“You, yourself, are your own biggest obstacle. You, yourself, are your own biggest gift.”
Jessica Honegger had to get out of her own way, get over self-doubts and embrace her gifts of entrepreneurship and creativity when she created Noonday Collection seven years ago.
She turned the direct-sale model used by companies such as Tupperware and Avon into a business that empowers and connects American women entrepreneurs and global artisans in 30 communities. Women earn an income selling fair-trade jewelry and accessories to friends and friends of friends in their living rooms. In turn, global artisans, who are mostly women, have an income source and a newfound independence.
Honegger, 41, writes about how she turned her desire to adopt a baby from Rwanda into a global business and the values she’s embraced along the way in her autobiography, “Imperfect Courage: Live a Life of Purpose by Leaving Comfort and Going Scared” ($25, WaterBrook), which comes out Tuesday.
“I wanted to write this book to the person I was when I was starting out,” she says. She says she wishes she had heard that “you can be a good mom and a good CEO” more often.
Now living in Austin, Honegger grew up in San Antonio and went to a school where 80 percent of her classmates were Hispanic. Her family regularly went to Laredo and across the border to shop from local artisans.
Her mom gave her creativity, she says, by decorating the house and making wreaths for people. Her dad gave her a sense of generosity and the idea that abundance was meant to be shared.
She traveled to Kenya in high school and saw real poverty, and then volunteered in Bolivia and Guatemala, where she met artisans in markets.
In college, she studied Latin American studies, but then she and her husband, Joe, became entrepreneurs, flipping houses among other self-employment opportunities.
They had two biological children when the idea of adopting a child from Africa started to percolate. They had visited Africa, met friends who had done so, and visited friends who were working in an orphanage in Uganda.
By then the real estate market started to shrink in Austin, and financially they were struggling. How would they afford an adoption?
During their time in Uganda, they met Jalia, an artisan who made necklaces out of paper beads. Honegger filed Jalia’s story in the back of her mind and moved onto the business of trying to adopt son Jack from Rwanda.
And then she remembered Jalia, and began texting a go-between to form a loose partnership. One night in 2010, she invited friends to her house and sold Jalia’s necklaces to them as a way to raise money to bring Jack home. She sold out of what she had. Those women wanted more necklaces and other accessories from around the world.
“After that night, I did feel that in my heart” this was something bigger than a one-off sale, she says.
Other women began contacting her about selling necklaces. She found a partner in Travis Wilson, who knew how to launch a business, and she began finding artisan communities and finding with women in the United States to be brand ambassadors and to sell Noonday Collection in other parts of the country.
She called it Noonday Collection after this verse from Isaiah: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
It’s a reminder to live faith-based, not fear-based.
A shared destiny
Within five years, Noonday Collection was named the 45th fastest growing company by Inc. Magazine.
Honegger has learned from that growth. Tough decisions had to be made about how many artisan communities they could work with and which products Noonday Collection could carry. Those decisions become more difficult when Honegger knows the women behind the products.
Noonday pays 50 percent up front for artisans’ work and not 100 percent 60 days later, which is more common with other companies. The advantage is they can take a chance on a new artisan community without worrying that artisans won’t have enough to survive on while goods are being made.
That also means if Noonday Collection guesses wrong about how much an item will sell or if something doesn’t come in exactly as planned, the company could end up with a lot of inventory and no place for it to go. They also could have a lot of artisans believing that they are on a path toward a career that doesn’t develop legs.
She learned pretty quickly that the destinies of the artisans and the women selling their products in the U.S. were linked. “If I left this, I would be leaving them,” she says. “It could not be a flash in the pan.”
Women empowering other women
Honegger says she loves hiring moms, who make up the core of her ambassadors as well as the people running the company, which now has about 50 employees.
“I think you become highly productive with your time,” she says, “You become highly focused.”
When moms go home, they want to be with their children, she says, but when they’re at work or doing the work, they are all-in.
Because she’s a mom herself, motherhood has made her “human and understand that people have lives,” she says. “I try to create flexibility for women.” That means she has vice presidents who come in early to be out by 3 p.m. to pick up kids at school.
It’s a work-life balance Honegger works on herself. “I know that a whole day of balance is a farce,” she says, but her goal each day is “to be fully present where I am.”
Early on she had to move Noonday Collection out of her house, and she tries not to bring it home with her at night. Often, the phone and computer stay in the car to resist the temptation to work at home.
Her kids — who have had opportunities to travel with Honegger to meet artisans — are her reality check. “If I’m on the phone, they definitely get on me for that,” she says.
The book is all about embracing your vulnerability and not trying to hide behind who you think other people want you to be. That means she talks openly about her struggle with body image and not being “the perfect size 6.” “I really value confidence and ambition,” she says. “Why would a confident woman even struggle with this?”
And yet she does. When she thinks about areas where she needs to heal and grow, she comes back to body image and knowing that she’s part of a fashion industry that upholds the idea that there is one ideal size.
“I wanted to embrace my body,” she says. “Our bodies are important. And help women embrace theirs.”
She wants women to know that even though she looks put-together, she’s like every other woman. “We think we get to this place and think we’ll lead these pain-free lives,” she says. And yet, there’s still shame, pain and doubt and all the “insecurities that life has in it.”
She grew up in a home where her mom had really healthy friendships with women, she says, and she turns to women friends to create community.
“I’ve experienced the joy of community,” she says. “We are meant to be known, and we can be fully known and fully loved.”
It takes a lot of courage, she says, “to hold yourself out there in a way for others to fully know you.”
But the gift from doing that is that “we’re each other’s safe place.”
She puts herself out there, she relies on women friends, even when she knows she doesn’t have much to offer back. That includes recently, with a book launch about to happen, a family vacation in the works and her husband remodeling their home. She asked her children’s friends’ moms for play dates and sleepovers. She didn’t wait for those moms to ask her.
It also means that she lets her ambassadors set their goals and take steps back when they need to. Noonday Collection has a Shine Conference, during which ambassadors celebrate and support one another, not just the sales totals.
Continuing to grow
Honegger has big goals for Noonday Collection. Even with the Shine Conference, “I don’t often stop and celebrate,” she says. “I’m always thinking about the next thing. Something can always be bigger and better.”
When she walks through the Austin airport and doesn’t see people wearing Noonday, she wants that to change.
“I do believe it will be a household brand,” she says. “I can really say that I penned the vision for Noonday before I even had a business partner: I want it to be the largest direct-sale fair-trade brand.”
To do that, she knows she has to stay within the values she had when she launched seven years ago.
“Culture is so important to me,” she says. “We want to grow big but stay small as far as our values. What drives us is impact. Fashion has to be a means to an end.”
The artisans feel like family, she says. “If I haven’t been (to see them), I start to miss them.”
She brings ambassadors with her, about 150 of them in the last three months, to visit artisans around the world. There they see the impact they have on people’s lives through selling necklaces to friends. “It’s transformative; it’s life-changing,” she says. “For many of them, it’s their first time to get a passport.”
They see people like Jalia. The first time Honegger was in Uganda, Jalia was shy and reserved. Now when Honegger visits, she sees Jalia’s newfound confidence. “It’s a complete transformation,” Honegger says.
Noonday Collection, she says, “is humanizing what’s going on around the world,” she says.
It’s not just physical poverty; it’s the lack of justice, police brutality and the treatment of women. She’s met artisans who were raped in front of their children. “There is that heaviness for sure,” she says, but it’s also about the actions she is doing, not the paralysis of doing nothing.
“I’m trying to capture people’s heart for the world,” she says.
“Imperfect Courage: Live a Life of Purpose by Leaving Comfort and Going Scared”
Book release party
When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Refinery, 612 Brazos St.
Tickets: $25. Each ticket comes with a copy of “Imperfect Courage” and a chance to win 79 of Noonday Collection’s new fall styles.