A new nook from Noonday Collection’s Jessica Honegger makes an inspiring case for going scared
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Matt Conant
You might think the founder and CEO of a multimillion-dollar company who comes up with impromptu colloquialisms like “Champagne on fire!” to describe her own energy (live on Facebook, no less) is devoid of fear and self-doubt. Wrong.
In her new book “Imperfect Courage: Live a Life of Purpose by Leaving Comfort and Going Scared,” Jessica Honegger tells the story of how the side hustle she came up with to finance the international adoption of her youngest child started at the counter of an Austin pawnshop and morphed into Noonday Collection, the world’s most successful fair-trade fashion brand. In a free-form conversation that touched on everything from poverty and genocide, to her change of heart about shopping, to the everyday life of a busy working mom, Honegger candidly shares what she learned by “going scared.”
ANNE BRUNO: Let’s start with the paradoxes. You describe yourself as someone who hated shopping your entire life. Yet here you are, eight years into running a fashion business that’s placed over $19 million in orders with 4,500 artisans in 14 countries. Noonday has now sold nearly 500,000 pieces of handmade jewelry and accessories online and at home trunk shows. How did that happen?
JESSICA HONEGGER: That’s true about me hating shopping when I was younger! But what’s behind what we’re doing at Noonday goes way beyond shopping and is about opportunity, for those wanting dignified work and those wanting to use the power of their purse to fuel the change they want to see in the world.
AB: When did you first contemplate writing a book about your experiences starting Noonday Collection?
JH: Well, I love stories. That comes from my dad, and I’ve always been a storyteller by nature. Within the first year of getting started, I knew that what I was witnessing had to be shared. I wanted to be a good steward for the stories of the women I was meeting, from our first partner, Jalia in Uganda, to everyone since. Their stories are so powerful, and I’m passionate about the idea that we’re all more alike than we are different, regardless of the specific circumstances of our lives. As Maya Angelou said, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” So there are really that many names in invisible ink on the cover.
AB: What’s it like to move between the worlds of raising a family and building a business in a prosperous city like Austin and working with people around the world, mostly single moms, who are struggling just to feed their kids?
JH: That’s definitely another paradox, and it can be a challenge. I’ve been in the Gap shopping for back-to-school clothes when my phone’s rung with news that one of our artisan partners needs serious medical attention she can’t afford, or there’s political unrest in one of the communities we work in and decisions have to be made. That’s when you realize the contrasts and how fortunate we are. I think everyone can relate to feeling overwhelmed by the idea of poverty or the reality of human trafficking, and honestly, it can feel paralyzing. But you can make a decision to act, to help in some way. There’s a positive role every one of us can play in these big issues, and some kind of action we can take.
AB: Do people respond to engaging with such overwhelming issues via fashion?
JH: Fashion’s so approachable. It’s like putting zucchini in your brownies — women are drawn to the stories behind everything we make, and we get to use that as a platform to talk about some of these difficult subjects. In the book, I talk about getting out of our own worlds and taking off the bubble wrap we typically live in. No one wants to think about things like genocide and sexual abuse in Rwanda, me included. It’s really hard. But the stories create a human connection and make it easier to go there.
AB: One of the stories you tell deals with more of an everyday issue that any woman can relate to and that’s the struggle with body image. You frame that in the context of the importance of sisterhood. Tell me about the connection between the two.
“When one rises, we all rise together.”
JH: From the time I was little, I always compared myself to others, thinking about who’s fatter, who’s skinnier, better, worse, things like that. It’s so easy to get caught up in a cycle of judgment and competition. You have to stop and ask, “Am I going to see her as a competitor and measure myself against her and find myself coming up short, or putting her down because I come up better? Or am I just going to see her as a sister and choose to believe in her way and what she has to give?” I think we’ve come so far, but in many spheres, especially business, there’s been limited leadership opportunities for women. So a sense of competition, like you have to elbow instead of reaching out a hand, still exists. That’s something I forget sometimes, because at Noonday, I’m surrounded by a sisterhood. It never takes away from your own success to ask someone else, “Hey, how I can help you?” People who do that are the kind of people I want to be around.
AB: Does that concept of sisterhood reflect what you’ve observed in your partners in other countries?
JH: Yes, and it’s really a cultural difference. America was built on the idea of individual success, but in other cultures, there’s more of a tribal mentality, where if one person succeeds, the whole tribe succeeds. When I lived in Guatemala and taught school, I remember that cheating was a foreign concept to the kids — they just wanted everyone to do well! I saw such a communal spirit there. I tell a story in the book about a group we work with in Ethiopia where one of the moms passed away and the other women just told the child, “Well, you’ve got four aunties now, and we’ll all raise you together.” In the places where there’s a lot of abuse and a woman gets kicked out of her home, the way the women rally together and take care of one another is absolutely inspiring to me. In my own family, I grew up around lots of aunts, so that idea of collaboration and collectivity feels natural.
AB: Noonday Collection, as a Certified B Corporation, is built around the notion of using business for the greater good. In the book, you talk about entrepreneurship as a way to provide dignified and sustainable jobs for others. How does that work?
JH: It’s all about linked prosperity among the stakeholders — the artisans, who create our handmade pieces; our ambassadors and hostesses, who sell the products through trunk shows; our customers, whose purchases fuel more opportunities for the artisans; and our employees here in Austin. When one rises, we all rise together. When I was in college, my perception of business was very different than it is today. Then I heard speakers like the founders of Ben & Jerry’s as well as John Mackey, who coined the term “conscious capitalism,” and it really opened my eyes to another way that brings empowerment to others. I attended a retreat once with the author Richard Foster, a Quaker theologian. He told me that his prayer for me was to never scorn the rich and never glorify the poor, but walk with both in peace and build a bridge between them. That bridge-building has turned out to be central to my entire life.
AB: Lots of CEOs have written books about their experiences, but few are as much of a direct call to action as yours. Why this approach?
JH: For one thing, as a maker, I’m biased toward action. And I’ve seen the opportunity we’ve all been given to create opportunity for others. The women and their families, these incredible communities of artisans all over the world — what I’ve witnessed changed me. Believe me, the fear and anxiety never go away for any of us, but that’s okay. By going scared and expanding my empathy to literally take in the whole world, I came to see what I was capable of doing and the impact I could make. That’s what I want readers to know. My goal for the book is to lead people to action. It’s really an invitation to just go scared but keep going toward whatever it is that makes your heart beat a little faster. That’s how you’ll find a life of purpose. Don’t compare yourself and diminish what you have to bring. The world really does need every single one of us and our imperfect courage to shine a light into the darkness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.