Sometimes we seem to overlook the most important things. Things that should be nurtured, empowered, and strengthened. One of these things is human potential, and more precisely, the potential of underserved youth that live within our own communities.
Kind Karma is a women-owned ethical jewelry brand that works on just that.
Founded in 2017 to help vulnerable youth find employment, Kind Karma is a social enterprise that employs at-risk and homeless youth in Toronto, Canada, to handcraft fine jewelry using an innovative art therapy-based employment model.
“My happiest and proudest moments are every time I hear one of our youth artisans tell me that their employment at Kind Karma has been life changing. This is my biggest achievement knowing that I have succeeded in creating an inclusive, safe and fun environment where everyone can thrive and move forward towards their goals.”
Ethical Jewelry That Empowers Youth
With the aim “to break the cycle of poverty by enabling vulnerable leaders of our next generation to reach their full potential so they can continue to pay kindness forward,”
Kind Karma founder, Laurinda Lee, began working with local Toronto youth shelters and organizations to create a group of motivated, underserved youth, optimistic about their futures.
“I tried this different approach to employment because it was something that I wish I had when I was looking for meaningful employment,” says Lee about her struggle with mental health and keeping a stable job as a youth herself.
“During my third year of university, I was diagnosed with anxiety and severe clinical depression. Since I was studying abroad, I was forced to abandon my studies to return home for monitoring and treatment. But recovering from mental illness never adheres to a strict timeline so what started out as a mere semester off quickly became a year hiatus followed by an undefined leave of absence,” she says. Without school, Lee tried to find purpose in her life through employment but without experience and a degree, she soon realized the only jobs she qualified for were retail or restaurant positions. She ended up bouncing from job to job, hoping each new position would provide a better fit.
“No matter how hard I tried, I was always overwhelmed and would eventually feel the need to leave. This period ultimately formed the foundation for Kind Karma because I know firsthand what it is like to fail at finding employment. At-risk and homeless youth carry unique mental and emotional challenges that result from largely abusive pasts and what they currently face when entering the workforce is a magnification of what I faced when I attempted traditional employment,” says Lee passionately.
“We always talk about waste. In terms of the planet, we talk about waste of materials, but we never really talk about the waste of human potential. And that's the biggest waste in the world. We have all come together to combat things like climate change and saving the planet. And we're wasting brilliant minds who could be used towards these issues."
Using Art For Healing
The power of art in healing is the key component to the foundation of this women-owned ethical jewelry brand. Lee combines the concept of art therapy with an employment model that provides vulnerable youth with a low barrier entry into employment that boosts their confidence and self-esteem so they can continue to reach their goals.
“It's like a paid art class where you come in and you work, make jewelry, but you get paid hourly wages. I decided to use the art therapy employment model because it's artistic for one, you get to create something and make something with your hands. But I think it’s also very therapeutic for the youth,” she explains.
Many of the young people who work with Kind Karma may be healing from trauma or dealing with various mental health challenges. Often this makes committing to shift work, set hours or customer service particularly challenging.
“I made jewelry in my past time as a kid. I enjoyed doing it but it also helped alleviate any stresses that I was going through and it allowed me to escape. It was something that just took me into the moment where I just had to focus on creating,” says Lee, who has implemented a flexible working environment which allows young people to work at a pace that suits their needs doing something that helps take their mind off the outside world.
“I'll have youth who come in to work and they're anxious and they don't feel like they're having a good day but they’re always happy and eager to come. And they feel better after work!” says Lee with the biggest smile on her face. In addition to fair hourly wages, proceeds from all sales are returned to youth artisans to support their individual goals.
Mentoring Opportunities For The Future
“My happiest and proudest moments are every time I hear one of our youth artisans tell me that their employment at Kind Karma has been life changing. This is my biggest achievement knowing that I have succeeded in creating an inclusive, safe and fun environment where everyone can thrive and move forward towards their goals,” says Lee about her team. But she doesn’t stop at that. Kind Karma has also dedicated to helping their youth artisans by providing mentorship opportunities.
The Kind Karma Mentors program encourages the youth artisans to set and reach individual goals. These goals could be education, housing, career or self-care related. From their database of customers, Kind Karma helps to connect volunteers to aid the youth with resources out of Lee’s scope.
“The Mentors program started when one of the youth asked me how to be a firefighter! I know we have customers from all different walks of life, and there was probably a firefighter amongst them. So we decided to start the program with a database of Kind Karma Mentors who volunteer to speak about their careers or anything the youth have questions about,” explains Lee after getting so many requests from customers to volunteer their time to work with her women-owned brand.
Kind Karma works directly with people in the Toronto community which really resonates with a lot of her customers in the city. They love hearing stories about the youth and seeing their progress, which she believes has kept her customers loyal to the ethical jewelry brand.
Showcasing The Perspective Of Youth
“We always talk about waste. In terms of the planet, we talk about waste of materials, but we never really talk about the waste of human potential. And that's the biggest waste in the world. We have all come together to combat things like climate change and saving the planet. And we're wasting brilliant minds who could be used towards these issues. We should do our best to try to nurture that so that they can also play their part as well,” says Lee on why she wanted to provide employment to a vulnerable community.
The majority of the youth artisans learn the jewelry making skills when they start at Kind Karma – skills that they can use for life, either to start their own jewelry line one day or translate to moving on to another field. But at least they start somewhere. Somewhere that gives them a chance. Somewhere where they can get a vote of confidence for their skills.
“In the beginning, I did all the designing of the jewelry but now I co-design a lot of pieces with the youth artisans. All of our artisans have been with us for a while now so they have exceptional knowledge of how everything works and how the jewelry is made,” says Lee about her team.
To Lee, hierarchy at work is a foreign concept; “we're a team. And they know that they can talk to me about anything from work to personal issues. I want them to know that they're not alone, know that they're appreciated. I think that goes such a long way because as humans we want to know we're valued. And when you don't have a safe home or safe space or family that appreciates you, it's easy for that sense to get lost.”
Women-Owned Brands See Things Differently
Lee is a strong believer that women bring something different to the entrepreneur table. And she’s right. A women’s perspective on business is different than the perspective of men. And having that represented is so important in changing the landscape for women-owned brands and businesses.
“I've noticed the way that women approach business, the way they approach creating culture in their business, and how we work is very different. And I think it's so important to make that change greater to help shift the whole entrepreneur landscape,” says Lee.
Lee read something in the Melinda Gates book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World that really stuck with her on how companies who have one woman board member have such an astronomical percent of success versus companies that only have men on their board. The voice of one woman offers a perspective, a very different perspective, that wouldn't be seen or heard otherwise.
When asked about how if woman-owned businesses are still faced with more challenges, she nods her head with gravity.
“I think we do. Sometimes it's our own limitations as women because of structural constructs that have been around for so long. I don't often view myself as a CEO or a founder. And maybe that's just because I'm so used to society saying these roles are for men and for the privileged. Being a BIPOC woman, I don't fit into that,” says Lee.
She understands that she herself needs to accept that she is a successful CEO of her own company because it will ultimately affect what and how she projects herself to the world. She knows that, and she encourages young women entrepreneurs to know it too - “it's important to overcome those limitations and know that your voice is just as valuable as anyone else, if not more valuable, because it offers a different perspective.”
In terms of raising investment dollars, Lee thinks that women still face barriers, stating that there's so much less for women and that there's still a long way to go to create that equality and space for women entrepreneurs.
"Sometimes it's our own limitations as women because of structural constructs that have been around for so long. I don't often view myself as a CEO or a founder. And maybe that's just because I'm so used to society saying these roles are for men and for the privileged. Being a BIPOC woman, I don't fit into that.”
Lessons For The Future
“I think Kind Karma changed my life and has just given me purpose. My whole life I've been searching for that purpose. It's been such a personal and professional growth ride for me,” says Lee about where she is now, five years into founding Kind Karma. “It's cool to be able to learn more about myself as a woman and what I value. And that's been something that I've learned throughout this journey of helping others. It's such a privilege to be able to do what I do with the youth that I work with. I'm so thankful for them.”
Making it those five years has been no small feat for this woman-owned brand with so many new businesses not being able to sustain themselves. And to make it to five years, and through a global pandemic, and not having had to let anybody go is a huge accomplishment.
“Being able to still be that source of stability for those who might otherwise not have it and be able to support them still, in ways where when they're losing a lot of support in other areas is a huge accomplishment that I'm proud of,” beams Lee.
When asked what her advice was for young women entrepreneurs, she kept her answer brief and powerful: “believe in yourself and keep going forward, don’t have your own limitation stop you!”
Kind Karma is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of marginalized youth. See their collection of handcrafted fine ethical jewelry here.
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