Shelby Kretz is on a mission to help create a generation of changemakers who will dismantle oppression and fight for justice. Shelby is the founder of the Little Justice Leaders subscription box. Little Justice Leaders is a monthly box that provides resources for elementary school students to learn about complex issues of social justice in a kid-friendly way. Through her work, she reaches families and educators with learning experiences rooted in social justice, helping to raise young people who are aware of the injustices in society, care about their impact on the world, and seek to become world-changers.
Shelby is an educational researcher and Ph.D Candidate in Education at UCLA. Her research focuses on the connection between the (in)justice system and the education system. In addition, Shelby is the co-founder of 1girl, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower young women through leadership development programming.
CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?
To me, conscious entrepreneurship means an entrepreneurship path that is rooted in positive impact, ethical practices, and social justice. Conscious entrepreneurs think about their impact on their customers, employees, partners, and suppliers. They think about how to do things in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved. Conscious entrepreneurs also think about their environmental impact.
A number of companies have corporate social responsibility projects and programs. This is not the same thing as conscious entrepreneurship. Giving money, time, or resources to support the community is great, but it is very different from creating an organization that is rooted in social impact and positive change.
Conscious entrepreneurs center social and environmental impact in every decision they make — from packaging to customer service to hiring, and everything in between. That is what I am always trying to do with my company Little Justice Leaders. There is always more than can be done, but each and every day I work hard to make decisions that will create positivity in the world.
CAREER — What led you to your particular career path?
In college, I was majoring in Psychology, and I was actually hoping to become a psychologist. In my senior year of college, a conversation with two friends changed that path drastically.
I was sitting on a bench on campus with my friends. One of them grew up in Kenya, and the other grew up in India. We were in a deep conversation about our experiences as women in different parts of the world.
We started looking into what was available for girls in our community, and we were disappointed. While there was a lot of programming, none of it was focused on actual leadership skills (though many of them claimed to be teaching leadership). When you dug into the curriculum, they were actually exploring issues like body image, “girl drama,” and sex education. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, it just… wasn’t leadership.
So, we reached out to a local summer camp where I’d been volunteering and asked if we could run a program for their girls. They said yes. We started talking about it, and afterschool programs started reaching out to us. Suddenly there was more interest than we could manage, and we knew that we were onto something.
The next thing I knew, I was spending my afternoons in different summer camps, afterschool programs, and schools around Columbus. I started to see the challenges facing the public schools in our community, which set me on a path to learn more about our education system. A few years later, I applied for a Ph.D. program in Education because I wanted to understand the education system and inequities in society from a more structural lens.
My passion for education, social justice, and entrepreneurship converged in creating Little Justice Leaders.
MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
When we were starting 1girl, a lot of people doubted us. We spoke to anybody who would listen, and a number of women in positions of power told us we wouldn’t be successful. However, one person was a constant cheerleader from the first day we met her: Dr. Patty Cunningham.
Dr. Patty was the first person outside of myself and my two co-founders to join our board of directors. She connected us to schools, and she helped us write the curriculum. From day one, she constantly told us she believed in us and our mission.
When I was thinking about graduate school, I was nervous to tell the 1girl Board of Directors. I thought they might think it would take away my focus from the organization. When I told Dr. Patty that I was considering a Ph.D., she said, “You have to do this.”
“What if it impacts 1girl?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You have to do it. We need more female Ph.D.’s. You need to do this.”
She supported me through the process and even wrote a letter of recommendation for me. She celebrated with me when I got into my dream school.
Sadly, Dr. Patty passed away when I was in my first year of graduate school, but her legacy lives on in me and the many others she mentored in her life. I always seek to uphold her values of justice and equity throughout everything I do, and I hope in some small way, I can continue the work she was doing in the world.
TO THRIVE — When you see yourself thriving: Do you see yourself opening up opportunities for others along the way to participate in your success, and how?
Part of my duty as a woman is to open doors for those behind me. I see it as my responsibility especially to open doors for women and nonbinary folx, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and others from marginalized groups. For me, part of the beauty of success for women is the ability to help others get there. While I know historically this has not always been the case, it is one of the primary goals of my career and my life.
One way I do this is through my company values. For example, one of Little Justice Leaders’ values is: We seek to support, uplift, and funnel resources directly to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, and other marginalized entrepreneurs, authors, artists, educators, and creators. We do this by making an effort to purchase goods and consulting services, make donations, and hire people from these communities.
Another one of our company values is: We seek to mentor young leaders, especially young LGBTQ+ BIPOC women and nonbinary folx. One way we’ve done this is by bringing on two high school students as part-time employees to support our social media creation. We spend a significant portion of their time with us on mentoring, teaching, and guiding them. While it would be easier and less costly to hire somebody with more experience, mentoring is an important part of who we are and what we believe in as a company. It also aligns with our value of supporting, uplifting, and funneling resources.
I hope that other entrepreneurs will start to think more about this aspect of the work as well. I have started to see a shift in this, which I strongly consider to be part of the conscious entrepreneurship movement.
CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story how you got involved? How did it make you feel?
Educational equity is extremely important to me. I am currently a Ph.D. student in Urban Schooling at UCLA, and my research focuses on educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated youth. I hope my research will help some young people make the transition from the juvenile (in)justice system back into education.
Beyond the juvenile (in)justice system, I’m interested in excellent educational opportunities for all young people. One goal of Little Justice Leaders is to provide meaningful real-world educational experiences for kids. Kids (like adults) learn best when the material is something they can connect to real life. With educational materials about social justice issues, kids feel empowered to make a change and excited to learn more about the world around them. I hope this provides deep learning experiences that will open their eyes, foster critical thinking, and change their perspectives in some way.
Social justice education in particular is an important aspect of justice in general. Young people grow up to become educators, health care providers, artists, business leaders, and law enforcement officers. When they grow up learning about social injustices, they develop a lens of critical thinking that allows them to deconstruct systems of oppression and fight for justice in their work and life. Educating kids — especially those that hold privilege — on these topics helps facilitate a shift in our cultural collective understandings of the world around us. Social justice education has been around for a long time, but it’s finally starting to become popular in traditional US schools. I think this shift will help create change across all issues of justice.
THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?
I already see the face of entrepreneurship changing. More and more entrepreneurs are centering social impact as a major part of their work and their mission. The reality is that consumers are looking for brands who care about the community and care about people. Consumers are paying attention to business practices like fair wages, environmental sustainability, and ethical supply chains. They want to see companies that put ethics first.
They also want to see brands and companies that are relatable. People are craving human connection, and they don’t want to interact with a company. They want to interact with other humans.
For new entrepreneurs, I strongly encourage you to consider what kind of company you want to create. Every company stands for something, whether they realize it or not. What will you stand for? What will you be known for? It might be an ethical supply chain, incredible employee care, or the best customer care. It might be animal rights, anti-racism, or feminism. It could be personalization, kindness, or creating memorable experiences. Whatever it is, spend some time thinking about what kind brand you want to create. I believe that will be the difference between future brands that succeed and those that fail.
ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?
Take it step by step. You don’t have to have a business degree or be an expert on business to start one. You don’t even have to know what a profit and loss statement is, or where to source materials. You just need to have an idea, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to doing the work. Everything you can do in business has been done before, in some way. You can learn what you need to learn from books, mentors, and peers. Take a single step forward, and then another. You don’t need a flawless website, huge social media following, and perfected product to get started. Just start.
I started my business with what I knew — Instagram. I didn’t know if people would be interested in social justice resources for kids, so I just started posting about it to see what would happen. As it turns out, people were interested. After just a few weeks of posting, I began to see traction through followers and messages from caregivers and educators. That’s when I knew I was onto something.
I did the same with my first venture, which was a nonprofit organization. I always say: If we had known what we were getting into with starting a nonprofit, we never would have done it. I’m so grateful that never thought to Google: How to start a nonprofit. We would have been completely overwhelmed.
Instead, we started asking around and found simple steps to take. We first secured that spot at a summer program where I was already a volunteer. Then we reached out to local educational leaders for support with putting together a curriculum. When we got stuck, we asked around until somebody was able to help us.
There are so many inspiring entrepreneurs who have come before you with little to no resources, and they made it work. You can, too.
DRIVE — Do you sometimes feel bad for “wanting more out of life”, and if so, why? What is your personal motivation that leads you through the hardships of entrepreneurship?
I don’t. As women, we are constantly bombarded with messages to think and be small. We are expected to fit into a narrow idea of what it means to be a good woman — which involves being a perfect mother, doting wife (to a man), and to be grateful for what you have and never seek more. That isn’t for me. Men don’t apologize for dreaming big, so women and nonbinary people shouldn’t either.
I do want more out of life. And I want more women, nonbinary, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups to speak up and not feel bad for wanting more, either.
There is also the persistent and harmful idea that you shouldn’t make money by doing something good in the world, which I fundamentally disagree with. If business leaders can get rich by selling sugary, fast foods, and addictive games, why shouldn’t people who are making a positive impact in the world also be well compensated?
While I do understand the issues with capitalism, within our system and how it works today, I don’t think we should be made to feel guilty for doing good for the world and doing well for ourselves at the same time.
My motivation is to lead the way for others to follow their dreams. For too long, many groups of people in our society have been limited in their opportunities. I want to help pave the way for something different. As an LGBTQ+ woman, I hope my representation as a business owner can help inspire others, and I hope I can open doors for others as well (because inspiration is great, but we also need to provide tangible support).
CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours?
Entrepreneurship is indeed hard. For me, a coping mechanism is connecting with other entrepreneurs. Finding a community of people who understand your challenges (or at least can relate) makes a huge impact. This has been difficult this past year since we haven’t been able to see people in person, but technology allows for connections that can be just as meaningful. I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to this more when it is safe to do so!
INSPIRATION — Is there an entrepreneurial book or podcast that inspires you that you would like to share with our readers?
The Hello Seven podcast with Rachel Rodgers is my weekly inspiration. Rachel is on a mission to help women everywhere (and especially women of color) build wealth. She is unapologetic about her approach to business and life, and she is fighting against extremely strong cultural and societal biases against women and money.
Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:
Conscious entrepreneurship for me is about building a sustainable business that values and respects the resources used and makes an effort of giving back to society.
I believe we need entrepreneurs to really get involved in the causes close to their heart.
This is why I reach out to entrepreneurs that aim for more than generating profit. With this interview, I aim to share entrepreneurial purpose-led passion to inspire others.
Looking forward to learn from you. Reach out to me via LinkedIn.