How A Bad Day In Court Created A World Changing Social Enterprise
Like all good startup ideas, Bridget Williams business Bead and Proceed started with a bad day in court.
She returned home that day wanting to channel her frustrations into something more positive and decided to make a necklace. Little did she know, those five tiny wooden beads would be the start of something big.
Like many kids’ favourite extra-curricular activities, Bridget’s was arts & crafts. Her calling, to the reluctance of her Dad, was always the chaos of creation over the semantics of Law.
“But as you get older, we’re told creativity is child’s-play and not a career path”. So Bridget packed her creative side in a box and did what many ambitious young people do today, she pursued a career in Law.
Her second day at Canterbury University happened to be Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011. Now known as the date of New Zealand’s worst natural disaster, the Christchurch earthquakes. The day that one hundred eighty-five people lost their lives in a 6.2 magnitude earthquake. Like many good Cantaburians over those first few weeks, Bridget found a way to help – by enrolling with the Student Volunteer Army (SVA).
This was her first experience as an Active Citizen. An ethos touted by Pericles, a Greek politician and General during the golden age of Athens, who she’d been a fan of since high school.
By 2013 and again in 2014, Bridget Williams became the president of the SVA. During that time, she was shoulder tapped to put her name forward for the local body elections. At just 20 years of age, she became one of New Zealand’s youngest elected community board members.
After years of hard work, she gained a Summer internship at Duncan Cotterill, and was ‘pretty chuffed to be there’, but still felt something was missing from her life – her creativity.
It was two years after that bad day in court, while at home flipping through Peppermint Magazine, Bridget stumbled across the UN’s sustainable development goals. Seventeen goals, represented by seventeen colours that make up a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. Playing with the beads on her necklace, she had an idea – each could represent an SDG.
“I would tell a few people my idea but didn’t do anything with it because it felt silly”.
One of those people, a good friend, shared the idea of Bead and Proceed to a member of the United Nations Association Trust. “They loved the idea and said I should pitch for funding, which I did and the funding I received paid for the first order of Bead and Proceed Kits”.
Bead and Proceed officially launched in February 2019. Since then, Bridget has facilitated workshops for over 6,000 individuals across New Zealand & beyond.
How did you turn your idea into a viable business?
Bead and Proceed started as bead necklace and keyring creation ‘Kits’ sold to anyone aligned with the UN’s SDG.
All materials for the kit are ethically sourced following the SDG’s. By supporting organisations like SILENCE, which employ adults with physical, hearing and speaking disabilities in Kolkata, India.
But after an invite to deliver a workshop for a large company on Waiheke island, I realised workshops were the direction I needed to take the company.
How did you know when it was the right time to go all-in with Bead and Proceed (full-time)?
While still working as a lawyer, a lingering question was bothering Bridget. ‘Where could I go if I give this 100%’. It took two years of tinkering and market validation before she decided to go full time with Bead and Proceed.
Making the switch from side-hustle to full-time is an incredibly tough decision to make.
Here’s how Bridget approached it.
“Say you’re standing in front of a door, with a pile of wood in your arms. This wood will help keep your embers warm, but you want a flame! Sometimes, you have to drop the wood, so your hands are free to open the door and see if a burning blaze (your real purpose) lies behind it. It feels risky dropping the wood that you’ve worked so hard to chop and stock. But it’s worth the risk when you discover, behind the door, lies a bomb fire.”
People say they’re inspired by the risk Bridget took. After all, not many people have the guts to throw away a successful legal career to go all-in on a side project.
In her words, it was a necessity. “I felt like I wasn’t adding any value to my firm, my clients, to the profession, to myself or to the world.” which took a toll on her mental health.
“There were days as I biked to work, I wondered… if a car door slammed me, I could go to a hospital instead of work. That was where my mental health was at.”
Her support network, her mum and her partner made the leap easier. Having people believe in you helps keep self-doubt at a safe level. They, in a way, gave her ‘permission’ to pursue her purpose.
“At the end of the day, though, You’ve got to truly believe in what you’re doing. People don’t back businesses; they back people.”
What is a social enterprise? What makes them unique?
“As eloquently put by Christchurch Lawyer Stephen Mo a social enterprise “takes the mind of a business and the heart of charity”.
A social enterprise is for profit, but the core purpose is to drive positive change for society rather than make money.
Bridget hopes that one day, all businesses will take this approach.
What should people interested in starting or who have just started a social enterprise know?
Start with the social good you want to do.
Then look around and see if anyone else is already tackling this challenge.
“If you have to be the face of the business to do the good’ then a social enterprise might not be for you”. Ego’s need to be put aside; the mission must come before profits.
“People will see through you if ego rather than a good cause drives you. You have to check yourself to see if you’re being authentic.”
How do you get 50-year-old CEOs excited about painting beads? What’s the trick to converting the non-believers?
“As the SDGs speak a global language and it’s the largest framework globally for sustainability, companies are getting pressure from their shareholders and board members to align with the UN goals. Companies don’t know where to start, and workshops are a way to kick-off this discussion and help people connect to these goals.”
“It’s my job as a facilitator to help people get out of their comfort zone and to feel inspired about the SDG framework through a creative exercise. And my challenge to people who resist and see creativity as child’s-play is if we’re too uncomfortable to come together to paint beads, how will we ever come together to address these global issues? Also… after doing a workshop, you realise it was never about the beads. It’s simply a practice to help people create a safe space to discuss and find ways to tackle the goals we care about.”
“There’s lots of psychology behind how painting is a great way to create a safe space. It’s even been used as distraction therapy to help treat WW2 soldiers with PTSD.”
“Abit of tongue in cheek helps people relax too.”
“I’ve never had a workshop that people regretted attending. And I can say this to everyone with confidence.”
“We’re all starved of creativity. And we all enjoy it when we get into it.”
You must be a good presenter, how did you get good? Do you have any tips for speaking in public?
“I still get shit scared before speaking in front of people – my heart is racing, I’m freaking out. But I feel like I’m being my most authentic self doing this.”
“It’s cliche, but practice, practice, practice.”
For people new to public speaking, Bridget suggested starting with baby steps.
Read your speech many times. Practise in front of a mirror, then friends and family and eventually in front of groups.
“Being confident is huge, and practice builds confidence.”
“As a facilitator, you have to be vulnerable to create a safe space for other people to be vulnerable. Making people laugh and relax also helps.”
Bridget has done this presentation 100’s of times. Every iteration helps her improve. She knows where to pause, where to change the tone, when to slow down, how to make people laugh. And says, “elements of surprise are a good way to keep people engaged.”
Standard advice says you don’t want to build a business around a problem you have to educate people about first. What unique challenges does Bead and Proceed face because you have to educate before selling?
“As a society, we’re all moving towards wanting to do better.” So society (championed by the UN) does a lot of the work for Bridget, driving awareness and education.
She still has to explain the framework. But not the importance of the framework. Building a sustainable world is important to everyone. The framework the UN has created to achieve this speaks a united language.
I realised here that social enterprises are unique because they solve problems for societies rather than individuals. And there is often a pre-existing collective demand for solutions.
What’s your most significant driver of growth? How do you get the word out about Bead and Proceed?
“LinkedIn has been huge for building brand awareness. It’s way more visual than you’d think. Photo’s and video’s get soo much more traction.”
Bridget takes a building in public approach on LinkedIn. Posting about workshops, she’s facilitated. Writing articles about the UN’s sustainable development goals. And sharing her story & mission. “You’ve just got to be consistent.”
Cold calling & cold emails have worked well. You have to get comfortable with rejection and embrace it. Rejection is disappointing but use that energy to contact more people.
Bridget finds emails more effective than LinkedIn messages. Likely due to the high amount of spam people receive on Linkedin.
Even better is a warm email intro. “It’s the power of proximity, rather than going direct, get an introduction from a mutual connection.”
Word of mouth is her most effective channel, though. A credit to the value of the workshops she’s facilitating.
Even though facilitating more workshops is the most effective way to sell. Bridget still spends 75% of her time on sales and marketing. And she couldn’t stress enough how important it is to be out there championing your business. “You can’t sit back and wait.”
What’s the toughest lesson or the most traumatic experience you’ve faced while building Bead and Proceed?
“Facing the constant criticism and doubters of your idea.”
When the doubters turn into self-doubt, and you’re thinking about quitting, remember this. “If you quit, it will not happen.” So Bridget recommends taking a break instead. Re-evaluate and see what comes from the break. “There’s a lot of pressure to go, go, go and desire to see results instantly but learning patience is power and taking a step backs helps with this.”
Related to these internal and external doubt moments, Bridget had a few recommendations.
First, celebrate the highs; they’re temporary, so make the most of them. And vice-versa, recognise that the lows are only temporary.
It’s easier said than done, but Bridgets tries to refocus negative energy from the critics into something that serves her.
“You’re going to compare yourself with others and where they are at constantly. It’s hard but try your best to stop comparing and remembering that your journey is different. Everything will make sense in hindsight.”
What’s a blindspot that lets you down that you’ve had to overcome?
I have very little patience and have known about this for years. Patience is a skill she has had to learn the hard way. She didn’t truly understand the benefits of being patient until accidental patience paid off with Bead and Proceed.
Covid cost Bridget a huge opportunity. “It sucked and was heartbreaking to lose the work. I got frustrated from this short-fall and just wanted Covid to leave.”
She was forced to figure out another way to run her workshops after being sidelined by Covid, which led to many new opportunities and a more sustainable business model.
Booking workshops with organisations after two years of back and forth further backed this point up. Timing is big, but you can’ count on it. You can’t force outcomes.
Bead and Proceed is highly emotive work; how do you unwind and destress?
“Yeah. It wasn’t until I did back to back workshops for five days that I realised how draining this work can be.
I have to take time in nature to unwind. Walking in the hills. Honestly, it sounds weird but hugging a tree and walking with my feet in the grass.
Sometimes it’s okay to exist and ignore the pressure we put on ourselves. We are human; we have to look after ourselves. It’s okay to binge-watch Netflix.”
“Inventing Anna” is her latest Netflix binge – A great story with important messages about society’s trappings.
Bridget also mentioned meditation and connecting with friends as hugely helpful.
Are there any other health and well-being activities you like to get involved in?
“Every second Thursday, my twin-sister and I run an 80’s themed aerobics class. I wasn’t around for the 80s, but they had amazing outfits, and it sounded like a great time. It wasn’t the most sustainable time. There was a lot of waste. A time of pop/colour/plastic and blissful ignorance.”
How are you educating yourself – where are you learning?
Bridget Williams likes to listen to podcasts about business, but when pressed for a recommendation, she was way more excited to share these.
Podcast: ‘The case of the missing hit’ by ‘Reply All’ “you just have to go on the journey – that’s all I’m going to say.”Book: The Silent Patient. “A psychological thriller with a huge twist, and it was amazing.”