5 Tips for Designers Launching Mission-Driven Businesses

FFORA Founder Lucy Jones on how to build purpose into your mission-driven business, find mentors, work with investors, and protect your work.

Lucy Jones didn’t set out to have a career in fashion. “When I was younger, I thought it was just a hobby,” she says. After a textiles class opened her eyes to the possibilities, Jones enrolled in the Parsons BFA Fashion Design program and established her path. Her thesis project, Seated Design, which focused on clothing for the seated body, specifically people who use wheelchairs, won her the 2015 Womenswear Designer of the Year award and landed her on the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Since then, Jones has solidified her passion for creating clothing and accessories for people who have disabilities. In 2019, after an educational fellowship with Eileen Fisher and a stint at the XRC Labs accelerator program to focus her idea, she took a leap of faith to launch FFORA (a play on the phrase “fashion for all”), a line of modular accessories for the disability community that has since been lauded by The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and WWD.

Here, Jones shares advice for designers looking to launch their own mission-driven businesses. You can watch the full video interview in the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network.

Every mission-driven business needs a purpose.

Finding your creative North Star can be a journey in itself — full of false starts and left turns — but it’s one of the most important steps to building your business. For Jones, it took looking for inspiration beyond the status quo.

“It wasn't until I moved to New York City and was studying at Parsons that I really realized there are so many types of people on this planet. I remember one particular day, I was looking at a size-six mannequin thinking, ‘Who is this mannequin? It doesn't represent anyone I really know.’ I felt really deflated and uninspired; I felt like everyone was on a conveyor belt, churning out the same stuff, the same dress, the same top,” Jones says.

Something shifted when Jones found herself in conversation with a family member who has cerebral palsy, who shared how difficult it was to do something Jones took for granted: get dressed. “I realized it had taken me 20 years to ask my cousin personal questions about how he got dressed each day. I realized that that was a problem in itself that I hadn't even asked him about his needs.”

After that conversation, Jones knew she wanted to engage with the disability community. “I wanted to learn and and listen and understand if there were any challenges or any similarities with my cousin's story. And it turned out — after I had groups and gatherings — that his story was incredibly similar to many, many other people,” she says. 

After sharing Seated Design, Jones knew she had found her path: “I felt like I was just scratching the surface of something bigger.” It motivated her to begin researching and working toward launching her mission-driven business, FFORA.

“We realized that whatever we did, the end result had to be open-ended and playful. We weren't here to dictate [to] someone,” she says. “We were here to say, we want to offer tools, and we want you to feel that you can express yourself using our products.” People who use FFORA’s products remain her guiding force when making decisions about new products, partnerships, and the identity of her brand.

Know what you don’t know.

Instead of accepting a job offer or launching her own brand right after graduation, Jones opted to continue her education in the real world. “I wanted to have more experience under my belt. I wanted to learn under someone,” she says.

As a semifinalist for the 2015 Eileen Fisher X CFDA Social Innovator competition, Jones gained experience with Fisher’s iconic brand from the inside as a fellow. Observing Fisher, whom Jones calls a “true leader,” gave her a taste of what it would really be like to run her own business. “I learned a lot about operations, leadership, sustainability, product pricing, shipping duties, import/export — and anything and everything in between,” she says. 

When considering starting out your own mission-driven business, you can never undervalue the worth of hands-on experience to figure out what you’ll need to launch something of your own.

Find the tribe that will lift up your mission-driven business.

“Starting a business can feel isolating,” says Jones. Her next piece of advice is to find your tribe — your community of collaborators, mentors, investors, and supporters who can help you on your journey.

Early on, Jones found herself in an unusual situation: she had too many mentors. “There was a time when I felt like everyone wanted to help, but I didn't know how they could help,” she says. To solve this problem, she had to ask herself what she needed and the purpose each mentor and advisor would serve, keeping the group small and focused. Figure out what your ask is, she says, in order to make the most of everyone’s time.

To be a good mentee, Jones opts for regular, open communication — making sure to have monthly, quarterly, and annual updates for her mentors. Jones shares information about what the team is working on, recent wins, and targeted requests for advice. 

When it comes to getting advice, don’t be afraid to lean on those with more experience when necessary: “I knew that I wasn't an expert at finance, operations, or customer service,” she says of when she was just starting out. “So the best part [of collaborating] is surrounding ourselves with people who are experts,” she says. “There were mentors who literally set up our operations and warehouse for us.”

Protect your work.

As a small mission-driven business, you’ll put in a lot of time and money into developing your ideas, so it’s imperative that you protect them. 

Jones says the first step should be to figure out what your intellectual property (IP) is — essentially an answer to the question, “If someone were to buy this business, what would they be buying?” For FFORA, this meant the modular attachment system they developed for wheelchairs. 

Identifying FFORA’s IP not only helped Jones protect the business in the long run, it also also created value for potential investors. “It's incredibly important to protect your design,” she says. “It basically says you have more control of the way in which people [can use your] design. So that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands that could potentially result in harmful scenarios to the communities you serve.”

Once you’ve identified your IP, Jones suggests working with a lawyer to help you patent it. Keep in mind that patenting IP is not quick — for Jones it was a two-year process — but protecting your work is worth it.

Be bold — and trust your gut.

Raising money from investors, often on demo days, can be grueling. “It takes months of preparation. It takes months of pitching. It takes months of mentally preparing yourself,” Jones says. “I couldn't sleep or eat for like two weeks or three weeks at a time... I was just like, ‘This is so intense.’”

Despite the strenuous nature of fundraising, Jones urges fellow designers to remember that you’re interviewing investors, too. “You have to do your research on them just as much as they are doing their diligence on you” in order to find a good fit, she says. 

“I have actually turned away from a few people because I felt like, ‘This is not going to work.’ I remember when I didn't see any woman in any meeting, that was a red flag to me,” she says. Going with your gut and sticking to your larger purpose will serve you in the long run.

“Signing on with an investor is like a marriage. It is not just about getting a check and it's not just about the money — it's who you're getting the check from and what their values are. Your values as an entrepreneur and your vision for your company [have] to gel.”

Building your mission-driven business

As you can see, Jones’s path to launching FFORA wasn’t a straight line — it took years of research, learning under experts, pitching to investors, and taking advice from a trusted group of supporters — but it made her all the more prepared to launch when she was ready. 

Inspired to take the next step with your creative, mission-driven business, but aren’t sure where to start? The good news is you don’t have to do it alone. Join the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network, where you can connect with likeminded creators, get more interviews like this one, and learn as you build a business around your art.

Meet the author:

Maura M. Lynch is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Brooklyn, NY. In her free time she co-runs STET, a site dedicated to emerging writers and storytelling, and plays guitar and sings in Blush.

The Parsons Entrepreneur Academy--Powered by the Parsons School of Design--is an online platform dedicated to helping creative professionals learn and master the business side of their professions. We provide community, mentoring and courses created for and by people in the creative fields.  Sign-up for our emails and learn how to turn your art into a business.

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