#26 – How to Invest in Over 2,100 Entrepreneurs in 70 Countries

with BANGS Shoes Founder & CEO, Hannah Davis

26 - Hannah Davis

After graduating from college, facing a less than promising job market, Hannah Davis—founder and president of BANGS Shoes—ditched her plans to go to law school and went to teach in China. During her travels, she discovered a pair of shoes that would completely change her trajectory.

Two years later she shipped her first pair of BANGS Shoes, beginning her journey through personal and professional development in the business world. BANGS Shoes directs 20% of their net profits to helping entrepreneurs around the world get their businesses started. To date, they have invested in an impressive 2,000 entrepreneurs across 70 countries.

In our episode, Hannah and I talk about her process accepting the business world as an avenue for change, and her experience learning how to use it in a way that is impactful for the world and for herself. Hannah shares the challenges she faced getting BANGS off the ground. She provides very honest advice for social entrepreneurs about the benefits of finding and keeping balance in your life.

Bang Shoes Team

A few takeaways from our conversation:

  • Hidden in seemingly bleak circumstances, there can still be a great opportunity to flourish.
  • Finding balance between your work and your personal and mental health is good, not only for you, but also for your business.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel! Find and use the resources that are available to you. Google it.
  • Most problems can be solved: try not to react through emotion. Instead, stay calm, look at your options, and problem solve.

Show Transcription:

00:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all, Cory here with the Grow Ensemble podcast and on the podcast today, I welcome Hannah Davis: the founder and president of BANGS Shoes. Now Hannah’s going to share more on the company, their mission, their impact, what it is that they do, but you should be able to count on hearing about a few things specifically. First off, we talk about the origin story of BANGS and how Hannah decided to feel free by the lowest low of the housing crisis and recession that hit shortly before her college graduation. We talk about the seven-year journey of BANGS, the ups and downs that have inevitably occurred and most interestingly, how Hannah has been able to respond to these trials and tribulations. And this transitioned well into us chatting about Hannah’s personal evolution as a social entrepreneur. And she was very candid in giving her advice on what social entrepreneurs who are perhaps in her shoes seven years ago, what they should be considering and thinking about as they are attempting to get their own socially-focused business up off the ground.

01:20 (Cory) — So, wonderful episode with Hannah. But before we dive in. One last thing, we do have a couple plugs. First off, as of today when we are leasing this episode, June 11th, BANGS is relaunching their ambassador program and being a BANGS ambassador. Sounds awesome. It includes discounts on shoes and Bang swag, connecting with other ambassadors in the program and access to Hannah herself. Clearly heck of an opportunity to get involved with a cool company. in Hana. Does touch on the ambassador program a bit more in the episode, but I would suggest you head over to BangShoes.com. Click “Get Involved” on the top menu bar to learn more.

02:14 (Hannah) — My name is Hannah Davis and I am the founder and CEO of an online footwear company called BANGS Shoes. And we sell our shoes to invest in entrepreneurs around the world. And today we’ve invested in over 2000 entrepreneurs across 70 countries, including the U.S.

02:34 (Cory) — Well, quite the feat clearly, but I’m curious certainly as to the origin story of BANGS and your interest in social entrepreneurship in general. So can you tell me a little bit about some of those early days of BANGS, when it got started?

02:49 (Hannah) — Absolutely. You know, I’ve been doing this, it’s just crazy. We’re about to, this October we’ll celebrate our seventh birthday, but I signed the LLC for BANGS almost this month actually it will be nine years ago. So I signed the LLC for BANGS than I was 22 I had graduated from Clemson University (go tigers!) In upstate South Carolina national champs- not when I was in school, but, so I’m not a bandwagon a fan. I like to put that out there. I’ve been there since we weren’t that good. And I have a political science degree and a minor in Mandarin. So I think like most college students, I had a little bit of that “I want to change the world” in me. And you see a lot of that on college campuses. And so I carry that. And I guess I always thought that my impact would be made through nonprofit work or by the time I graduated I had taken the LSAT and I was thinking about going to law school and I was applying to law schools and I ended up, I graduated in 2009 which was the year after the housing market crashed.

04:00 So it was a really, really scary time to be entering the job force just because for all of my high school and college career, I was told and all my friends were told, all you gotta do is get a degree and then you’re set, you’ll be able to get a job. But when we graduated, when we entered the workforce, everyone was like, oh, just kidding. You’re on your own. People were graduating from top graduate schools, top universities, and just couldn’t get jobs. And this is just a statistic that it’s, I guess it’s not a statistic, it’s just the situation at this restaurant I worked at, and I’m not making this up. This is a very true fact that I was hostessing in 2000, I think it was 2011 or 2010 so this was like a couple of years after the housing market crashed.

04:46 I was hostessing at the time, and there was not one, there was not two, there were three JD’s working at the restaurant that I was working at in downtown Charleston. So these were people that had gone to law school, graduated from law school, passed the bar and they couldn’t get jobs. So it was just, it was a really scary time to try to figure out how to be an adult and what happiness means, what does success look like, kind of reevaluate the parameters for adulthood. And so it was a really good time to try to just be, to try and figure it out. Because you know, it was either really depressing or really freeing because like the bar really couldn’t get any lowering.

05:27 So I took the opportunity to sign a contract teaching English in China for a year and I found a way, I found an opportunity. They were able to, you know, get me over to China and paid for my living expenses and I got a stipend to live every month and it was there that I really discovered my, I discovered social business. So like I said, I studied poli-sci and have a minor in Mandarin. So I was definitely somebody who thought business was even a negative thing. I didn’t realize that the of business isn’t evil. It’s the people in the intentions behind the business and the culture and how it plays out day to day that make organizations good or bad. And you know, there are nonprofits that aren’t good, that are run by bad people who might take advantage of their donors. So it’s not necessarily like the organizational structure makes it good or bad. It’s the people and the intentions behind it.

06:17 And I was inspired by companies like Toms and Patagonia and the LiveStrong Lance Armstrong bracelets. And I really wanted, I was so blown away by this ability for people to use a business plan as a tool to impact social change. And so I wanted to try it myself and I had, this is like totally unrelated to (well I guess it is related)-eventually it comes full circle-but when I was teaching English I found this pair of shoes off the side of the road. And again I had at this point I was somebody who thought business was a negative thing. I still thought I was going to go to law school, but I bought a pair of shoes off the side of the road in China and after my teaching contract ended and I was like, I have to do something, I have to make a choice. I had the textbook A-ha moment where I sat him in bed and like threw my arms down and said out loud, oh my gosh, it’s the shoes and I use these shoes I discovered to create a prototype and BANGS the brand name BANGS comes from the Chinese character for the word help. And this was in 2010 and then two years later I shipped my first pair of shoes. And the rest is history.

07:29 (Cory) — You cover actually how I came across you originally, doing a bit of research to see what kind of interesting, you know, socially focused businesses were in Texas for one and found your Tedx talk at Georgetown University on luck, which you tell a lot of this origin story, I’m surely going to link up to so folks can check it out. But you mentioned that transition of going from believing business to be something that might in fact be a negative to being something that can provide, you know, the impact that a company like BANGS is making. Was that an overnight transition for you or do you feel like you noticed in the early years of things that there was some kind of like mental rewiring yourself that had to be done? Or was it just kind of an overnight thing that shifted for you?

08:20 (Hannah) — I think it was certainly not an overnight thing. And I think there was a couple of pieces of it. So the first part of transitioning towards the understanding that business is a good thing or can be a good thing started happening when I got out of college because I think people don’t realize that being like a change maker and speaking out and working for impact is a luxury. Like it is such a gift to be able to share your opinion, feel confident and safe to share your opinion. And when I was so you know, when you’re in college like I mean I worked all four years and by no means…I had a very comfortable life, you know, I mean I wasn’t trying to figure out like how am I going to get my next meal or how I’m going to pay for the roof over my head.

09:13 I had a system set up and I was contributing to that system, but I was very much…the university was very amazing support and comfortable system. My family was an amazing comfort and support system. And when I was in China, I didn’t have any of that. And I, it was a very humbling experience. And I think it kind of started with the recognition: If you want to make moves, you have to do it yourself kind of thing and no one’s going to help. No one’s gonna make you do it except for you. And if you put out 10% of your energy, that’s what you’re going to get back. So I had to look at myself in the mirror and go, are you willing to put 110% into making your life what you want it to be? And surprise money is a really big part of that.

10:06 And money isn’t evil. There’s a line. And Are you going to work really hard to pay for food and a place to live and hopefully provide your theoretical future family with the same opportunities that your nuclear family has provided you. And again, the realization that money, and I think it took being in different circumstances for me to recognize that money isn’t evil. It’s your intentions and the people. And then, you know, putting that into practice, starting a business, I think it took even longer to realize that I wasn’t running a nonprofit and I was running a business and I do have to focus on things like product and customer service and you know, hope is an important factor in staying positive and driving your mission forward. But hope doesn’t make your business successful. Sales make your business successful. And of course it’s much more complex and deeper than that, but it was and has been a number of years of a process to kind of get comfortable with that. And I hope I don’t ever quit challenging myself to say like, are you looking at this the right way? And there’s different, like it’s a flow, like what type of, what part of life isn’t a wave where sometimes I feel so confident where I’m like, this is the right thing for me. This is the right thing for the world, this is the right thing for the company. And sometimes I’m like, what am I doing with my life? You know? But I think everybody goes through that.

11:30 (Cory) — You mentioned a few things there that I really liked first, the personal responsibility to ask yourself, I guess a difficult question like how much are you willing to put into making your life what you want? And I’m first interested, how was that showing up for you or translating to the day to day, you know, and if you are asking yourself daily or, is this something that you reflect on in some sort of cyclical basis, you know, to check in and see how much of your personal energy are you putting in, you know, to, to make in your life what you want?

12:07 (Hannah) — I definitely don’t have a system, which is surprising because all of my life is systemized at this point. But, I think life kind of forces you to do it. I mean there was a period of time and when I was living in Brooklyn for a number of years after I founded BANGS and it was during the first few years where we were not successful. I mean, if you looked at our numbers in the first three years, we were straight up failing like not enough people were buying shoes to cover our expenses and support growth- like that is we were failing as a business and you know, people, you kind of expect that for a number of years and you, you plan to not make money but you also plan to like, oh we’re heading, we’re working towards the right direction. And we really weren’t doing that.

12:50 And I very clearly remember this moment where I also was feeling so guilty that it wasn’t working. Like I just felt like it was 100% my fault. And I guess anybody could understand why I might think that right. That it’s like 100% my doing or my lack of doing. And so because Bang wasn’t successful, I was kind of like punishing myself. Like I wouldn’t go to family functions, I wouldn’t go to like friends parties. I wasn’t really allowing myself to seriously date because I felt like any moment that I wasn’t putting towards BANGS was causing the lack of success. And I really got to a point where I was living in New York and I remember like looking in the mirror and was just so, you know, I don’t want to throw this word around casually because I think depression is not something to be just thrown around.

13:44 But I was very, very, very sad and I remember thinking like this is not a sustainable life and I want to be a happy person and like what am I doing? And I ended up, I have a childhood best friend who lives in India, she works for a social enterprise in India. And so I like, I just decided, I was like, all right, this is why people have credit cards. I’m just going to book a flight to India and figure the rest out later. And, there, I was able to really separate myself from the company and identify that my personal success and worth as a human on the planet is not tied to BANGS shoes. BANGS is something that I do and something that I love and that I’m passionate about and I’m going to work to do everything I can, but I am neglecting these other pieces of my life.

14:31 And I think when I came back, it made me such a more valuable factor for BANGS Shoes because I was, I felt better. I was sleeping better. And this is like mental separation. So when I say like, Oh, I’m putting in a hundred right percent to BANGS, that implies I’m also creating a separation between the company and myself so that I can bring to the table like a positive attitude, high energy, and a creative balance. So, and that took me a really, and I still work at that, but I’m in a way better place than like 27 year old Hannah was.

15:12 (Cory) — It seems all to be a progression. And so how did that start to look for BANGS? And so, you know, you’re creating this separation and perhaps you’ve completed the trip in India and you come back. Like, what did you start doing differently besides maybe starting to go out and hang with friends a little bit more?

15:31 (Hannah) — So we, this is right when we came back or when I came back from India, my business partner and I sort of had a heart to heart and he basically told me that, and this is somebody that I very much trust. He said, you know, there comes a point in a business where you have to make a choice. Are you going to, if the company’s not doing as well as you think it should be doing or that it needs to be doing financially, do you keep putting energy towards it? At what point do you stop? And he said to me, part of being a successful entrepreneur is knowing when that point is and knowing when to stop. And he told me, actually this is tough to talk about because he gets sad to bring it up.

16:15 So I’m not trying to throw him under the bus, but he told me that he was going to pull out of BANGS and was going to stop helping and contributing. And not only was he going to stop, but he was advising me to do the same and that was really hard to hear. And I basically, you know, I was devastated. And I was like, luckily I separated myself from the success of the company because that was a tough conversation to, I was going to come back, clear your mind, like ready to go. And then this conversation got dropped on me and I basically said, I will never fault you for leaving because you’ve done so much for me and this company, but I will literally never quit. Like you can’t make me stop. And then he, a couple of weeks later, he came back, he was like, alright, I’m going to give it one more year. And then that’s it.

17:04 And that year we discovered Instagram and we switched our factories, we updated shoes, so there’s a bunch of different factors, but the biggest two were: we had a new factory that was making better product for less money, and we had a channel that was moving shoes in, a direct-to-consumer channel that we had never found before. Never really relied on. And that was in 2015. And then since then, so I had a new mindset, a new manufacturer in a new sales channel that appeared to be working. So it was like really everything had kind of just like come to the right point. And then that was when we started just hustling and, and that’s really…2015 was the beginning of the BANGS Shoes that you see today. Everything before was just like throwing spaghetti at the wall.

17:53 (Cory) — And so when a few of those stars metaphorically aligned, what was that like for you? Do you remember like particular points where Instagram, maybe you started taking off for y’all and you’re like, wow, this is working.

18:06 (Hannah) — You know, I do. And I remember one time, it was like 2014 or 2015 and it was, you know what, it was actually before all this started happening. This is just such a fun, this is like so funny, that perspective success is so like based on like your own definition of it. But I remember one time we sold 15 pairs of shoes, like one-five pairs of shoes in like a week. And I was like, we’ve made it like this is it. We’ve got something. And I was like, I just, and now it’s like, that is insane. Like 15 pairs of shoes? You can’t do anything with that. And sometimes the other thing though is too like, we’re not at the end point yet. Like, yeah, we’re bigger than we were three or four years ago, but this isn’t how-a lot of people look at us and say, Oh, you’re a really small company. Like we’re not even in the same stratosphere as like many, many, many, many companies. And a lot of the key people were like, Oh, who are your competitors? And I’m like, um, really anybody that I might consider a competitor doesn’t know I exist. So like, are they my competitor? Like, so, I mean really I have moments in time where I can remember feeling really proud of our growth, but we’re not even near a point to be like, okay, we’ve made it.

19:27 (Cory) — Well, I mean, it may be some sort of opportunity to breathe at least a little deeper just because you know, as you’re describing that early experience, you know, it’s, it’s something that feels like you’re consumed with scarcity, you know, at what the business could be or like what your revenues could be in focusing on kind of tunneling to that. You know, like you said, there’s like that neglecting critical components of your life. So I guess, I’m curious, you know, after that breath, you know, where you saw a few things aligning, what happened next for y’all?

20:00 (Hannah) — like, that’s today, you know, that’s where I am right now. I am constantly learning how to prioritize and optimize different pieces of the company because it’s just like you get one thing going and you’re like, oh my gosh, I did it. Like that looks great. And then in the background you like see smoke going up and you’re like, okay, I now I’ve got to fix this thing. And then as soon as you’re like, all right, I’ve done that, then something else explodes. And so really like another big thing that I’m really, and again- I still, I’m not good at this, but recognizing that there are very few problems that you can’t solve if you remain calm. Like of course there’s some stuff, it’s like, it’s hard to come back from that. Like if our, I mean I can think of some stuff, I don’t even want to say them out loud. But usually it’s like, alright, just take a deep breath and don’t react in emotion, but just what are your options and then solve the problem. And then you just do that over and over and over again until you die.

21:07 (Cory) — So I guess you know that that may be the piece of advice there. But you know, I’m interested, y’all are having a well deserved seventh birthday. It sounds like coming up and like you mentioned at the start of the episode invested in over 2000 entrepreneurs and just about 70-plus countries. So I’m curious, you know, if you were reflecting or, or perhaps sitting down for coffee with a Hannah in year one of BANGS or maybe some other, you know, aspiring hungry social entrepreneur sitting down with them who’s in their year one, what might be that piece of advice that you’d give to them?

21:43 (Hannah) — I think, oh gosh, I mean I would say to relax a little bit. I mean I think that’s a big thing to not overreact and with emotion when things appear to not be going well, but just again, what are your options and solve the problem. And the other thing I would say that I think my business partner really helped me learn is don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Like it’s very, very rare that anyone has an extremely 100% unique idea. And like we have the Internet. It’s like I’ll get these questions from people sometimes. I’m like, did you Google it? Did you Google that question? Because any of the resources that our fingers, hips are insane. So if I ever have a question or need to know to do something, I mean you’ve got like the world’s library at your fingertips.

22:35 So I would say don’t reinvent the wheel. Look for somebody that’s done what you’re doing, but maybe a little bit better and possibly slightly differently and get their feedback and use technology to do the work for you because there’s so many things- some of the systems that we have set up at one point might have taken like 10 people to do, but now there’s so many apps and different resources and I just would encourage people to take advantage of those. But it takes research and patience to understand what the possibilities are. But it is a really wonderful, beautiful time to be an entrepreneur.

23:13 (Cory) — Yeah, I think it’s easy to kind of overestimate the importance of having that completely, unique, groundbreaking idea when in fact like some small tweaks on an existing product or an existing process, especially in the context of a little bit more ethical and socially focused business can make monumental change and monumental impact. And so for yourself and your personal growth as a social entrepreneur and perhaps just as a person you mentioned prioritizing, you know, a few other things, what else is it that you’re focusing on at the moment that you feel like are kind of growth opportunities?

23:49 (Hannah) — My personal life, I’m in a very lovely, committed, happy relationship and I’m excited to see where that goes and I think he would say the same (I hope so). And I am a dedicated Yogi. I would love to do something with that practice. That is certainly a tool that’s helped me stay calm and make decisions and engage in public speaking. I have to credit the yoga practice for keeping my anxiety at bay, and managing the human experience. So I practice and work towards that. That’s a big piece of my life. And you know, I don’t really know, but I think that that’s also something that I’m prioritizing is just being okay with that and accepting that this is just a gift. Life is a gift and I’m going to treat every day with respect and hard work and do my best. And that’s really all you can do.

24:55 (Cory) — Certainly. So. And so for BANGS then, you know, we’re about halfway through 2019 what’s on the agenda for y’all for the rest of the year and beyond?

25:05 (Hannah) — Our really big goal is to grow and continue to support our ambassador program. And that’s really our product obviously is the driving force in the fuel behind the brand. But the heart and the soul of our company are the humans and the people who support our mission, support our brand, and engage in our ambassador program. And so that’s going, that has been and will continue to be like the top two, one, two, three priorities are obviously coming out with innovative new products and supporting the humans that wear them and love our mission. And that’s a constantly evolving goal and it looks different every day, but it’s a very exciting list of priorities.

25:52 (Cory) — Excellent. And before we wrap up here, do you feel like there’s anything we missed out, Hannah?

25:58 (Hannah) — I don’t think so. We talked about our mission, ambassador program, shoes. BANGS are 100% Vegan. I don’t know if I said that.

26:06 (Cory) — Cool. Well once again, Hannah, had a really appreciate you taking the time to be on the podcasts. We’ll certainly link up to everything BANGS so folks can check it out at GrowEnsemble.com. Thanks again, Hannah.

26:19 (Hannah) — Thank you so much.

26:20 (Cory) — Hey y’all, that’s a wrap. Really hope you enjoyed this episode of the Grow Ensemble podcast in. As a reminder, if you are a fan of the podcast, please let us know. Hitting subscribe and leaving a review in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts greatly influences other folks finding our show. As well, don’t forget we have full show notes over at GrowEnsemble.com where I’d also advise you sign up for our newsletter. There, you will be able to keep up with new releases, giveaways that we launch, and any events we host. Thanks again for listening in.