How this Ethical Jewelry Entrepreneur is Helping to Empower At-Risk Youth

Today we had the pleasure to meet Laurinda Lee-Retter the founder of Kind Karma an ethical jewelry brand based out of Toronto. While there are many jewelry brands in the marketplace, Kind Karma stood out to us because their mission goes beyond ethical jewelry.  They also work with their community and employ at-risk and homeless youth. 

 
Laurinda Lee-Retter

Kind Karma’s Mission

We truly believe in the ripple effect….

That one person, like one drop of water, can then create the ripples by helping many many more in their lives.

 

Laurinda not only helps to develop their skills as a designer and jewelry artisan but takes it a step further by hosting jewelry-making workshops at shelters and volunteering at groups that help women who have been victims of gender-based violence heal. All participants get to keep their bracelets. 

As a child to immigrant parents, Lee was always the straight-A student, striving to achieve the ultimate goal of getting her college degree. However, in her third year at university, she suddenly was hit with severe clinical depression which derailed her from graduating. Her life and career started to turn out a little different than expected as she worked in retail and then administration working her way up the corporate ladder. 

It was then in 2017 that she had her epiphany to start her own company. As someone who always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur, Laurinda had to take the plunge and forgo the conventional path for something she truly believed in.

The rest as you say is history. And although Kind Karma is a fairly new company the jewelry designs have been featured in various Toronto publications and even Vanity Affair. Her designs are simple yet are very versatile in that they are designed to be worn in layers (a design element we love!) 

Read on to learn more about Laurinda’s journey and what makes Kind Karma unique. 

HER JOURNEY 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I grew up in Toronto to immigrant parents who came to Canada to craft a better life. They were both extremely hardworking, resourceful and their mantra to me was always: “go to school, graduate with a degree, get a good job and then retire”. I was always a straight-A and honor roll student - but I couldn’t finish my degree. 

During my third year in university, I was suddenly hit with severe clinical depression and couldn’t continue my studies. I took short periods of time off to try and recover and although I tried to return to school several times, I couldn’t finish the last two courses I needed to complete the degree I had been told was the stepping stone to “a good job”.

So, I worked in retail and from there, landed a job in administration which was my entry into the corporate world. I worked my way up to the Executive Assistant position, supporting CEO’s and Presidents of large companies but as I got older, I couldn’t ignore that this was a role I had almost fallen into as opposed to sought. 

Entrepreneurship was always my dream and I wanted to create something that made a difference so I took the plunge and started Kind Karma. And luckily, my parents still support my unconventional path ;)


THE BUSINESS

How did Kind Karma begin?

Kind Karma began as a result of my desire to make a difference in the world through art. 

Jewelry-making had always been a therapeutic hobby for me when I was younger and after working in front of computers in office settings for so long, I longed to get back to the more artistic side of work (I went to school for music, after all). 

 
KIND KARMA INTERVIEW ETHICAL JEWELRY
 

I wanted to create a jewelry line that incorporated positive change so I thought about how I could do that; I remember reaching out to third-world countries to see if I could help but the lack of responses actually made me notice the people outside my front door. I sought out a former colleague who now worked with the homeless in her neighborhood by directing them to shelters and job centers and I remember her telling me that there were “already a lot of resources for youth - they just need to access them.” But it made me wonder: if these resources weren’t being utilized as much as they should be, could there is a discrepancy between the need and want?

I remembered my time working in retail as I struggled with mental illness and healing from certain events and it was one of the most difficult things to do. It was, however, one of two options I had because of my schooling but the long hours, stressful environment and sometimes difficult customers were not necessarily beneficial for my health. These youth I wanted to work with were most likely going through similar, but magnified, experiences with even less education or skills - how could we ask that they be successful at work if they felt their employment was making them feel worse?

I thought I would change that by offering an employment model that was based on art-therapy - and we have seen youth actually stay at Kind Karma longer than they have held any job in the past.

Did you have a major “ah-ha” moment when starting the business?

My major “ah-ha” moment was actually in the designing process! 

I currently design all Kind Karma pieces that are made by our youth artisans (to maintain consistency) and I had originally designed the pieces in layered necklaces. My epiphany moment happened when I decided to create simpler pieces and let customers put layers together on their own! That way, they have the choice to wear just one necklace or more and to create looks that they are most drawn to as opposed to being stuck with the combination of my personal style dictated. It’s been great and it has further added to our sustainability model by allowing our customers to create different looks without staple pieces without having to purchase more pieces just for a particular outfit. It has made our pieces so versatile and jewelry loved is less jewelry in the landfill!

 
FASHION REVOLUTION I MADE YOUR JEWELRY KIND KARMA
 

BUSINESS ADVICE

What’s been your greatest struggle thus far in your entrepreneurial journey? 

My greatest struggle has actually been about setting boundaries. It is a natural instinct to want to help those in need and I have always been the person to give even the shirt off my back someone needs it. Working with at-risk and homeless youth, I saw need more closely than ever before so I remember giving youth pots and pans and things from my own home if they told me they needed it. At one point, I was even the crisis line for youth to contact at all hours of the day (and night) and it made me realize that I had blurred the line between employer and employee.

It made me more clearly define my role in their life and how best to empower them. I wasn’t empowering them by just giving them things from my home - I needed to give them skills so they could get those things for themselves. That was how they would become sustainable and although it’s hard to sometimes say no to requests, I have to remember why I started and the long-term goal that helps their future.

What’s been your biggest accomplishment? 

The one moment that stands out to me the most came about six months into the Kind Karma’s existence. A pair of our earrings were part of a gift guide in a widely read magazine and at the time, I was still working as an Executive Assistant. My boss was the CEO of a large company and someone who I had supported and admired for several years as a result of his incredible business acumen, intelligence and success. 

He saw our piece in the gift guide and texted me a snapshot of the article simply asking “Is this you?” When I affirmed it was, he praised what I had started and the reach I was already getting (we were less than a year old). 

That reply from someone who I had held in high esteem was one of the most incredible feelings. It was early on in my entrepreneur journey so hearing it from someone who knew what he was talking about was a huge milestone for me. It stands out but now, I am still overjoyed whenever someone tells me in person or online to tell me how much they love what we are doing - it means the world to hear that we have that support from others and that what we do is valued.

If you could do it all over or give one piece of advice about starting an ethical brand what would it be? 

I think my advice would be to write down what you are firm about doing and not doing. As an ethical/sustainable brand, you become exposed to a lot of issues that may arise as you research your business and it is easy to feel like you need to address them all. It is also easy to find alternatives to doing business that may go against what you aim to achieve. So knowing what you are focused on and what you absolutely will not do is key to making sure you stay true to your business mission and the positive change you wish to create.

We truly believe in the ripple effect so for us, it’s not always about the quantity of youth and having as many come in the doors as possible. We are dedicated to as much as we can logistically sustain to give them a real opportunity with dedicated mentorship. That one person, like one drop of water, can then create the ripples by helping many many more in their lives.


WORKING WITH AT-RISK YOUTH

We love that you work with at-risk youth and feature them on your site. How did this come about and how did you build relationships with these organizations? 

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We met our very first partner organization at the Kind Karma launch (we launched at the Buy Good Feel Good show) and told them about our new approach to employment. They were intrigued and immediately put us in touch with their employment services so I felt like I might be onto a good thing. 

We hired our first youth artisan shortly after and we were subsequently featured in a couple of publications in Toronto. That got the attention of other organizations who reached out to learn more about our company and mission; they subsequently added us to their list of employers as well so we now have connections with organizations in Toronto to help us hire marginalized youth.

In addition, I also volunteer by hosting jewelry-making workshops with shelters in Toronto - shelter residents get to come and make their own necklaces as a fun activity. The workshops are completely funded by Kind Karma and all participants get to keep the pieces they make. I also volunteer with a group that helps women who have been victims of gender-based violence heal and we make bracelets (which participants also get to keep).

These workshops offer an additional opportunity to let youth know about the employment opportunities at Kind Karma and many will reach out after workshops to request interviews! 


PRODUCTION AND SOURCING

Where are your products made and how do you go about sourcing materials?

All of our products are handmade in Toronto. Our youth get together and make jewelry! They listen to music and I find that even if they come in on a bad day, jewelry-making helps them relieve some of the anxiety and stress they may have started work with so they do feel better at the end of their shift.

Sourcing materials was a struggle because as a brand that set out to be ethical and sustainable, it’s easy to feel like you have to address ALL the problems that you notice. There are so many issues (environment, labor, etc.) that it can become overwhelming trying to address them all. Therefore, when I started, it was important for me to know what my number one priority was and that was to help marginalized youth. So although I wanted to source from all the fairtrade mines and metalsmiths, that wasn’t feasible for Kind Karma. We currently source from manufacturers and wholesalers across the United States and abroad and although we don’t source only from certified fair trade organizations, we definitely do not source from companies that cause undue harm to the environment or persons. 


BUILDING AN ETHICAL BUSINESS


Would you consider your brand more ethical or sustainable or both? Why? 

At this point, I would consider us as more ethical simply because we are addressing the people factor. We are working to create better futures for youth and so I would consider us more ethical although we hope to have a new line coming with recycled materials soon! 

KIND KARMA INTERVIEW ETHICAL JEWELRY

Why did you choose this route? 

I truly believe that all youth are our future and they are at a turning point in their lives. Whether they come from good homes or less traditional backgrounds, adolescence is a point where everyone is figuring out who they are and who they would like to become.

With at-risk and homeless youth, that turning point is magnified because they may not have the support needed to make positive choices. Most of us find guidance through our families, friends, and relatives but without those influences (or with more negative influences), it is easy to choose a detrimental path that can affect long-term growth. I chose this route to make sure youth have support to make the right choices even if it is outside their home. I want them to know that there is someone who believes in their potential and knows they are all capable of doing and achieving anything they set their mind to.

Does your company have a specific mission or life motto? 

Our company's mission is to break the cycle of poverty by enabling our future generation of leaders to reach their full potential so they can continue to pay kindness forward by helping those in need. It is very difficult to give when you have absolutely nothing so we try to help our youth by giving them something so they can give back. And it is so inspiring to see how big their hearts are.

We truly believe in the ripple effect so for us, it’s not always about the quantity of youth and having as many come in the doors as possible. We are dedicated to as much as we can logistically sustain to give them a real opportunity with dedicated mentorship. That one person, like one drop of water, can then create the ripples by helping many many more in their lives.

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*This post is sponsored by Kind Karma.
We only work with brands whose mission/ethics are in line with our company’s ethos.

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