The search for meaning in work was always front of mind for Sandra Capponi during her career in the corporate banking sector, but her passion to make a difference wasn’t always well understood by those around her.
“I’ve always found it interesting how people love to question why you’re going down a certain path when it doesn’t quite suit their idea of what’s acceptable for you,” Sandra says. “In the business context, I was often branded the ‘crazy socialist’ pushing for change agendas that a lot of people didn’t think were core to running a business. Then in social circles I was criticised for being conservative and ‘selling out’ to the ‘dark side’ by working in the corporate sector.”
When Sandra met Gordon Renouf, her now co-founder of social responsibility app Good on You, she felt a “call to action” and backed with an MBA, it was time to make the leap.
“I needed to stop thinking about what I thought I should be, and just reflect on who I was, what was important to me, and what I really gave a shit about. In one respect it was a big change, but it actually just went back to thinking simply about what I was about.”
Now Good on You has a small team, has been downloaded over 55,000 times across Australia, the US and Canada, and has rated over 1200 fashion brands for their human rights and environmental sustainability practices.
I talked to Sandra about her drive to make a difference, the leap from corporate life to an ethical start up, and her advice for others keen to do the same.
What did you gain from working in Corporate Social Responsibility for a major bank?
I learnt that the corporate sector has a huge impact on society, both good and bad, and that there’s so much more we should be doing to face into that. There’s not only a responsibility, but a real opportunity to use business as a force for good.
I was also lucky enough to work in Indigenous affairs, an area that I’m really passionate about. I went to the Kimberley (with the Jarwun Indigenous corporate partnerships program) and it was an amazing experience to learn about such an old and beautiful culture that has had to overcome lots of troubles, but respects people and the land like nothing else. It cemented that I wanted to play an active role in society, and made me think about how I could use my business skills to do that.
When did you turn your attention to the issues behind the scenes in the fashion industry?
After all that time at work trying to change the role of corporates, I was having more thoughts about my role as an individual, and the power that each of us has to change things for the better by the everyday choices that we make. I started to think about the food that I eat and the clothes that I wear, and I started hearing about some of the human rights issues behind the scenes of some of the major fashion labels. Then, in 2013, when I heard about the Rana Plaza collapse (which killed over 1000 garment factory workers in Bangladesh), I really paid attention.
Poor conditions in garment manufacturing (such as dangerous working environments, unregulated hours, underpayment, toxic health hazards, etc.) impact on women and children especially. People might say that while the fashion industry is causing some of these issues, it is employing people and creating new markets in developing countries around the world. That is true, but I don’t accept that has to come at the cost of people’s lives. And when you drill down to the individual stories of women and children in particular, you realise that what’s happening is not OK, and that there is a huge need and opportunity to change things. You can see how that links into what we’re trying to do at Good on You!
Is society in general too complacent about these issues?
Many people act passively and think it is up to the big organisations and the regulators and the governments to change things for the better. But there’s something incredibly positive and empowering in the idea that, not only do we have a responsibility, but we have the power to change things as individuals. And for all the people that are happy to sit back, there’s just as many of us who want to use that power to stand up for what we think is right.
What was it like going from corporate life to start up?
It’s definitely much less structure and much less clarity around what the future looks like.
My role is focused on business development. It’s exciting because we’re creating our own path, it isn’t ‘destined’, there’s no rigid timeline and long term plans to follow. We’re trying to figure out how to solve a big social problem by listening to what consumers want, and using people power to shake up business behaviour for the better.
On the other hand, resources are limited in a way that I didn’t really need to worry about in the corporate sector and that’s tough, especially because I don’t feel like we can reward the people who work for us like they deserve.
What have been some of the personal challenges of the change?
I’m lucky that I’m at a stage where I can be flexible, and I was really craving that. I don’t want to reflect on the corporate experience negatively, because I learnt a lot from some really great people during that time. But I was just craving something really different, that made me feel I could be myself, and was meaningful.
That sense of ‘meaning’ in work can be really hard to find.
Throughout my corporate career I was always thinking about the ‘next step’, always searching for something else, thinking ‘what was that next important career move?’ And it’s great that I can finally stop searching, chasing that next goal. This is it.
You have an MBA, is it coming into play?
In many ways I am tapping into all the different parts of the MBA, from finance to marketing, so it’s good to feel like I’m getting something back, but I don’t want to overstate its value. I’ve been reflecting and questioning how important it was for me to do my MBA, and at end of the day it’s the experiences you have and the things you care deeply about that set you up for this type of venture.
So what would you say to others who are looking to enter the startup world?
If there is something you have been thinking about doing for a long time, have faith that you have the right skills and absolutely go for it. It was really easy in the corporate sector to lose perspective about what is important and also what is possible. But when you get out of that environment, you realise pretty much everything is possible if you’re passionate about it, and you are the only person that knows what’s right for you.
That’s true. That’s excellent advice.
I do want to emphasise that I’m really grateful for where I’ve come from and where I’m going – and that is also part of what I am trying to say. As females we often question what we can do and what we should do, maybe a lot more than our male counterparts. But if we recognise our skills, the potential of our positions and the opportunities that are available to us, we feel more confident to just dive in and give it a go.
What’s the feedback on your success at Good on You so far?
I think there are always going to be those two sides of opinions, but the people that know me the best can see that this has been such a great move. They can see that it is something that I really love, that I am really passionate about and they, like me, believe I can make it work.
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Photography by Courtney King.