Carmin Black would tell you that growing up, she did not have a normal childhood. After hearing her story, this could not be more accurate. With a father who was a pastor and a mother who exemplified everything fashion and design, two very different worlds collided to create the culture that Carmin grew up in. While moving to various places all over the country that included Hawaii and Alaska, Carmin grew up with a sense of culture and a passion for people unlike most! Her dad instilled a passion and responsibility for helping people while her mom exemplified everything fashion and design. These worlds would soon come together with siblings Carmin and Christian to create HALF UNITED.
Carmin from an early age wanted to be a news reporter. She pursued her dream and eventually achieved it! However, as a reporter, she hated the fact that she was only reporting and not actually able to help the people she was reporting on. Carmin left her career in the news world and moved towards her passion of helping people in need.
At the beginning stages, the company TOMS had a nationwide campaign to tell the story of how buying a pair of TOMS shoes also gave away a pair. Carmin among thousands of others, applied for a position to be an ambassador traveling the country to college campuses to tell the story of TOMS. She eventually got the position and set out to spread the message all over the country! Working for TOMS gave her a sense of purpose and drive towards making a difference for those in need.
After the program ended, Carmin decided to start her own give back company with her brother. Christian Black recently had started a t-shirt company called 1989. After some convincing, Carmin talked him into partnering to create a new fashion company that provides meals called HALF UNITED. The pair started with an investment of $200 and some bullet casings to make jewelry. To this day, HALF UNITED has provided hundreds of thousands of meals across the world to children in need through various organizations and projects.
While HALF UNITED seems like an impossible feat, Carmin and Christian would both tell you that to make a difference, all you have to do is step out of your comfort zone and trust that you were made to be the change the world needs.
Shantel: Hi Carmin, welcome to the 'Imagine More' podcast.
Carmin: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Shantel: Yes, we are so excited to learn more about your entrepreneurial journey. Let's just dive right in. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood and what sparked the passion to become an entrepreneur?
| FALLING INTO ENTREPRENEURSHIP |
Carmin: Sure. Yeah, you know I think that ... it's funny because my childhood really did have a lot to do with why I decided to become an entrepreneur. Even though everybody that raised me, or that was around when I was a kid, really was an entrepreneur. I never wanted to be one at all. It's kind of weird. Usually when you ... or not usually, but I think often when you have children that grow up in families that either have family businesses; or like I'll tell you with my family where most of the male members in my family were actually ... ministers. Which really means you're running your own church, you're running your own congregation. Of course, with teams of people. I think kids typically can say like, "Oh, like, you know, that's what you do in life. You just go on to become a leader of sorts." I actually ... That thought never once crossed my mind, not until I was out of college and had worked as a journalist at both on Capitol Hill and also at a NBC affiliate for a few years ... Until I thought, 'Okay, this job is not working out for me. I think I need to try something else,' and I really fell into entrepreneurism, I guess is what you'd call it. Yeah, I was ... raised kind of all over the world; which sounds kind of funny. My dad, like I said, was a minister. His job was basically to go into churches where the minister had ... It sounds morbid, but where a previous minister had died, or had maybe retired. My dad sort of went in and would get the church ... either like stabilize it, or would go in and restructure it, and then would basically move on and do that at another church. I've lived ... in Hawaii, Alaska, Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington, like all of the place; and traveled kind of extensively all over the world because of this. That shaped ... I think more so than being an entrepreneur, even though that is ... a very entrepreneurial person does that, where you go and you have the guts to lead new groups of people in different cities and states all over the world. That impacted me I think more to care about helping people in need, because really in essence, more so than running a congregation, my dad's job, and my uncle's job, and my grandfather's job, both grandfathers; which is weird. Not weird, but just uncommon. They were all ministers. Everywhere I went, all of these very strong male figures in my life, really their job was to help the needy and to be there for anybody, poor, hurting, lonely. These are the people that we were constantly around. I think that I sort of just grew up thinking, 'That's what you do in life. You help the less fortunate,' and less fortunate can be somebody ten times wealthier than you. They just, for some reason, really have a strong need. Maybe they're suffering an illness, or whatever it is. That had a tremendous impact on me. Adversely, my mom was actually ... a retail space designer and had worked for everyone from Gucci to Crabtree, and really exposed my brother and I to things like high fashion and just good quality design. Whether it was expensive or not expensive, just how to spot quality and spot good design. These types of things just sort of ... They stick with you and they shape who you are as a child, and I think who you become as an adult and what your interests are.
Shantel: Absolutely, then, you ... Once graduating, and I read a little bit more about you. You had time spent with Toms, correct?
Carmin: Yeah. I graduated college, worked as a journalist for about two years. Just really would like cry on my way to work, and cry leaving work; which sounds ... like I'm not a strong person necessarily, or maybe that I was highly emotional, or whatever it was. Really, I think it was just the result of I think sometimes in life when we do ... Let's say we do something good, that other people deem ... good, or that they deem that we're talented at, or that we're skilled at. If everybody around you wants you to continue pursuing something but for some reason, deep down in your heart, you don't want to continue pursuing it. Or, you may even see that you might have a bit of a talent for something, but it's just not what you feel you're called to do. I think there is an unrest there where you just ... can't keep doing it for very long. If you do, you live a pretty unhappy life. I think a lot of people have experienced this. What I did was when I was leaving journalism, I thought, 'Okay, what do I love?' Like, 'If I don't want to be a television news reporter anymore, what on earth am I going to do?' Because that's what I went to school for, was for journalism. I was scouring the internet literally for six months, looking for a new opportunity; everything from PR to just anything, fashion, anything that I felt like would somehow tap into my skill set. All of a sudden, one day I'm online. Toms was only a two year old company by this point. I had actually met the founder at a conference I went to two years prior. Right when I was becoming a journalist, went to a conference, met Blake Mycoskie, the founder, in person. Something about him just stuck with me. Years later, I sat in front of my computer and I thought, 'I wonder what that guy Blake is doing with his company.' All the while, they were actually at the same time, interviewing 13 different positions for people that they would send around the country and do public speaking jobs. My job was to travel to high schools and colleges all around the country, literally driving in a 15 passenger van. It was not glamorous, and go and speak on behalf of Toms shoes, and sort of evangelize this one for one movement. As I'm sitting there in front of my computer and I'm six months in to not knowing what on earth I was going to do with my life, I, ... Again, I'm referencing crying a lot; but I began to weep. It's like, weird, but I began to weep, because I thought, 'Oh my gosh. For some reason, I just know that I know, I'm getting this job and this is going to lend itself to something bigger.' I didn't know what, but I knew that this was my next thing. I applied and I got it. Out of thousands of applicants, they picked 13, and I got the role.
Shantel: That's amazing. Fast forward sometime after that. Let's talk about Half United and how you got into that.
| THE NEXT GIVE-BACK-BRAND |
Carmin: Sure. Yeah, so while I was ... It was funny, because I went to Toms, again, kind of just taking a reprieve from my job as a news reporter. I was like, ... I honestly ... While I was at Toms, I was in the middle of applying to Columbia School of Journalism, because I was still kind of admittedly keeping one leg in, one leg out. I thought, 'Gosh, I've just spent four years in college getting a journalism degree. Maybe I should just go to grad school. Maybe it's just that I don't know enough, and maybe that's why ... Or maybe I haven't worked for the right publication, or whatever.' Was still applying and thought that, 'Okay, after this six month stint at Toms,' because it was a program they had created that had a start and end date. I thought, 'All right. Well, I'll go and do this for six months. This is' ... It might have even been five months, or something. Anyways, I thought, 'All right. I'm going to go and do this for a little while. When I leave, I'm probably most likely going back to journalism.' Like I said, I have no intention of ever starting a business. Well, we get to Toms. It's a few weeks in. We're getting trained all around the office. There was just this energy in the office, where people loved their jobs. It was a lot of really young people, first time careers, that were getting to this amazing, exciting thing that was getting a lot of national attention. Which was selling a pair of shoes, and then as a result, being able to also donate a pair. This was a brand ... Not a brand new way of doing business, but I think Toms really ... put conscious consumers at the forefront of people's buying decision. While I was there, I thought, 'What am I doing? I love this. I love getting up every day. This is electrifying. I'm loving what I'm doing.' Once I got out on the road, we were probably two and a half months in. We had trained at the headquarters and had lived in Santa Monica for a couple of months. Then, it was time to go out on the road. After my first speaking engagement, I thought, 'Oh my god. This is it. I'm going to ... I don't want to go back and go to journalism school. I don't want to work for Toms,' because after this program, they were interviewing people to stay on staff. I said, "I don't want to interview. I think I want to start the next Toms. That's what I'm going to do." For some reason, I just soaked in every moment of everything I was learning. After Toms, moved back home, partnered with my brother, who at the time, ironically enough, was actually trying to start his own business, a men's clothing company. I said, "Let's turn your brand into a give back brand," and now eight years later, here we are. We're still here.
Shantel: That's amazing. I appreciate you sharing in such depth where it all came from, and the passion. It's interesting and something that's kind of resonated with me, I grew up in a very similar family of ... out of my seven uncles, five were entrepreneurs. Not with that faith background, but it was really interesting to see the difference. I always kind of was fed, 'You want to be your own boss, and create your own journey.' To see two different kind of paths of ... but then you came back to entrepreneurialism, and came back to that. I think that's fascinating.
Carmin: Yeah. Yeah, and it does. Like you, I mean it could be men or women in our lives, but just of people around us that were raising us sort of exposed us to that. It sticks with you in a way that I think, ... Well, I'm not going to say that other careers don't, because that's really not true; but it does impact you, maybe just like any way that anyone is raised. It has an impact on you.
Shantel: You mentioned something ... So Blake with Toms really stuck with you, and there was a certain quality about him at that conference when you first met him. What do you think that quality was? Have you brought that into your own business as well?
Carmin: Say that one more time, I'm so sorry.
Shantel: No. Blake with Toms, when you met him at the conference.
Shantel: You mentioned that he ... like his ... passion or something really stuck with you. Have you brought that, those qualities and that ... same mind frame into your business as well?
| EQUIP & EMPOWER |
Carmin: Oh gosh, of course. Yeah, I mean I'll say this. For the first ... literally, we're eight years old. The first seven years of business, I think that I personally really struggled to be a ... to be both entrepreneurial and to be a good leader. I'll be honest, when I was at Toms, I didn't see Blake leading me or my team that I was on very much. Though I will say that he ... what he was wise enough to do, and now I understand it, because now I'm becoming a better leader and now I've owned my business for a while. He had started something like four or five companies before he ever even started Toms. Hopefully, he had gone through the hard knocks that I have gone through, earlier on with his other businesses. What I will say that he did that was really great, was he surrounded himself with really, really smart, passionate people that did lead us. I really think that one of the strongest characteristics that a leader can have ... and this is what it has taken me literally almost a decade to learn this, is not controlling people. It is actually just equipping and empowering good people. I don't mean 'good' as in morally good, even though that's great, too. Good as in hardworking, passionate, deliberate people to actually lead. Where I'm at now and what I really was not good at for a long time was just ... I could always ... find the special skills and talents within people. I was always ... pretty ... I was pretty apt at recognizing those things. Then, I think I ... maybe micro-managed or stifled people's ability to make strong decisions, because I thought that as the leader, that was my job. Well, now I'm learning hire smart, intelligent people, and let them get to the finish line. As long as you guys have the same end goal in mind. Let them get to it in the way that they best see fit. Doing that, I think has really changed the dynamic in our office. It is changing our company culture; and so much so that I look back at past employees that we have either fired or have quit. I feel really sad that they didn't get to have the leader that I am now when they were here.
Shantel: I think that there's something so honest and vulnerable about that, that I appreciate. Being a leader, we're always learning and growing, and trying to better ourselves; so that in turn, we can find the right team and empower those teammates. I appreciate you sharing that.
| HIRE SLOW, FIRE FAST |
Carmin: Yeah, for sure. I shared those things, too, because I really want to ... inspire people that are listening to this, whomever that may be, to just ... because there was a time where I was in the thick of being a pretty poor leader. I recognized it. I just didn't know how to change it. I didn't know how to get this group of young people to do what I wanted them to do, without feeling like I had to force them to do it. What I've learned is and what I would encourage anyone listening to do is don't force them. Let them do it. If they're not good people, like if they're not like just in their ... heart of hearts, good people. It's that thing where you hire very, very slowly, and fire quickly. Nip it in the butt immediately and say, "You know what? Unfortunately, this is not the product of my bad leadership. You're just unwilling to work as a team player and to do a good job. For that reason, I'm going to let you go; not because you can't buckle underneath my authority." Yeah, I really ... I hoped to really share that, because I don't feel like I've heard that many leaders admit poor leadership. I'm like, "I got to evangelize this." For all of those of us that did suffer from that, we can definitely do better.
Shantel: Well, and I think there's being self aware, and ... I think, again, that vulnerability. You have to be able to say like, 'Hey, I messed up here.' Or, 'I can ... I'm not sure what the answer is yet, but I'm going to work my butt off to figure out what that is, and with your help, and I value your opinion.' I think that is a great leader, and certainly something to admire.
Carmin: Yeah, thank you.
Shantel: You're welcome. I would love to talk a little bit about the partnership with your brother and how has that evolved? Do you guys have very clear roles in defining what your day-to-day looks like? Or, is it a morph of there's a lot of overlap there?
Carmin: There is a lot of overlap in terms of making really high-level decisions. I think we now have gotten to the place where we trust each other enough where if he makes a very high-level decision without consulting me, it's no longer a really big deal. Even two years ago, that would have been a cause for literally like sibling world war three. We're getting a lot better. I am finding us, and I'm talking even down to this week. I am finding us interacting when it comes to work, and not arguing about things; kind of ebbing and flowing, thinking the same way, agreeing on a lot of the same things. That, again, took us a really long time to get to, and was something that in a lot of ways, has been very challenging, very frustrating, painful at times. All in all, I do know that I could not have gone through my time as a poor leader, his time as a poor business partner. I don't think we could have survived had we been doing it with, ... let's just say a friend or a colleague. You just are willing to put up with so much more when you're family than you are willing to, I think if it's somebody that's a friend.
Shantel: Absolutely. Do you have any ... like one piece of advice or a couple of things that really ... that you would pass along to people that are wanting to start a business with family and/or a close friend?
Carmin: Yeah. Yes. I would not recommend starting a business with a close friend. I would not ... I would not recommend that. I don't ... I've seen a lot of ... I'm trying to think, have I ever seen it work, where it's not family or like a spouse. I'm sure it has. I'm sure there's those rare people that, they're just ying and yang, and it works. In terms of going into business with family, what I would say is you've got to just be super, super clear on agreeing on the same end game. A big rub for my brother and I was not that we couldn't agree on our business. It was that my brother is a really, really talented musician. He is a drummer and ... I mean this man could play for any band, any day. He's just really good. My brother has had this passion for music that has often times made him wonder, 'Should I go and pursue my passion, which is music, full time, or should I actually continue to build my brand, and maybe even provide myself a financial opportunity,' ... One day, it is not now, but one day, 'to maybe fuel my dream in a different way.' I think he has really wrestled with that. Him constantly wrestling with that ... The unique thing for us is that when he's unhappy, I'm unhappy. It's not just that we fought a lot, or that we had disagreements on whatever. I would just say that just being really, really clear on the end game from early on and being comfortable with having to compromise on the end game. Are we going to sell this brand? Is this a lifestyle brand that we're going to keep and pass on to our children? Is this something that we're just going to try for a few years knowing that if it doesn't reach X number of revenue dollars in X number of years, we're just walking away. I just think having those conversations early on could really prevent anybody from feeling stuck in a business, or unsure of where they are going. That would be one thing. Gosh, and ... I would even actually really just say you've got to just be dedicated and patient. Businesses evolve. Every single day you learn something new. Every single day, you get stronger and stronger. It's kind of like being an athlete. If you both love the business, let's say you can't define that end game. You're like, 'I don't know, let's just see where this goes,' then you've got to just be patient and kind, and just know today's decisions are just ... They may affect tomorrow in a big way, or they may not. When they don't, just take it easy. Be patient, and just start again tomorrow.
Shantel: Yeah. I think ... knowing eight years in, which is such a huge accomplishment, and definitely something to be proud of, and giving you a virtual hug because I know it's definitely not easy day in and day out. I bet at the beginning, and correct me if I'm wrong, when you guys sat down and had this plan, it probably looked very different than where you guys are at now. It does constantly evolve. I appreciate you saying kind of being patient, and open minded, and going with the flow of things; because I bet ... Industries change, and products shift.
Shantel: Being okay with those different avenues.
Carmin: Right, right. For sure, for sure. That's so true.
Shantel: Speaking of evolving, I certainly think the world and the consumer is more ... aware of giving back. They want to feel a strong relationship with the products that they're purchasing. Do you see the industry shifting? Has it become more difficult because more brands are popping up that have a similar give back mission?
| THE TREND OF TRANSPARENCY |
Carmin: Yeah. I do think the industry is shifting. I think that customers may be ... They may have a bit of philanthropic fatigue. I think that the brands that, their core of who they are and what they are trying to accomplish, when it is their philanthropic effort, I think they're going to survive. It's going to be okay, because that is truly authentic to what and who they are. I think the brands that just add on a give in order to seem altruistic, I think are sort of ... It's pretty easy nowadays to be deemed as a phony. I'm not passing judgment on anyone. I think as long as you are ... adding anything above your bottom line that is going to help people in need, hey, absolutely go for it. I just think that consumers are probably more readily weeding out who they feel is authentic, and who maybe they don't feel is. I'm sure I make those purchasing decisions on my own. When you go to ... like something silly, like when you go to the gas station and they're like, 'Pump this amount of gas. We'll give this many meals.' You're like, 'Really?' That's cool, and yes, please give meals; but it's just funny how it sometimes can feel like every company from a credit card company to a ... BP to a whatever is simply trying to do this maybe as more of like a gimmick, or to ... appeal to millennials, or whatever their motivation is. I think that is causing a little fatigue. ... I think, too, ... companies like are starting to really pave the way, in terms of it's not even so much about just giving back and doing for others. Even though, I think that is, of course, a welcome trend. I think it's really being transparent with how you're doing it. Toms got a lot of ... criticism for the way that they were giving. People would say, 'Oh, in a lot of ways, it hurt more than it helped.' I don't know if that's true. You visit developing countries and sure, you can employ people in need and you should. But, if you also can help and give shoes to someone that can't afford them, I don't think that's a bad thing. I just don't think you should displace ... let's say, total industries in the places where you go. That's not right. I definitely think there's a way to balance the two. Yeah, I think transparency is really becoming the wave of the future if you're going to be a brand that focuses on charity and business.
Shantel: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head with the transparency. The expectation is shifting a little bit. When I go to PetsMart and they're, 'Donate a dollar for a pet in need.'
Shantel: I'm like, 'Is that entire dollar going to that? How do I know?'
Shantel: I'm glad you touched on the transparency thing, because I think it's an important shift that is continuing to happen, and almost needed for companies that are giving back.
Carmin: Sure, and too, I'll say this: I think sustainability in production and also sustainability in materials; and really just how we treat our workers. After you've got ... buildings collapsing in Bangladesh. Now, this has been years ago now, but I think you've got major documentaries coming out about the fashion industry, and the pollutants that it causes, and the way it treats its workers, and yadda. Fast fashion is sort of controversial now. I think, too, sustainability and just a consideration for basic human rights and needs is definitely something that businesses have to be very careful about when they are producing goods. They do. I do think that consumers want their goods produced ethically and if that means they have to pay a little bit more, I think now more so than ever, they are starting to be willing to do that.
Shantel: Well Carmin, just a couple of questions to wrap it up. The first, and I'm sorry we haven't dove into this sooner. Can you tell the listeners what Half United is, and your give back mission to start?
Carmin: Sure. Yeah, of course. Half United is a socially conscious accessories brand. Hopefully soon, we will become more of a lifestyle brand. We manufacture our products in the United States, in Haiti, and soon to be also in Guatemala, by both people in need and just by ... what I would consider maybe standard industry here in America. We work with some great ... metals, manufacturing companies in Rhode Island and in Los Angeles, and a little bit now in New York as well. Well, actually, no. Not a little bit, a lot now in New York state as well. We ethically produce and source everything that we make. What we do is after a product ... Or actually, yeah, I guess after a product is sold is how I could explain it. We donate enough money to provide seven meals for a child in need. We have had the same four charity partners that we work with for all eight years of business. We feed children in Labasa, Fiji; Cambodia, Haiti, and also right here in North Carolina, where Half United is based. Since day one, our mission has been to fight and end hunger through fashion and philanthropy. That is what we do.
Shantel: That's amazing. Well, for those of you who haven't seen Half United, definitely go to their website and check it out. It's great for gifts and with the holidays around the corner, I bet it would be wonderful. Carmin, how can people get in touch with you or learn more about your company?
Carmin: Yeah. Please visit HalfUnited.com. That's like half of an apple, H-A-L-F, united like United States dot com. Check out products there. We're, of course, on all social media channels. Our handle is just at Half United. Or, if you really want to have a conversation, email me. It's just Carmin, C-A-R-M-I-N at Half United dot com. I would love to talk to you about anything, everything from how to start your own socially conscious business to partnerships, to press, just really anything. We are a growing business. We basically take all opportunities we can to get our name out and help people, and collaborate.
Shantel: Wonderful. Well, thank you, Carmin, for spending some time with us today.
Carmin: Thank you. This has been so fun. This is great.
Shantel: Of course.