Meet the Founder: Laurinda Lee-Retter

Meet the Founder: Laurinda Lee-Retter

Let’s hear it. What’s the origin story of your social enterprise. How did it all start?

Kind Karma was founded in 2017 in response to the fact that although Canada has services available to help vulnerable youth find employment, there aren’t always the right options offered to help these youth remain employed. Kind Karma is a social enterprise that employs at-risk and homeless youth in Toronto to handcraft quality jewelry in an innovative art therapy-based employment model. Our mission is to break the cycle of poverty by enabling vulnerable leaders of our next generation reach their full potential so they can continue to pay kindness forward.

What moments in your life have shaped who you are as a person and as a social entrepreneur?
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, or illness of any kind, 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.
Without school, I tried to find purpose in my life through employment but without experience and a degree, I soon realized the only jobs I qualified for were retail or restaurant positions. I chose to work retail but the long hours, constant public interaction and inflexible scheduling exacerbated my illness. I bounced from job to job, hoping each new position would provide a better fit, but 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's because I know firsthand what it is like to fail at finding employment that understood unique needs and challenges. 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. I also knew the power of art in healing and so I combined 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 for the goals they secretly wish to achieve.
What is your biggest achievement to date? Your proudest moment?
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. It is always such an honour to hear our youth say that they have never been able to hold down a job but that with Kind Karma, they love coming into work and have finally found a place that they don't want to leave. 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.
What is ONE piece of advice you can give to people who want to create a brand around a social mission?
First of all - congratulations! It is a huge step to create a brand dedicated to enacting positive change and you deserve all the applause for your positive intentions, kindness and generosity. My one piece of advice would be to identify your top priority in creating this social enterprise: if you could only create a single positive impact, what would you want that to be? There are so many issues in the world that need to and should be addressed and it's easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of things that you may like to address with your brand. It's not often feasible for a small start up to try to fix all the issues that are out there so my advice would be to take it one step at a time and start with the issue that resonates most with your passion. For me, my passion was making a difference in the lives of young people and that was what I focused on. Yes, I was tempted to also address the environmental impact of materials and packaging but I didn't have the bandwidth, funds or capactiy at the start to tackle it all. So I started with the social component that I was most passionate about and as Kind Karma grew, I slowly incorporated more environmental practices into our mission such as adding eco-friendly packaging and now working with recycled materials to add to the collection. So don't feel the need to do it all at once and overextend your reach (and startup capital) - it's perfectly okay to do it one step at a time to eventually create complex change.
How do you deal with failures? Disappointments? When things don't work out as planned?
Growing up, I wasn't permitted to fail. As a straight-A student who always made the honour roll and won academic awards, I didn't know what failure felt like. So failure to me, even as a young adult, always appeared catastrophic and something that was never allowed. But failure happens and no matter how hard you try, it is an inevitable part of life. For years, I beat myself up over my inability to finish my university degree and I hid it like a part of me that could never be revealed. It sat in the corner of my psyche clouded in shame. So when I thought about taking the leap into entrepreneurship, I stalled because I didn't want to experience failure. But I spoke to someone who wisely told me that failure doesn't have to be black and white. When we don't achieve a certain goal or target, it could be that I just didn't take the right path to that target. It wasn't that I had failed in reaching my goal but that perhaps I just took an incorrect approach and by righting my course, or trying a different strategy, I could still succeed. This has helped me through all the failures, disappointments and "wrong paths" since and I truly believe that the key to success is rooted in perseverance.
What’s next for Kind Karma?
We are so excited to be able to continue employing at-risk and homeless youth in Toronto through the pandemic and are looking to continue growing our team. We are also thrilled to share that our youth are continually learning and we look forward to bringing new items, such as rings made out of recycled materials, to our collection soon!


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