The truth is, I never, ever in a million years, thought I’d be a business owner. I had no desire to do anything but teach high school English and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). If I’m really honest, I always thought business was for the kind of people who loved money more than people, like the used car salesman cliché. Business was sharky and sleazy and I was perfectly content doing meaningful work. The kind where I gave back and impacted my community.
But here I am, a real-life Founder and CEO. Why the change of heart? Well, I don’t think I all-of-a-sudden became that sharky business person. The funny thing is that I didn’t seek out entrepreneurship. Rather, (and I kid you not): I was called into this. Let me explain.
Back in 2011, I was a full-time high school English and AVID teacher, and I loved my job. I worked with students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds and my whole purpose was to prepare them socially, emotionally and academically to break out of the generational cycle of poverty they’d been born into. My role in their lives was teacher, counselor, and at times, parent—helping them to literally overcome the achievement gap by enrolling in college and furthering their education. Much of my work was helping teens think bigger, believe in their dreams, and push past the upper limits of what they were told was possible for them. It was (and still is my passion.)
It was a week before Homecoming that year and one of my AVID students asked me if I could make her a ring to match her dress for the dance the following weekend. I had been making jewelry just for fun for myself and for friends. I happily obliged.
That night I made her the ring and delivered it to her the next day in class. I included a little note with it, a short card, that said something to the effect of, “I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become. I hope you have a fun time at the dance. Thank you for shining your light and being such a great example to others.”
“OH EM GEE, Miss. Thank you! I love it!” She slipped it on her finger and wore it around school the rest of the day.
By the end of the week, I had 22 orders on my desk from other girls who wanted me to make them rings to match their Homecoming dresses.
And so I went home each night that week, after chaperoning duties, and was up until the wee hours, making and then writing cards to give to these girls from class.
Homecoming came and went and the following Monday, I asked the girls how the dance was. A few gathered before class around my desk.
“It was so fun!” “We had a blast.” “You should have seen Kaitlyn! She was getting down the whole night!”
But, as they were recounting the weekend, I noticed something interesting. One of the girls had the card I’d written her in the front plastic cover of her binder.
“You put that note in there?” I asked, kind of surprised to take up such a significant portion of the prime real estate that is a high school girls’ binder.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “This is literally the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
A couple weeks later, these same girls were filling out their college applications—the moment they’ve worked so hard for during our time together in AVID. The same girl with the note in her binder came to my desk with big tears in her eyes.
“I’ve done everything right, and I still think it’s not going to be enough,” she leaned in and whispered.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?”
“I have no clue how I’m going to pay for all this. I know that education is my ticket out of here, but I don’t know how it is going to be possible for me.”
And what is heartbreaking, is that she was right. Money was a significant barrier for her and her family.
That weighed on my heart so heavily that night. I got quiet and prayed. And though it may sound silly, I had a flash of insight: I could sell those rings that the girls loved, with an opportunity for people to personalize the package with kind words. I could sell them at the neighboring high school up the street to the families that had money. They could give them to their daughters for special gifts at prom or graduation. With the money I make, I could form a scholarship program for my students.
I knew I needed to call this project something catchy, but I was completely stuck on the name. Until one night, I was reading an article in a magazine and saw the word “compliment.”
That’s it, I thought. The jewelry will be the gift. The compliment will come in the box. We all need validation and affirmation and someone to shine a light on the parts of us that we’re proud of. Compliment.
In that moment, Compliment— the jewelry (and now gift) brand that fundraised scholarships for girls—was born.
I knew that if I could spread the word about this company, I’d be able to raise a decent amount of money for my students. That first season, I sold enough to give a $500 scholarship.
The following year, in large part due to the exposure Compliment started getting on Instagram, the business grew to the point where I had to make a choice: Stay teaching, or grow this endeavor and make a difference in another way.
In the Spring of 2013, I took a leave of absence from the classroom, and pursued Compliment full-time.
Fast forward a few years and tens of thousands of gifts shipped around the world, and here we are—a thriving business with a heart for giving back. To this day 5% of every single sale
gets set aside for the Compliment Scholarship Program, that has, to date, supported 11 girls—who might not have had the opportunity to do so otherwise—go to college.
The biggest thing I’ve learned in getting comfortable with stepping into the role of CEO is that business absolutely does not need to be sleazy. In fact, once I understood that business with integrity, is really all about authentic relationships, true care for clients, and an opportunity to fulfill your passion and purpose by helping others, the bigger my business grew. And of course, the bigger the business grows, the more people we are able to impact.
Our company motto “we rise by lifting others,” is not just a pithy little phrase we chose for a tagline. No, it’s a calling. It was my “why” while I was teaching, and continues to be my “why” as a business owner, thought leader, mentor, facilitator, and speaker. In every action, I do my best to ask myself, “How can I make this better for the people around me?” “How can
I honor myself and others?” “How can I lift someone’s spirits and still maintain my own?” “Is it kind?” “Is it inspiring?” “Does it help?” Am I perfect? No. But if I can remember to hold every major decision up to my “why,” I think I’ll be doing ok—not just by others’ standards, but by the standards I hold to for myself.