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Natalie Festa - Following the Light

How one CPA is following a fashionable dream — and changing the world while she does it

It was in Tanzania where Natalie Festa found what lights her up.

It was early in 2016 and the CPA had taken a leave from her advisory role at KPMG to volunteer at a small African fashion company in Moshi, a city at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The company, Kauli, is a group of 11 women who make bags and purses. “Only two of them spoke English,” Natalie explains.

She had big plans, wanting to use her CPA skills to help them further develop their business. But the obstacles quickly became apparent. No credit cards. No reliable shipping. “A lot of the developing world has these great talents, but they can’t offer it to the rest of the world unless people visit that place,” she says. The women of Kauli, however, provided an inspirational glow. They were happy and ambitious, even when faced with mountains to climb.

Before Tanzania, Natalie had developed a taste for this type of socially-conscious business with her side project, Fair+Square, a not-for-profit that uses the net proceeds from the sale of men’s pocket squares to help fund entrepreneurial initiatives for women in developing countries. She’d also began practising yoga and meditation, working on becoming more self-aware. Now, in Tanzania, working alongside the inspirational women of Kauli, everything clicked. Natalie knew what she wanted to do. Her career, her calling, needed to light her up in this same way.

“I realized I wanted to be part of something greater,” she says of that existential experience. “It put in perspective that businesses should be triple bottom line — social and environmental as well. I want to only be part of companies that emulate that every day.”

And Boro was born.

“It put in perspective that businesses should be triple bottom line — social and environmental as well. I want to only be part of companies that emulate that every day.”

Launched in fall of 2016, Boro is a communal marketplace where women can both lend and rent clothing and accessories. The concept blends two ideas: That people amass large amounts of clothing, some of it they rarely wear, and the common practice of women lending and borrowing clothing off siblings and friends. It taps into the open attitude of the sharing economy, providing both access and opportunity. Women can rent high-end clothing while making money off the garments they lend.

Then there’s the environmental impact. Billions of new pieces of clothing are consumed every year across the globe, resulting in massive amounts of clothing ending up thrown away. “We think we can just dispose of our clothing because it’s a $20 t-shirt that we wore once. It’s a horrible way to look at things,” she says. “We have so much in our communities that just sits in our closets, so let’s use it. Through Boro, I think that we can shift the way people see fashion.”

The idea has already taken off, even garnering major national exposure through a collaboration with the Bachelor Canada in 2017. While the business has found footing in Toronto, Natalie is thinking bigger. “When we talk about our vision long-term it’s: You’re on vacation going to Bali. You take your Uber from the airport to the Airbnb and you open up your closet and it’s a collection of Boro clothing, all in your size, curated directly. It’s really accessing the full sharing economy model,” Natalie explains.

It’s a lofty goal, but Natalie has never been short on drive. “You have to aim high,” she adds, “and follow what lights you up.”

While launching this business has become a 24/7 adventure, Natalie took time to chat with CPA Ontario about the challenges of working in the sharing economy, on knowing your non-negotiables and chasing the light.

Natalie Festa on...

On overcoming stigmas

We saw companies like Airbnb and Uber take off, and at the beginning of Airbnb, people were saying, “I’m not going to let other people sleep in my bed,” or “I don’t want to sleep in a stranger’s bed.” But they do. So although there are some hesitations to borrow — “Oh, I don’t want to wear someone else’s clothing” — they will. We have the clothing professionally cleaned between each use, and once people learn that their hesitation reduces. We just have to break down the stigma and break those barriers. That’s what we’re working towards. I mean, we’re definitely not there in terms of Airbnb status, but hopefully one day.  

 

On being genuine with your plans

I used to be the one that said yes to every event, just because I thought I should go. But it’s equally important to say no to things you don’t want to do, or else you get caught up in a whirlwind of never-ending plans that don't feel genuine. We can fill out schedules every hour of the evening after work with a variety of things, and sometimes you feel like you have to go because your boss is going to be there or there might be a connection you can meet. But if you don’t feel like it’s for you, then save your time and energy. Go to things that are maybe out of your field but that you feel more inclined to do. Even if it’s yoga or whatever you do to find release. You’re more likely to develop genuine connections that will benefit you long term at these kinds of things. So be genuine with your plans.

 

On the illusion of work-life balance

Work-life balance is a fallacy. I truly think that’s an elusive concept. But you need to have your non-negotiables. My new non-negotiable is: On Wednesdays, I’m going to be working remotely. When you’re working seven days a week at the same place, for me, it can get boring. Wednesdays are not a high-volume days for clients. As Thursday, Friday, Saturday approaches, I need to be in our show room or office. But if I have that one day a week out, it allows me to be more creative and be better at my job the other six days. So know what your non-negotiables are.

 

 

On why done is better than perfect

I’ve learned that done is always better than perfect. I used to have this idea that everything has to be perfect before we open to the public. Even when we launched our site, it wasn’t perfect, but you need to get it out there or else you’ll be sitting on it forever. Get it out there, get feedback and pivot where you need to. But don’t wait until it’s perfect.

 

On appreciating what you’ve achieved

What you have right now is what you wanted at some point. That’s a humbling way to look at things. We’re always forward-looking and always want more. But take a few minutes to remember this is what I wanted last year and I have it right now.

 

On the confidence of the CPA designation

I think the CPA designation definitely gave me the confidence to figure things out as I go along, to make a plan of action. With the CPA designation, you have to go through a series of difficult exams, plus work insane hours. It gave me the skill set and that resilience and grit to work hard. Now I feel confident that I can figure anything out. And it’s also that perceived value from potential clients or investors. When they see that, there’s definite value there, which really helps you grow.

 

On saying "yes" to the things that light you up

To a lot of CPAs, it might be quite counterintuitive to leave the stable job and start a fashion sustainability company, but I felt so called to it. I started taking steps not out of fear, not worrying about the paycheque or what people thought. It was really what I wanted to do. And it takes patience and it does take some struggle, but you have to stop caring what people think and start saying yes to things that light you up.