Business Owner’s Badge ~ We Earn Em

Surely it must be another sign that I am near-grown that I can put aside my Campfire Girls vs Girl Scouts ism and submit to an interview to help a girl get a couple of badges, specifically Business Owners and Customer Insight. Herein is Saffeyya, 10 years old, grilling me and below is me grilling her.

Were you a GirlScout when you were younger, and if so, did any of the skills you learned help you to this day?

I was a Camp Fire Girl for several years, which I imagine is a lot like Girl Scouts- we sold candy and went to camp, earned badges and beads, had weekly meetings and were involved in various community services. I think the candy sales were really beneficial in several ways. Firstly it was rewarding to help earn my spot at camp by selling candy- it made the camp experience truly mine. It was also fun to sell a product that people really liked- Camp Fire Girl candy may not be as famous as Girl Scout cookies, but it’s delicious and I had many happy returning customers. I’m sure that I learned how to throw a pretty good sales pitch, how to gauge customers interest and not to waste any time or frustrate people who weren’t interested. I also learned how to ‘canvas’ or choose good market spots and I am pretty sure at least some of my tenacity may have come from the experience of working hard to rake in those sales.

How do you find out what your customers want?

Mostly I ask. I run two businesses, I am a freelance wordsmith (writer and editor), and also make jewelry. For the first business I ask what kind of articles the readers of the magazine I edit need or how people want me to edit their projects- do they want my opinion about the stories or just to fix their typos? For writing I usually have an idea in mind that I want to pour out into an article, so then I look around at different sites or publications for one that may be interested in my idea and I propose it to them. Or sometimes I hear about a publication that wants specific submissions and I will write something based on their guidelines.

For my jewelry business I mostly just make things that I think are really pretty and interesting/unique, but sometimes people request custom orders. For customs I ask a lot of questions and as for examples of what they are looking for, then I send samples of photos that I think may be similar until I understand what the customer wants and they understand what I can make for them.

How do you figure out what to charge for your products?

This is such a difficult and complicated thing- I am still figuring it out! I, like many people, used to undercharge for my work because I wanted to build a clientele. Now I have a clientele with both businesses and charge rates closer to market price, meaning what other people are charging.

How did you start your business?

For both businesses I studied the market, meaning I spent a lot of time reading the kind of things I wanted to write and studying websites of people selling jewelry. I went back to school to get a degree related to writing, and I tried to focus as much as my school work as I could on the field I wanted to work in- Islamic or Muslim media. I also talked to my wanna-be peers a lot, such as on eBay there are many community forums where sellers discuss how they run their shops. Similarly I joined a few Muslim-based writing organizations where I learned all about how and where to get writing jobs, and then I was ‘head hunted’ meaning an editor or publisher found me through these writing affiliations (also known as networking) and offered me jobs.

What advice would you give me if I wanted to start a business like yours someday?

Do lots and lots of research before you get started. Being self-employed means that you will have to learn about and do many different jobs instead of just doing one job for someone else, such as in addition to making jewelry I have to do marketing, customer service, packaging, some html, photography, product research and development, and so on.

Some people like to ‘jump into the fire’ and ‘just do it’- but that could be why the majority of small businesses fail before their first year is even up. Allah does not like us to waste the bounty of resources He has provided for us and being hasty (not doing research) almost always results in waste and failure. There is a lot to be learned by not succeeding the first time around, but it’s still best to respect yourself, your time and recourses – all are on loan to you from Allah – and do as much research as possible before you jump in.

Of course also learn all the Islamic rulings on business transactions- that is the ultimate guidance we should be taking and helps to insure that our earnings are halal. Lastly (this happens a lot so don’t be tempted!) do not take advice from people who don’t know what they are talking about. Plenty of people will tell you “This is a good idea” or “You should do this” but unless they are doing something very similar they really don’t know what they are talking about and just think it is a good thing. Talk to or read about people who are doing something similar to what you want to do.

What do you like most about your job?

In the writing and editing job, which is what I help feed my family with- I like that I get to work with a lot of really interesting, active and inspiring people. I also get to do lots of research and learn new things, which is great. In my jewelry job, which is a side job, of course I love to make really pretty things and I get to contemplate Allah’s amazing creations- gemstones and metals are incredible- but I have found out that it is also really rewarding to see how happy customers are with my little works of art.

What is the hard part about running your business?

Organization is not my strong point, so I struggle with various aspects of that- from managing my time to controlling my stock. There aren’t any bead stores anywhere near where I live now (the High Atlas mountains of Morocco) so I really need to plan ahead for what supplies I may need to make jewelry. And when I do have all my supplies, I need to stop myself from spending 12 hours a day making pretty things – I do have plenty of other things to do!

Last question: what surprises you the most about running your own business?

That I can do it! 16 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, my husband suggested that I find a business to do from home since I wanted to continue to work but also wanted to stay home with my baby. I didn’t think that would be possible, I had no idea what to do. I began telling people that I wanted to stay home and work (networking again!) and I did find something to do through a friend. It took me a few years to start to do my own thing and then a few more years to realize that I really was doing my own thing!

And me asking of Saffeyya:

What do you like most about being a GirlScout?

My favorite thing about Girl Scouts is all the new stuff I’m learning through the different activities we do as a troop.

Which badge are you earning and do you get to choose the order or which badges you earn?

I am currently working on the Business Owner badge, and the Customer Insight badge. We get to choose the order and pace, which I really like

What are some of the things you think you might want to do for a business or work?

EnshAllah, someday I would really like to work maybe as an illustrator, or perhaps my own gallery selling different kinds of art. I love to draw, paint, color, and find new uses for everyday objects.

Do you have a favourite piece of jewelry and if so what is it?

My favorite piece of jewelry is a very fine white gold bracelet. It has tiny heart beads on it, and my dad gave it to me when I was 4.

Ahhhhhhhhhh, Thank you so much Saffeyya for helping me peg some thoughts! ❤

The Hijrah Diaries: Reflections on the Lands of Plenty

Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child
Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child

A forced lightening of our carbon footprints has been one of the benefits of relocating my family of eight to a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. My neighbours are nearly all self-sustaining farmers with limited supplemental incomes. What is available to buy and acquire locally for food, housewares, clothes and so on is hauled up here for people with very low incomes. My family’s daily food choices, which were hacked down considerably when we moved to Morocco from the US several years ago, have been further whittled down to about a dozen various seasonal vegetables to choose from, shelf-stable processed cheese, four kinds of dry bean, homemade breads, chicken or goat for meat and milk. Luxury items that are sometimes locally available include jam, spaghetti, rice, additive-laden yogurts, poor-quality cookies and chips – a meager selection of those processed foods city folks are commonly trying to avoid these days.

While food has been one of the biggest preoccupations of our adjustment to “simple living”, there are other challenges, such as not having electricity to run our space heaters on some of the coldest nights of the year. Since our water pump is electric we sometimes also run out of water. We can’t locally buy shoes that won’t be quickly ripped apart by the rocky hillsides – actually, most of the products available here are poor quality and need replacing sooner rather than later. I am familiar with the concept of ‘planned obsolescence‘ back home where electronics, fashions and other goods are designed specifically to need replacing well before they are worn out, but in Morocco I was surprised to find everyday goods made of such poor quality that they break very quickly, especially household items made of thin plastics.

When my mom came to visit Morocco for the first time last year I was eager to spend several days with her in Marrakech – land of supermarkets and malls – but I was also nervous about how material obsessed my whole family was with the pending visit to the city. We made lists of the foods we wanted to eat and all the things we needed or wanted to buy while in the city, including better quality homewares found in some supermarches. While I think it’s natural to want to do some shopping and have some fun, I was also worried that we would be making up for a year’s worth of waste reduction and light-living in just ten days.

The thing is our carbon footprint has been so greatly reduced by living, well, away from temptation and excess. If and when my family ever comes down the mountain for good, I don’t know how I am going to keep from sinking right back into gross over-consumption habits. Walking the walk is hard to do on streets overflowing with tempting offers. Not only do I enjoy eating out (something impossible to do here where there are no restaurants), but I am a working mum and some of those excessively packaged ‘convenience’ foods are a necessity. Here in the hills, with all the labour needed to process direct-from-the-ground foods, my family was struggling to get regular hot meals before we hired someone to cook for us. This solution may not be viable if we were living in a city though, where convenience foods have already exploited low paid labour and are more convenient than paying a fair wage to a cook.

I expected to learn plenty of things about life anew when we moved to a village in the countryside, but I fear that many of these lessons will not stick with me once I come down the mountain for good. Wastefulness is truly a middle and upper-class problem. We are the ones who gobble up the supplies, even when there is no true demand.

Reflections on our lighter living
You have never seen a city girl conserve electricity until she has only a few kilowatts left on her prepay electricity card that could not be refilled until the next day or so. When our electricity has nearly run out, the entire family – even the children – unplug appliances, hang out in one lit room together, turn down the fridge and do anything we can to make that precious electricity last just a little bit longer. Once that card is refilled, forget about it. It’s back to everyone doing their tasks alone under one burning light bulb each, PS3 games ‘saved’ indefinitely with the screen and game box on, heaters more readily turned on and so on.

I wish I could say that my family is more conservative with water, that, like the Prophet (SAW) we each only use a mudd of it to make wudhu, but we are not. It seems that as long as these things are within easy reach, our nature is to thoughtlessly grab at them. I am sure that my neighbours who still haul their water from wells and streams use far less water than my supposedly khalifa-conscious family.

While my husband uses public transport to come in and out of the valley every couple of weeks, this is still far less diesel use than when I had a car and used to think nothing of getting into it to pop across town for one specific item or a particular kind of eatery I was craving. Casablanca was the first city I have lived in for a long time and not owned a car. It was inconvenient to not be able to drag all the kids along to whatever outings I needed or wanted to do, but again my carbon footprint was forced to be lighter than the one I may have stepped if I had owned a car. My family talks about buying a car (or two) if we go back to suburbia and I can only hope I would be more frugal with my use of it.

Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting
Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting

Post-consumer waste
In my Hijrah Diary series for SISTERS Magazine I wrote a bit about the horrors of dealing with my family’s trash out here on the mountain. Not only is it an icky and toxic mess to drag the rubbish a distance from the house and burn it, but it is also extremely embarrassing how much trash my family produces compared to my neighbours. We are still using far more convenience foods than most semi-sustainable farmers and our bin reflects this with its packaging from milk containers, grains, margarine and yogurt tubs, treat wrappers and so on. Of course, much of this has to do with the fact that we are not farmers and don’t get our foods directly from the source, but that has been the big part of my awakening out here – recognising how far removed I am from natural cycles.

An awesome book, really.

Human waste
This here is going to be some real talk. Our own human waste has been considered extensively since we moved into this ram-packed earth house with its ‘squat toilet.’ Not only did some family members have to learn how to use this style of toilet, but as a curious homeschooling family ought we also gave much thought and some research to where this waste was going when our landlord expressed concerns about us overfilling ‘the pit’ with our more-excessive-than-any-neighbours’ water usage. We learned about how some folks both here and all around the world don’t have indoor plumbing and use traditional farming technique of recycling their own human waste right along with that of their cows and other livestock. In short, I have learned that disposing of human waste via water is an environmentally messy business and that once again convenience and the ability to afford such luxury as flushing away our waste is something the ‘haves’ are doing that is ruining things for everyone. As disturbing as it may be to any porcelain-toilet owners’ sensibilities, pooping among the cows is actually a much better way to do it. And if one doesn’t own cows, they could use a compost toilet like the sister on page 52 does. I don’t yet, but I have aspirations…
While I worry about many of my bad anti-eco habits resurfacing once I return to the lands of plenty, one thing I am optimistic about is creating a grey water system for my family, even if just continuing to collect dish water runoff and hopefully setting up at least one compost toilet in our home. It’s a privilege and luxury to have so many choices and I pray that if my choices broaden again I will have the strength to be able to choose in a more deen-conscious way, insha Allah.

Brooke Benoit is the World editor for SISTERS Magazine and a self-proclaimed eco-jihadi, among her other various hobbies.
This article appears in the May 2014 ‘Green’ issue of SISTERS magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.