This article is part of a series, The Wisdom of Women: Bold Insights From World Change.
“If we give girls and women the chance to change their lives, they will change the world.”
— Frida Giannini
Jen Perry is a force to be reckoned with. All Montana. All get-stuff-done. All change-the-world-however-you-can -today. And all because she almost didn’t have any time left to do it.
Learning her story has been inspiring and gut-wrenching. It has also been a reminder that there are people everywhere who need to hear our stories. There are people everywhere who will connect with our story. And it is our calling to put our truths out there so they can find them.
I have worked in and with more women-dominated companies than most people I know. The male-dominated companies I’ve worked for were all companies I was not emotionally invested in. It was easy to do the work I was assigned and dream about the time I would do something else until I got bored and then move on.
But the nonprofits and social enterprises that I worked for that had a mission to make the world better for women and girls and were staffed mostly by women and girls — those were the ones that excited me, fueled me, gave me purpose, and broke my heart. The first social enterprise I worked for was a model similar to Perry’s. They work with survivors of human trafficking to provide them a way out of poverty so they reduce their risk of being trafficked. I loved being part of that work. I felt like a superhero.
I also cried a lot, both from the stories of the girls we were helping and because, as much as I loved the mission, I didn’t love the work. I didn’t feel like I had found my thing. After getting to know Perry, I’m wondering if that was because I was lacking the light-bulb moment.
I worked for a small organization in Boston with a founder who was so passionate about what she was doing that she created the entire nonprofit to right a wrong in the world. She lived and breathed the work. And she had a story: a moment when something hurt her heart so much that she had to fix it. The social enterprise I mentioned above has a similar arc. The founder had an experience where she learned a truth that she didn’t know before, and she changed her entire life to start to right that wrong. Most of the women I featured in this series who are launching true social enterprises have a similar story.
I didn’t have that connection to these causes. But I longed for it. Coming face-to-face with the powerful work that Perry is doing with Jelt reminded me of that.
It is that connection that is truly changing the world. It is that connection that insists that you find the most innovative and impactful solutions to the problem you want to solve.
For Perry it came 10 years ago when her appendix ruptured, she got sepsis, and the doctors told her there was nothing they could do. When she talks about it she says with a chuckle that everyone gets a bit religious in situations like that and that she promised whoever was listening that if she got better, she would do something big to change the world.
And so she did.
What Perry created also came from a place very important to her. She was having a hard time keeping her pants up, so she decided to create a belt. Backing up a bit though, the motivation was really: “What is something that everyone needs that I could sell a lot of so that I had a lot of money to donate back into the world?”
And the answer was belts. Not just any belt though — styled after popular woven belts of the 80s, Jelt belts are made of RePet yarn, which is made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. They have no metal parts, so you don’t have to take them off in security when you fly. And they are elastic and have a special design that keeps them where they belong — whether you have belt loops or not.
Create something that everyone needs (and will want) so I can make a lot of money to donate to charity? Check!
Make it out of something that is not only sustainable but combats the overrun of plastics we have in our trash, ocean, and landfills? Check!
Give back to the world through my business? Check!
At the time, RePet yarn was only woven in China. And, although she knew she wanted to have the belts made in a way that would benefit the local Montana economy, she also didn’t want to wait to figure that out. “Progress over perfection,” as Marie Forleo says. It only took her one year to go from concept to production.
Start making a difference today? Check!
Don’t worry though, she did, in fact, figure it out. In the way she does most things — a big way with more impact than she even planned. She was at an event where someone from the Montana Correctional Enterprise (MCE) program gave a presentation that explained how the program works. It breaks the cycle of incarceration by interviewing, training, and paying prison inmates (a fair wage) for manufacturing certain types of goods, giving them the skills and confidence needed to live a more productive life when released. Jelt pays to be part of the program and MCE manages it. There is no cost to the taxpayer! Not too long after, she started working with women industrial sewers living in rural communities in Montana, to help families earn wages in underserved job markets.
Speaking of working for Jelt, Perry pays everyone on her Bozeman team a thrivable wage as opposed to a living wage. (Side Note: This model of incorporating skills-training and soft skills with fair pay has been shown to be successful over and over again.)
Positively impact my local economy and community with my business? Check!
You might think that is enough. If so, you would be incorrect. Perry also speaks about her work, her vision, and her inspiration. She wants to empower other people to follow their own visions and can often be heard giving out her number-one piece of advice: “If not now, when? It’s never too late to follow your dreams.”
Her number-two piece of advice? “To change consumer mindset, we need companies to spread the word about the better options they are creating and why they matter. So start doing that.”
She’s also eager to share their impact:
- To date, Jelt has saved over 500,000 plastic bottles from hitting our landfills and our ocean.
- Recidivism rates of the incarcerated women who participate in the MCE program and work on Jelt belts has dropped by 30 percent.
- 5 year goal: scaling — more sales, more product, more impact
- 10 year goal: global dominance
…as well as the challenges she has faced:
- The people who are selling their products in brick-and-mortar retail stores are probably not making a living wage, let alone a thriving wage. How do you get them to be excited about something that gives money away if they are struggling due to their wages?
- Learning how to manage inventory has a steep curve. They can go from a warehouse full of belts to getting an order and having none in a short period time — a matter of days. It takes eight days for the inmates to do 1,000 belts.
…and, like with most things, there are things that are both a struggle and a blessing at the same time:
- She’s had to move slower due to living in Montana, where there are way less people than other places.
- The same mentality that slows down life results in a community that cares and is supportive of what you are doing.
Create a world-changing business that is uber-successful, sells a product that people were going to buy anyway, that is made from sustainable materials, gives back a portion of sales to causes that are important to me, hires women who are incarcerated, and pay everyone a thriving wage? Check!
I hope it doesn’t take a near-death experience for the rest of us to come to terms with our calling. I do hope that whenever and however you recognize it, you go all in, just like Perry.
I also hope that you go to Jelt and buy a belt today!
See the rest of this series at The Wisdom of Women: Bold Insights From World Change.
LaKay Cornell is a culture critic, writer, speaker, and feather-ruffler. She is on a mission to change the way we create change. Using her unique combination of exciting anecdotes and enticing data, she positions her clients’ work in the context of the social problem they are solving. LaKay also writes, speaks and moderates discussions on Intersectional Feminism, the Language of Empowerment, and Womxn’s Entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit lakaycornell.com.