Home is a sacred thing. This is something I have come to learn on a deep level over the years. The idea of belonging to a community and being able to go after your dreams is something many Americans believe is a possibility for them, if not their own birthright. This hope is not a possibility for all. Refugees often do not have a place to call home, a community to belong to, or a dream to strive for. I think most of us realize that there is a refugee crisis in this world, but I certainly did not know the heartbreaking fact that 99% of these refugees will not get placed in a new home or new country to live in. It is less than 1 percent that escape the life of a refugee camp for a chance to have a home, to belong, to dream. I am so passionate about this business love profile on Liberti because they are making it their personal mission to help make sure refugees in America have a possible place to work and thrive, while expanding awareness on refugee's needs in our own country and around the world.
Please read this heartfelt and important interview with Liberti CEO/founder, Pamela Norton-Shelpuk.
In the picture above, I wearing a stack of 3 coordinate rings with the longtitude and latitude of a real refugee camp, formerly home to some of Liberti's creators. Click here to shop.
Shop Liberti's collection on their website.
ATC: Tell me about your background, both professionally and personally.
Hello - I am Pamela Norton-Shelpuk the Founder/CEO of Liberti, a lifestyle brand for the conscious American consumer, all accessories are handmade in America to empower vulnerable resettled refugees in the US. I am also CEO/Founder of Activate, a marketing agency specializing in purpose-driven branding and interactive campaigns. It’s a team of creative, tech-savvy and socially driven professionals utilizing their experience in branding, interactive and social media marketing, to deliver engaging, purpose-driven campaigns that improve clients’ social impact as well as their bottom lines.
Prior to founding Liberti, I have been privileged to partner with not only innovative U.S. startups as a social impact marketing consultant, but also as a Senior Sales and Marketing Partner with Fortune 500 companies including United Airlines, AT&T and American Express.
I serve as an Advisory Board member for Colorado Succeeds, Naya Life Foundation and Women Who Start Up, and a thought leader in the social purpose-branding arena, providing strategic counsel to clients on the development of cause and purposeful branding strategies.
I hold a BS degree in International Business from Regis University in Denver and spent several years studying International Relations at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. I love sushi, Jane Austen and Colorado hiking. I have two amazing children and I am still trying hard to love camping with my understanding husband.
ATC: Wow that is an impressive and inspiring back story. We will definitely have to go for sushi together sometime so I can hear more about your experience in socially-driven brands.
What inspired you to launch your own socially-drive brand, Liberti?
I have grown to appreciate the opportunities available to me as an American entrepreneur, due in large part to the efforts of our veterans and the hard work of our own refugee/immigrant families. I even traced my own refugee heritage to the forced migration of French immigrants from Canada to New Orleans. It is with gratitude and honor to our own immigrant families that has inspired a desire in me to "pay it forward" to assist in refugee assimilation in America today and launch Liberti.
ATC: I couldn't agree more.
Tell me more about Liberti and its powerful message.
Our vision is to empower all US refugees to be free to live the American dream. We’re dedicated to integrating American refugees in all aspects of our business and providing on-the-job training and career building opportunities to ensure growth and professional development. Eventually, we hope to give all employees the opportunity to become shareholders in the company they're helping to build. We intend to accomplish this while continuing to create one-of-a-kind, beautiful and fashion-forward accessories with the highest quality materials, handmade in the USA.
Liberti’s <1% Collection seeks to raise awareness for the less than one percent of refugees worldwide who are fortunate enough to escape the hardships of refugee camps, and for the 99 percent who remain behind. We developed six <1% uniquely designed pieces that are handcrafted with the less than one symbol. By purchasing a piece in this collection each person becomes a part of our mission of love, hope, and change by wearing and sharing the collection to help empower the <1% in their journey.
ATC: Do you personally design the jewelry? Can you describe this process?
The design process is a collaboration between myself and our Design Director, Megan Combs who herself is a trained jeweler and silversmith. The process begins with our initial concepts and drawings based on inspirations, ideas, stylist’s feedback and requests for new products. Once we finalize the drawings and layouts in Photoshop we go to CAD renderings and finalize the size, shape, weight and functional specs. After we complete and sign off on these specs we go to the 3D printer to develop the mold and then we cast and produce the product. When we complete the casting, cleaning, polishing and finishing the piece we test these products with several brand ambassadors to obtain feedback on quality, layout, look and feel. We then determine quantity for production, sizes, metal selection and finalize the go-to market timeline and plan.
ATC: How did you get involved in social change?
Over the years I have developed a deep understanding of the process of leading new products and companies to market. I then combined my passion for leveraging technology to build relationships between brands and consumers that led to “Activate Purpose.” Activate Purpose is a process to help clients who are looking to strengthen their brand’s role in society by moving away from push advertising toward a model of listening and engaging.
I embraced a commitment to building meaningful partnerships between brands and social issues. I believed the biggest challenge for organizations that desire to occupy a niche in the social space is to adopt a mindset that values a strategic partnership with their stakeholder base. Unlike other marketing methodologies, Activate Purpose launches purpose-driven campaigns to a new "conscious commerce" business model -- where organizations and brands can be profitable and impact the greater good.
ATC: Why is it important to you personally to empower refugees?
Since the beginning of time, refugees have been leaving their homelands to flee wars, famine and persecution. However, the severity of the current refugee crisis is at a level that hasn’t been seen since WWII. Whether it’s the much publicized Syrian crisis or the thousands escaping from other global hot spots such as Honduras, Nigeria and Myanmar, refugees are pouring into neighboring and wealthier countries like the US at an alarming rate.
Yet oddly enough, in a country founded by refugees, the US hasn’t always treated newcomers well. For example, forcing Japanese immigrants into internment camps or denying more than half of the visas or European Jews escaping the Holocaust, our history doesn’t exactly echo Lady Liberty’s heartening inscription of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...”
Liberti’s Less Than 1% ad campaign seeks to raise awareness of the plight of refugees already here and those that remain in camps around the world. Even today less than one percent of refugees are fortunate enough to escape the hardships of camps, only to be greeted by racism and intolerance once they get here.
It is our sincere hope that a simple reminder of our past can help us be more compassionate in the present. Rather than repeat the mistakes of yesterday, we need to learn to recognize the situation at hand and offer smarter solutions for a brighter future for all. By creating opportunities to help empower our resettled refugees with the skills they need to become contributing members of the community, Liberti and other similar organizations can reduce the number of those marginalized by society and help everyone be free to live the dream.
ATC: Wow that is so devasting to realize how many refugees do not escape to a place where they have the chance to start anew. I can definitely see what motivates your passion in the project, and it is deeply moving.
What motivates you professionally?
What motivates me every day is the opportunity to take my ideas to market. You have the chance every day to enhance your ideas, pivot and make them better than before. I am a very results-driven person and launching a great product and achieving the desired end result is my primary motivation. While I enjoy concocting and brainstorming new ideas on my own, I’m particularly motivated by the buzz of working with a team. It’s very rewarding leading and working closely with others who share the same common goal. I like to take on a challenge; I like to rise to that challenge as part of a concerted team effort – and I love to bring my team alongside me to take the idea to the next level.
ATC: Are there any new styles that you will be introducing to the Liberti line?
We have a very interesting global iconic series of necklaces and rings that we will be developing this summer. We are planning a launch date to release these new pieces just in time for the holidays.
ATC: What is your favorite part about being a small business owner?
Being a small business owner is like designing your own blueprint without being a licensed architect. You can read every self-help book, attend seminars and podcasts on how to launch a successful small business but the blueprint is all yours and it constantly needs attention. I love the idea of designing a new blueprint and then finding and hiring the best talent to make it happen. It can be a very lonely place and that is why it is so important to align yourself with mentors to ensure you stay focused and on track with your plan. Not to mention I have complete control of my own schedule!
ATC: Why is this your passion?
I have spent my entire career working on projects that I thought were respectable “business projects”. Everything from launching a new software as a service, e-commerce technology to branding a new consulting service group for a Fortune 1000 company. I believed that working on those types of projects gave me more respect in my industry and among my peers. I thought that working on what I call “soft” projects such as jewelry, toys, cosmetics, other social good products would be perceived as not very serious or reputable.
After years of working on great projects I really wanted to launch a new initiative that had been calling me for over 5 years. It all started after I began volunteering and embracing our new Nepalese refugee community in Colorado 5 years ago. Over these years I had this deep seated passion to launch a new business and to support this community and our country. I saw this disconnect on how difficult it was for these resettled refugees to on-board into a good job here in America. It’s hard to find companies that will take the risk in hiring them and I wondered if I could launch a company that could successfully on-board these new immigrants. I was first more concerned about walking away from my clients and project work that I had built up over the years because it was just easier to not make a move and just stay the course.
I realized this past summer that when you wake up every day being more excited about working on your “soft” project then working on your paying clients it might be time to make that move. After a year of testing, personally funding, praying and finding an angel investor the Liberti dream has taken flight. I don’t think of Liberti as a “soft” do-gooder idea, but a successful accessory company that has dreams of being just as successful as an Alex & Ani or Kendra Scott. An accessory name brand.
ATC: Good for you. I totally know the feeling. It was a big deal for me to leave the design world and start my own blog. I too have hopes of growing ATC into a lifestyle name brand with time.
ATC: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your day-to-day work routine?
Project plan updates, status updates and the follow-up pile of emails on my Monday mornings. My favorite part of the day is meeting with my team, developing new concepts, research shopping, pitching Liberti and catching up with my girl friends for a glass of Prosecco at the end of the week.
ATC: Yes to all of that. I think it is important for people to know that even an our own bosses we do things that we don't always love in order to do what we do love. It's part of the process and the responsiblity.
If you could go back in time, is there any advice that you would offer yourself based on what you know now? Likewise, is there any advice that you could offer to someone who is considering opening their own business?
Surround yourself with positive people and only those that truly LOVE your mission and vision. I don’t mean to just surround yourself with people who only say great things about you because they drank the kool-aid. Make sure you are embraced by friends, peers, mentors and staff that are truly wired “positive people”. You will have enough “nay sayers” who will roll their eyes, question your sanity and laugh under their breath at your ideas. Make sure you test all your new hires with strength finders to ensure you have a well rounded team around you.
Surround yourself with a team mix of collaborators with flexible personalities. Everyone is wearing so many hats and being asked to jump from various tasks every day. Make sure you hire those teammates who are comfortable in that environment because you have to be so nimble early on. This doesn’t mean you don’t hire very organized and tasked oriented people but rather find those skills who have worked in an environment that is dynamic as they will be your greatest asset on staying focused and on task.
Just remember your first idea most likely will be a failure. It is a proven fact that most successful entrepreneurs failed with their first idea. It was only from our initial failure with our Kickstarter campaign that helped launch the idea of creating a symbol around the <1% which took us into an entire new direction and product line. We are now manufacturing our own product, trademarked the design and copyrighted the tagline around a movement that people can understand and support. Our message is clear, concise and the feedback and #libertilove we are receiving has helped confirm our business model and product collection.
ATC: That is such great advise. Embracing failure is such an important part of life, of business, and definitely of being an artist. I had an art professor once tell me to honor your failures and your rejections and keep note of them because each of those failures brings you one step closer to your successes.
Any final last words of inspiration to aspiring or established entrepreneurs, artists and makers?
Make sure you have a theme song or songs that you go to when times get tough and when they are great. I have a couple of songs that I go to when I need to get up or when I want to celebrate. “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly is my go to song when I need to get up and stay positive. “Who Do We Think We Are” by John Legend is my celebration song when I am so excited from some news, opportunities or when I just need to remind myself that anyone can do anything.
ATC: Yes to ALL of that. I couldn't agree more. Music is such an influence of mine. Whenever I am having a shitty day or lacking inspiring my husband and I always joke that it's time to put on "the get psyched mix." Which is really just whatever getting me moving, focused, flowing and working again. It, too, usually involves some 90's R&B.
Thank you so much for sharing your passion and expertise.