Ian Rosenberger | Crain's Pittsburgh

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ian Rosenberger

About the company:  

Thread is a social media enterprise that employs people in economically struggling countries like Haiti and Honduras. While locals collect and sort plastic trash, Thread ships it to the U.S. where the refuse is milled into fabric for use in clothing and apparel.

The Mistake:

In the beginning, we thought it would be easy, waltzing into a country where we had never been before to set up an operation on the ground. We sketched out the vision for Thread on a sheet of wrapping paper. We were incredibly arrogant and so wrong about everything.

I remember going to Nathan Martin at Deeplocal and telling him about it. He looked at me and said, "You're out of your mind. There's more to it than sketching out on a napkin a machine that can turn plastic trash into fabric."

We realized right away that we needed to spend quite a bit of time learning about the communities where we wanted to work. It's very difficult to effect change unless you can speak to people on the ground in their language. People speak Creole in Haiti and Spanish in Honduras. Four years in we're still connecting with the community and building relationships. The communities are so poor, so it's a delicate situation.

Serving with humility was an important lesson for us.

The Lesson:

I totally underestimated the energy required to pull it all off. The machine we operate and use is incredibly complex mechanically. More importantly, we needed to establish credibility with the people in Haiti and Honduras. Serving with humility was an important lesson for us. We spend a lot of time having conversations with the poor. 

The economic and political conditions that create extreme poverty in communities are reliant on the robustness of the economy. The more we speak with the people, the more we realize how alike people are everywhere. We all want the same things: a roof over our heads, full bellies for our children, better opportunities for our children than we had.

Understanding this can translate to products. It gives you an authentic story that allows you to connect with people, especially makers with buyers. The better we can connect makers and buyers, the more successful we'll be in our mission and impact.

Follow Ian Rosenberger on Twitter at @ianrosenberger and Thread at @threadintl.

Photo courtesy of Ian Rosenberger

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