A Conversation with Amber Chand and Siiri Morley of Prosperity Candle
Interview by Alexis Schroeder
Prosperity Candle invests in women entrepreneurs in distressed areas of the world—places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, and Rwanda—who are excited to start their own businesses producing candles for local and international markets. The company was founded to empower women entrepreneurs in places of conflict so that they may not only survive, but thrive.
In May, I sat down with two founding members of the Prosperity Candle team, Siiri Morley and Amber Chand, to learn more about the company and its unique “shared prosperity” model. In so doing, we ended up talking about changing social enterprise and nonprofit funding models, the significance of candles as consumer products, and the emergence of women’s leadership across the globe.
NPi: How is what you’re doing different than what is already being done in your field?
SM: I’ve worked for years with women’s craft businesses and initiatives that aspired to empower women, and I usually saw these groups come up against a wall. They reached a point where they couldn’t scale anymore, and had trouble becoming sustainable. Part of the reason I pursued an MBA was to figure out how to build things that were more scalable—models that could truly empower people instead of just talking about it.
Prosperity Candle is different for a lot of reasons, but the scalability is what [drew me]. I was intrigued by the fact that both Prosperity Candle, as a business, and the women entrepreneurs’ businesses are able to go to a larger scale.
At first I was somewhat hesitant about candles as the product because I’m really into fiber arts and textiles. I love working with weavers. But when Amber and Ted explained the scalability of a candle business—you can read about why candles are different on our website—I completely understood. The ability for women to invest in new molds and grow their businesses was very appealing to me. This and the shared prosperity model.
AC: Yes. I think what we were really interested in was looking at the possibility of a future in which women are offered the opportunity to rebuild their lives and engage in entrepreneurial activity. Rather than framing this from the context of alleviating poverty, we are interested in the vision of creating prosperity… This is a time to imagine the possibilities.
We offer compelling value to the customers—the quality of the candles, the meaningful gift option that they provide, the price range and the fragrance. There’s value to investors and to our nonprofit partners. This integrated approach to meeting the needs of all stakeholders is something that I rarely see in companies. The value keeps itself churning, so to speak, as the value to an investor reinforces the value to the women entrepreneurs, and so on. Instead of feeling like you’re battling for social versus financial returns, the two priorities reinforce each other.
AC: We see ourselves as mission-driven company, one that transcends the division between non-profit and for profit structures. There are two elements to our mission. One is the company as a social enterprise based on a structure called LC3, a hybrid legal model that prioritizes social benefit over profit. But at the same time, we’re a foundation that empowers women entrepreneurs through trainings and resources. These two go hand-in-hand. We, of course, expect to be a sustainable company, one that is self-financed in the long-term.
SM: And as an L3C, the idea is that you can access PRIs (program-related investments) from foundations, but no one’s really doing it yet. We’re leading this movement of L3Cs coming out, the hybrid model. It’s somewhat confusing to people. As a leader in this arena, we take on an added responsibility of educating people about a new way of doing business.
NPi: Where do you see Prosperity Candle in the larger shift of social change that is happening right now?
AC: I think we’re living in a very exciting time on the planet. The shift that’s happening globally, regionally, locally seems to be one that suggests the dissolution and collapse of a paradigm.
What’s emerging, in my point of a view, is a very strong feminized/feminine voice one that is being heard all over the world. And when I say feminized voice, I am not talking about gender differences because this shift is not about men versus women but rather about creating a balanced worldview that affects us as a planet, a society, a people. It incorporates a feminine principle. And it is about sustainability and leadership, about finding ways to benefit the community. It’s about invoking the protective Mother, you might say.
Women around the world are beginning to show up in powerful ways and insisting that our voices are heard. There’s a sense of urgency about it… Prosperity Candle absolutely is part of that conversation. It’s the woman in Iraq sitting in her kitchen making a candle, celebrating her resilience. It’s the connection and connectedness that is happening because people are purchasing her candles. It comes together in this very feminine and practical way.
SM: I think there is a shift in thinking around women in the world in general. There’s all this momentum around thought leaders like Muhammad Yunus, Nick Kristof, and Sheryl Wudunn. It suddenly seems common knowledge that of course you should invest in women, or at least in some circles [Laughs]… All of a sudden society is catching up with this concept.
Hilary Clinton just announced a new fund. We’ve been tweeting about it [Laughs]. The fund is designed to support women’s entrepreneurship in all different parts of the world. It feels like it was designed for Prosperity Candle. It feels like things are being designed for us, even using the language that we’re using… There are some interesting things shifting.
AC: There is also the fact that we focus on candles—it all comes down to a candle… From a production standpoint, it’s inherently scalable as Siiri suggests. When we look at universal symbols we see that war mongers have symbols that are very strong and powerful: guns, landmines, bombs. What are the symbols for peace builders? I think it is a candle. Where ever you go in the world, a peace builder lights a candle with reverence. Candles are more than just a consumer product.
NPi: Some people understand the significance of your work, some do not. For those who don’t, how would you like to change people’s perceptions, if at all, about this work?
SM: I think we often get segmented into this poverty alleviation, women’s vocational training sector where people think, Oh, it’s handmade. It should be in a small craft store, it’s a feel good product, but it’s probably not a high quality product…We don’t want to be perceived in this way because we’re doing this work differently and have a different mindset.
A lot of handmade products have a small market so the product is viewed as a niche product very quickly. We want to find ways to elevate the products and get them into different environments where people don’t necessarily love handmade things, but love our candles because they’re looking for a meaningful gift and feel good about the social mission.
AC: What I’m interested in is how business has such a terrible reputation. Business has obviously done a lot of harm to the world with large corporate mindsets, but we want to show that business can be a compassionate, humanitarian, loving presence on the planet. Business can be a transformational agent of change.
When somebody buys a candle from Prosperity Candle, it’s not a transaction, it’s a transformational moment, something shifts. We’re reframing the entire way social business is done and what it’s about.
In Iraq or Afghanistan or Rwanda, wherever we go, we’re not looking at a woman as the survivor. That woman, the survivor, is there and we honor her, but it’s the woman who says, “I am ready to step into my power.” She will be the one who we’ll work with and support. So when people say vocational skills through candle-making? No. We’re talking about empowering women.
NPi: What organizations or kind of organizations would you like to collaborate with?
AC: My favorite today is Avon. We’re going to be building our distribution network, and partnering with an organization that is very resonant with women globally like Avon—that would be a great partnership for us.
SM: There are a lot of groups doing incredible work with women. Groups like WorldPulse, Vital Voices, Women’s Funding Network, CARE, Women for Women International. I would like to connect with more people in the social entrepreneurship space as well. It would be great to be an Echoing Green fellow at some point. We’re also exploring some microfinance work, and we’re beginning to work with Kiva and one of their partners in Iraq.
What’s interesting with our business model is that it resonates with so many different communities. There’s social entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, the international development field, socially-responsible business in the broader sense, and then the military connection. With military families, we’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence so far that a lot of people who have spent time in Baghdad, or who have family members who have, are really moved by what we’re doing in a powerful way. That’s something we’d like to explore.
AC: We launched our year long pilot in Baghdad, Iraq with the understanding that if it didn’t work, we would go back to the drawing board. We’re happy to report that the pilot has been successful. The idea that a woman can make a high quality candle and it can get shipped out the week of the bombings is incredible. I think what Prosperity Candle offers is a market-driven and practical solution to dealing with the issues of women’s empowerment, social responsibility, and entrepreneurship.
NPi: What are your obstacles right now?
SM: We’re starting our first round of financing, looking for individual lenders to come in. We have a growing grassroots community of lenders, but raising capital can be challenging. We’re both an L3C and a nonprofit (with the Prosperity Foundation) and while we have many funding options in theory, it’s hard to find the right funding from the right types of investors when we need it. I think this is a common struggle for most socially-oriented enterprises.
AC: Now that we have proved our model, we are ready to expand our business… I am particularly excited about reaching out to circles of women funders who resonate with the idea of investing women’s money to support women’s work. We invite funders to join our Prosperity Circle through interest bearing loans of $10k or more.
We will then be looking at funding sources through larger institutions and foundations. But we want to be careful with how fast we grow… It’s important to our integrity as a company that we stay true to where we are and who we are.
One of other challenges is global logistics especially in a place of conflict. How does a company transport thousands of candles out of a place that’s being bombed? That’s certainly a challenge… but, in true entrepreneurial spirit, we see each obstacle as an opportunity to problem-solve, to find a way to make it happen.
SM:Two personal challenges for me are that I’m used to working with women entrepreneurs face-to-face directly, as I did in Lesotho, Kenya, Croatia, and Afghanistan. Not being able to travel to Baghdad—this is something that will happen eventually—is hard… Being able to connect on a more personal level with the women we’re working with is something I would love to do.
Another challenge that any founding team has is the work/life balance. [Laughs]. We all love what we’re doing. That’s why I’ll get home for dinner and then work until 2 AM in the morning. [But it can take a toll] on your relationships, your health, your quality of sleep.
AC: We also want to ensure that we create a healthy culture in this company. This is a priority. One of my visions is of starting every meeting with a few minutes of silence, because out of silence comes a sense of clarity and balance. This is critical for a startup company.
NPi: What is a message you would pass on to leaders or would-be leaders?
SM: I hear so many young people say they’re not ready to do something because they don’t have enough money or haven’t yet had the right experience. I see this in a lot of MBA programs when people accumulate all this debt and say they’ll go into investment banking for five years and then they’ll do the feel-good stuff they may really want to do. I just think you never know what life will bring, and you should dive into what you’re passionate about as soon as you possibly can.
My career took a winding path… It took me a while to get a Master’s degree. But I’m so glad that it did because I kept following my gut and doing what I wanted to do and now it’s led me into this company that feels like such a natural fit… I realize now that I never would have arrived in this place if I had done the logical, “correct” thing to do.
AC: I think it’s important that we do things because we love to do them rather than because we’re expected to do them. We don’t spend much time as a culture, as a people asking ourselves, what is it that I love? And honoring that, not dismissing what we truly love as a hobby or a [part-time endeavor]. It’s actually critical to our health and sense of well-being. Over the course of our lives, if we don’t pay attention to that, we can become bitter, depressed, lonely, and isolated.
When I think of my life right now—I feel so happy! [Laughs]. I have a sense of meaning, I’m in love with life, with my work. I feel this sense of a calling doing what I love to do most. So to young people, I would say, honor what you love. Life will take care of the rest!
NPi: What drives you both to do the work?
SM: My passion for working with women and handmade products is part of it, but another piece is the creativity of being able to work on things as we go and invent new ways of doing things.
AC: I think of the archetype of the healer and the warrior. I am drawn to business for its potential to heal. Business reflects warrior energy—directed, strong, strategic, focused, driven. But it has to be tempered and balanced with the energy of the healer, compassionate, contemplative, and receptive. I seek a way to bring these two archetypes together in my work.
SM: First, you can buy candles. We’re also developing a concept of having prosperity ambassadors where we have people come on board and commit to sharing the story of what we’re doing.
Then we have the Prosperity Foundation where people can make a donation and enable a woman to buy a candle-making kit so she can start her business. And yes, we are looking for lenders. We’re also open to partnerships, whether it’s around women’s entrepreneurship training or on the sales and business development side.
We could use help with marketing, sales, customer service, public relations, and design. People should get in touch!
AC: When a customer buys a candle, you can give feedback to the woman who created your candle (her name accompanies each candle) by going onto the website and sharing it with her and supporting her to be a better businesswoman.
NPi: What have you learned from doing this work?
AC: I have learned so much from these women. First, they’re not looking for charity or pity, but rather an opportunity to thrive. They seek to create something of beauty from this place of darkness and fear. Many of them are mothers, widows, and single providers. That instinct to protect their families is so deep that these women will do anything to make sure they nourish their families through their spirit of resilience, strength, courage.
SM: I’ve been so humbled learning about these women and reading their stories. When I think about the struggles I have in my own life and compare it to the remarkable strength and confidence in these women… It’s inspiring. I think there are a lot of stereotypes that I had about women in Iraq, not understanding what a sophisticated society Iraq is. Iraqi women have incredible skills and abundant human resources. We want to help unleash those things.
AC: I think that speaks to the fact that what these women seek is an opportunity to prosper under extremely challenging circumstances. Prosperity Candle celebrates women as a force for peace and prosperity.
How to Get Involved:
To learn more, buy candles, hear from Prosperity Candle’s women entrepreneurs themselves, or find contact information, click here.