Here's a startling statistic: Less than 1% of global textiles are made in fair-trade, safe environments. All too often, manufacturers take advantage of weak labor and environmental regulations to create unsafe and unstable conditions for millions of people abroad. These are just a few of the eye-opening facts we learned within minutes of speaking with Rachel Bentley, one of the co-founders of The Citizenry, a socially conscious home décor brand that's doing things differently.
Although Bentley started her career working in private equity at Bain & Company, she decided to make a major career shift when she noticed a glaring gap in the market for sustainably made homewares manufactured by an ethically minded company. "When I looked at what was holding me back (money, ego, fear), it all seemed like worthless excuses in comparison to the impact I could make," the inspiring founder confessed to MyDomaine.
The Citizenry co-founder tells us all about leaving her dream job at a big three management consulting agency to start a socially conscious home décor brand below.
Tell us about your first career path.
I remember being very young, 10 or 11 years old, telling my piano teacher that I wanted to be in finance. True to that, I went on to study accounting and finance in college.
Fast forward to 27, working my dream job in private equity at Bain & Company in New York. However, I found myself questioning the impact of that work based on my experiences with manufacturers around the world. Was traditional manufacturing really doing no harm? Or was globalization often taking advantage of weak labor and environmental regulations to create unsafe, unsustainable conditions for millions of people abroad?
That's when I knew that I wanted to create a business that leveraged consumer demand to create needed economic opportunities around the world. I wanted to build a company serious about social impact and sustainability. That goal is what keeps me motivated to continue pushing forward.
How did you make the transition?
While I was at business school, I started exploring business ideas. I reached out to Carly (my co-founder) who was working in Paris at the time. We ended up talking about how uninspiring shopping for home décor in the U.S. had become with so many mass-produced dime-a-dozen options. She was spending a lot of time shopping the markets there, and we realized the things we loved most in our homes were picked up during our travels. Ultimately, we decided to build a company that lets people travel the world and meet these incredible makers through beautiful, modern products for their homes.
Tell us about your current career path/business.
The Citizenry was created to serve a dual mission, one focused on profit and the other focused on purpose. The Citizenry is a socially-conscious home décor brand that goes above and beyond just donating proceeds to a charity. We are setting new standards for ethical business practices, creating an entire model that implements long-term social change for artisan communities around the world.
We create modern, globally-inspired home goods with master artisans around the world. Those partnerships provide sustainable, consistent income—typically two to three times minimum wage (even though fair trade standards just require a 10% premium)—for the 2,100 artisans we work with around the world. That's a huge accomplishment in a world where less than 1% of global textiles are made in fair-trade, safe environments.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career and why?
The first two to three years of building The Citizenry—it was a steep learning curve! Added to that, a constant chorus of nos and skepticism from industry experts, investors, and former colleagues. So many people said working with artisans was too complicated, not scalable, or today's consumer wanted cheap, not craftsmanship.
It's hard to put blinders on to that negativity and put your head down and work harder than everyone else around you month after month, year after year. It takes conviction and drive. I'll never forget the people who believed in us and invested in us early on—they mean the world to me.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
Vision. As a founder, you must be able to see what doesn't yet exist and find the path to bring that product or experience to life. The role of a founder is about inventing and discovering, both of which fit my personality. I've always had a desire and a talent for building from the ground up, for creating organization out of chaos.
What's the most important thing you have learned from making a big change in your career life?
I'd say the most important thing I've learned is persistence—sticking to your vision and putting in the hard work day-in, day-out.
Changing careers or starting a business is a deeply personal decision. A new direction must align with your values, personal strengths, and professional experience. It's that personal, internal motivation that keeps you going during the long days.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
Unwavering belief that creating better opportunities for people around the world was worth giving up my own personal comforts.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
Our artisan partners around the world. The men and women who carefully craft each of our pieces are what I love most about what we do.
I believe what we accomplish with our artisan partners every day is profoundly important, even though it's deeply challenging. We are partners with them and are in the trenches solving challenges alongside them. There's such an entrepreneurial spirit among them—they are willing to take on any challenge to provide for their communities. They inspire us every day.
When you look back and reflect on your previous career do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
I am so grateful for my past career as a consultant—it's a big part of who I am as a person and as a founder. I still draw inspiration from my experience and mentors at Bain. In particular, I always go back to their mentality about making strategic decisions: "Do extraordinary research, make a data-driven decision, and then put 100% of you and your team's efforts into execution." This means, don't waste time revisiting decisions (unless you discover something that invalidates a key assumption). And in startups, time is everything.