Having a business idea that sounds like it will work doesn’t mean that it’s the right idea for your market, your skill set, or the moment in time. Catherina Gomes learned this the hard way. But she bounced back with a success story when she made a smart switch.
Bangladesh is the second largest manufacturer of clothing in the world, trailing only China. It was only natural, then, that when Gomes decided to start a business in her family’s home country, it would involve apparel. So in 2017, she launched a fashion company called 700 Rivers, named to honor the life-giving bodies of water that dot Bangladesh. There was only one problem: The chemical engineer had no experience with textiles. “Due to my lack of background in fashion, I spent more time designing and learning to properly size clothing than I was working with our artisans,” Gomes admits.
But the artisans are the whole point of the company. Gomes employs 28 women in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, all of whom have escaped human trafficking. She pays them upfront for their work, and besides job training, she also provides them with the mental health counseling they need to help them avoid returning to the brothels they’ve escaped.
But in order to employ her artisans and supply them with the opportunities they deserve, Gomes realized she had to pivot her business. At the end of 2019, 700 Rivers made the swap from clothing to soap. Why soap? “Soaps are the product of a simple chemical reaction,” she explains. “It does fit well with my background!”
However, the way that Gomes makes soaps is actually “a rejection of chemicals.” In her day-to-day life, the scientist believes in the value of using as few chemicals as possible on her body. She was shocked, for example, at the compounds she found listed on the “natural” shampoo bars she was using. She also wanted to reduce use of plastics. The result? All-natural soaps that could help keep consumers healthy, but also give back to the land of 700 Rivers. The $10 bars come in South Asian-inflected scents like Cinnamon Spice and Orange-Turmeric.
And the decision to switch up the product has been a fortuitous one. “It’s the best decision I’ve made for the company and for myself,” Gomes says. When she first launched the soap line in December 2019, she placed a small order with the the goal of validating the market. Almost immediately, 700 Rivers sold out of its entire production order. In early January of this year, the founder was able to call her artisans in Bangladesh and let them know that not only had they sold out, but that customers loved the products they were making. The next production order was tripled, meaning triple the amount that each of the artisans was being paid.
For now, Gomes is still working full-time as a chemical engineer in order to self-fund 700 Rivers, but she expects to work exclusively on her soaps before too long. “Right now, my bigger goal is to be a dependable source of income for our artisans,” she admits.
Gomes is aware that one way to bring more money into the business is to apply for grants. She was a runner-up for Hello Alice’s first $10,000 Grant and Mentorship Opportunity. She says that she found Hello Alice through the Bumble Fund. “I have really dived into the community and I love it,” she says, adding that as a solopreneur, it’s been very lonely running a company so far from home. “I had hit that point where I was like, ‘That is really hard.’ I’ve joined a lot of the communities on Hello Alice, and I’m active in a lot of them. I can confide with other people about our struggles and our triumphs.”
While her greatest win is keeping 28 artisans employed and out of brothels, it’s been a point of pride to share her success with them in a new industry. “In 2019, I asked myself if I was making the impact I wanted to be making,” she recalls. “I started creating something that was a better fit for me by creating a product I’m very passionate about.” And the passion shows in every bar of soap. Pivoting suits Gomes, and it suits 700 Rivers and all of its artisans.
For more information on how to pivot your own business, consult the Hello Alice Guide here.