Air force officers Joey, Jonathan, Josh, and Ryan founded Flying Scarfs after they were stationed in Afghanistan and met widows who had difficulty supporting themselves and their children. When these officers discovered the beautiful scarves that these widows made, they made a commitment to them to buy them at a fair price and sell them back in the U.S. I could not but help admire their willingness to work hard to make a difference in the world. I asked Josh Carroll, the co-founder and chairman, about their motivation to start Flying Scarfs.
Why did you feel so strongly about starting this venture?
Our venture is unique because it applies a capitalist solution to social problems, which has not been done all that frequently. Fundamentally, we are a social business. To some that may sound like an oxymoron but to us it is a very natural, organic thing. It combines both of our passions. Flying Scarfs enables me to be in business not just for myself but for a good cause.
How do you see these funds making a difference in the lives of these women?
These women use this money to better their families first and foremost. What we have found in our research is that men unfortunately typically use seed money —for lack of a better term — on themselves. Women use it on their children and to better the next generation in their communities. The Afghan women for instance have opened up a new office in Kabul where they do their sewing with our money and have bought sewing machines to make other products to sell independently within their villages. The possibilities are endless. I like to think of myself as a social entrepreneur but in reality the biggest risktakers and real paradigm disruptive thinkers are these women. They are the true entrepreneurs.
Are you frustrated at all by the way Americans think about Afghanistan? Is this a way to change perceptions about the people who live there and what we are actually doing there?
I'm not that frustrated about American perceptions in Afghanistan mainly because it has been such a long war, and it's not on the news often, except when it is a bad news story — which is often. We are a good news story, representing something positive coming out of Afghanistan. We want that to be the new norm going forward. Part of why I love what I'm doing now is that I can educate people on what is happening overseas. They buy our products — a scarf, a bag — but really they are buying a message or a story, if you will.
What other countries do you want to travel to? Where else in the world do you think you can make a difference?
When I first joined the military, I did it partly to see the world. Little did I know that I would become intimately familiar with only the Middle East. Now that I am out, I am interested in traveling on my own terms and those places aren't necessarily exotic to some people. I like being in places where others don't dare to go ... that's partly what has made us so successful. We go and conduct business in areas that nobody else wants to. I guess our military training has helped with that ... working in austere environments. I think our blueprint of social business can be successful anywhere. It just takes a little planning, some moxie and a lot of heart.
Do you think it is possible to make money and “do good?” Is that the essence of a social enterprise?
It is possible to make money and do good. Social business/enterprises are not a new concept. The girl scouts, for instance, are a great example. They don't just give their cookies away. Those cookies go and support the next generation of female leaders. I think in today's age there is an awakening of consumer consciousness. Companies are aware of this now. No longer can someone sell a product that doesn't come from an ethical source. The triple bottom line now is: profit maximization, social good, and environmentalism. I think it will be the exception going forward where a company is only in it for profit. Consumers want to see the whole package and are willing to pay a premium for a business with compassion — treating its employees well, giving back and taking care of their environment etc...)
Do you think millennials are more inclined to do good than other generations?
I think millennials have a similar set of values from past generations. The difference is not that they want to do more or less good. I think the difference is that we have certain skill sets that are more able to bridge communities. In this world of globalization which is not how my parents grew up, we are far more connected. I'll travel to a part of the world and talk to an adult my age who doesn't have access to clean water but will ask me to add me to his Facebook account. It's amazing how more interconnected we all are. Millennials want that. We see our neighbors as not just being the kid across the street with the new bike but the guy across the pond with the next big idea. I see myself as a "global citizen," I'm hoping my peers see themselves the same. I am confident we will try to bridge the same problems as the previous generations but just put a different twist on how we solve the problem. Part of that is to use our new skill sets.
What advice would you give to other millennials who want to “give back” but are not sure where to start?
Find what it is that gives you goosebumps. Whatever it is that keeps you in at night is probably a good indication of where you should start. Social entrepreneurship is about a maniacal passion to change something and get things done. Start small, but dream big. The opportunities are endless.