprises have to face.
What does a typical day for you involve?
So recently, what I’m doing now is quite different to what I was doing last year. So last year I was in New York, really running the social enterprise and growing it and finding staff that are motivated and working within it day to day. And… it’s so different in the day to day, and that was often the challenge, not having a structure in place by anyone but yourself required a lot more self discipline, and you wear so many hats. So at the same time as managing and recruiting people, you’re also managing partnerships and also selling and marketing, and speaking with advisers and there are just so many things that you have to do day to day as a co founder, which again is what makes the work so engaging I think.
At the moment though I have come back to Australia because, I studied medicine and I had two years to come back and get my general registration so I returned this year to work in a hospital so I could sort of satisfy that requirement because it would have been foolish I think to let six years of uni go to waste. So these days it is even more balanced, in addition to just working at the hospital and coming to grips with all those challenges, it’s that plus running the business and often remotely, as the majority of the team is in New York. And I think really balance is the name of the game, with anything, but particularly with start ups you know there are so many things that seem important and that you could be doing, but at the end of the day we are only one person and you have to be very strategic and very, I guess choosey about where you direct your efforts day to day and determining, all right what is really important to us right now, where do we need to move the needle, and only working on things that are directly going to help you achieve that goal, whatever that may be.
Great question! I think i’m really just guided by some deeper values and working on things that I enjoy doing and that approach so far has paid amazing dividends. You know, I will continue to do that, working on things that excite me, working on things that benefit other people, and sort of how it all combines I can’t even foresee, but I’ve found that just working on things that you are passionate about, that you are interested in and that hopefully that you are good at, it will come together in one way or another, particularly if you seek out opportunities and relationships.
Things have sort of come round years later in ways that I couldn’t have even fathomed but it was just at the time, putting in the effort to put yourself out there, produce good work and make meaningful connections with other people. Yeah, not a discreet answer by any means, but that’s really it.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Greatest achievement? I think, it’s a selfish one really, but it’s that I’ve been content with what I’ve been able to achieve in the last sort of five or 10 years, being able to have no regrets is what it comes down to. I don’t want to have a life of any regrets and in terms of the greatest achievement you know, having no regrets is so many little things. It is being able to have started up this business and see the growth that it’s had and the impact of people that it’s produced, and being able to work with amazing people and help them grow as well has been incredible, so I don’t think it’s been one particular thing but just that I’m sort of happy with how things have been progressing and the trajectory and just the opportunity that the future looks quite bright so again, maybe I dodged the question!
Do you have a favourite saying?
Yes I do. But you know what that changes day to day or sometime month to month. Something comes in vogue but the one that I am sort of liking right now is… “the cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.”
I think it just encapsulates this idea that you go towards things that make you uncomfortable and challenge you the most, because it is really when you lean into your edge and you live life when you’re uncomfortable, is when you sort of get the most growth and see the most things come from it.