The Next List: Abby Alley
Abby is an elementary school teacher turned entrepreneur when her life took an unexpected turn and she found herself teaching at a school in Tanzania. This experience led her to explore East African culture, learn about craft and fair trade, and opened up a desire to connect women in the US to this very meaningful part of her story. In 2016, Abby began working with artisans and testing the market with an online store and launched her own brand, Abby Alley, in November, 2018.
Abby Alley is a mission-driven design brand showcasing the intersection of fashion & fair-trade. They work with talented artisan partners in East Africa to shape their designs with the purpose of giving back to initiatives in the region that provide access to education, basic needs and ethical employment opportunities.
The collections of jewelry and leather bags reflect the Abby Alley's founding principles of exceptional quality, timeless design, collaborative spirit, and authenticity. Starting this business was a leap of faith for Abby - one that required courage to step outside her comfort zone. It is her desire to inspire and encourage women who are seeking to live a life full of courage - daring to step out - even in the midst of uncertainty.
What has your career path been like up to this point?
I graduated from Northwestern University in 2005, with a degree in Human Development and Psychological Services, with no real career plan, but with a desire to move to New York City for a teaching fellowship.
With no prior teaching experience I landed a job in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium that ended up teaching me a lot about myself. I realized I loved teaching. I loved working with young children, I was actually not bad at it, and I longed to make an impact on people’s lives. I decided to return to Chicago and enroll in Northwestern’s Masters of Education program. I graduated in 2007, and got a job teaching in Chicago Public Schools. I worked at the same school for six years, teaching 1st and 2nd grade, and loved every moment.
Everyone has a turning point(s) in their life, and 2013 was one of them for me. After six years at my school I made the decision to transition out of teaching. It was a hard decision for me, but I was also thinking what my next step would be for my career. I was tossing around the idea of getting a PhD in educational policy or becoming a professor to help train new teachers, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. So I decided to take a few months and volunteer at a school in Tanzania. What I didn’t know is that this experience would change the course of my life.
I loved Tanzania. Tanzanian people have a wonderfully warm, welcoming, and calm way about them. I met so many amazing people - both Tanzanians and other volunteers from Europe, Australia, and the US. My time there went so quickly and I remember on my way back to Chicago that I didn’t want to ever lose the feeling I had. It was a feeling of freedom.
After I returned to the states, I started applying to teaching jobs, but still wasn’t completely sure that’s what I wanted to do. But I needed a job! Two things happened within about a month that felt like clear signs from God leading me. I got a job at a school in the suburbs of Chicago and also became an ambassador with Noonday Collection.
Without these two pieces of the puzzle, I don’t think ABBY ALLEY would be here today. Without Noonday Collection, I probably would never have had this idea. Once I started with Noonday, and saw up-close how fair trade was impacting communities, the wheels began to turn for how I could combine my love for East African craftsmanship and fashion, and make a positive impact at the same time. My new school, and my principal, Joan, in particular, were so supportive when I said I wanted to start this business and hoped I could work part-time. She made it happen!
After many trips back to Tanzania, in the fall of 2016, I launched Zuri Collection, which was an online marketplace for Tanzanian made goods. I sold skirts, glassware, baskets, jewelry, handbags, woven blankets, and more. I was loving it, but also learning a ton about running this type of business. About 18 months into my endeavour, I realized I needed to make some changes if this was going to be sustainable. I needed to hone in my brand and I needed to narrow my product categories. I was stretched too thin. My values were and are to be “fewer, deeper” with artisan groups I partner with. I want to be able to maintain relationships, place consistent orders, and really feel like we are in this together.
In November 2018, I rebranded and launched ABBY ALLEY. The decision to rebrand may have been the hardest decision. After months of deliberating and talking to some trusted women in business, I decided to take the leap. I had been worried about what all of the people who supported me thus far would think, but a trusted business consultant gave me a pearl of wisdom to think about all the people who have yet to hear about my brand. I needed to think bigger! Rebranding turned out to be the best decision I ever made. The brand is so much more clear, so much more of my true heart, and is something I’m genuinely proud of!
How did you know it was time for a change? Was there a defining moment that sparked you into action?
When I decided to leave teaching and do AA full time, that was a huge decision and a scary one. To not know what my income would be each month as a single woman was pretty worrisome. But I also knew that if I didn’t do this full time, it would always remain a side hobby...and I didn’t want it to be just a hobby. The artisan partners I work with are serious about growing their businesses and I wanted to be out on that limb with them going for it! I decided to give it a school year and if it wasn’t working, I’d go back to teaching and do this part-time….this is the second school year I haven’t taught, so we’re heading in the right direction.
Where did you find support and inspiration?
My family and close friends are my biggest support system. They have been my sounding board, my design critics, and biggest cheerleaders. When self-doubt creeps in, their belief in me is what keeps me going!
I have also found other women in business who are so helpful in talking through things. It’s so important to have people you can bounce things off of - these women are invaluable to me!
My inspiration really comes from so many places - I’m inspired by my friends and artisan partners in East Africa, by the women here who are part of our AA community, and at the core of me it’s my faith that inspires me.
What was your biggest challenge in changing direction or starting something new?
I think the biggest challenge for me with change is having the courage to take the first step. I don’t love to be in situations where I don’t know the outcome and I am not someone who typically loves taking risks. Some of the best advice I got for this was to just start. Another business owner, Emily, told me that I’d never have it all figured out before I start and that I just have to start. She assured me that I'd figure it out as I went. She was so confident and had been doing something similar to what I was wanting to do - so I believed her! I’m glad I did...because if I knew everything I know now, I probably would have never started!
What advice would you give to other women that feel stuck in their current situation?
This is a great question. Feeling stuck is not a good feeling. I’ve been there. I don’t think there is one answer for this though as it really depends on the circumstance. Sometimes when we feel stuck, there isn’t an immediate way out, and we have to be patient waiting for movement from other people or entities that are outside our control. Other times, that stuck feeling may be a signal that we need to make a pivot in order to shift something that isn’t serving ourselves or our mission. The important thing is to give yourself grace, patience, and love as you discern what your next right step is. One good question to ask yourself is, am I willing to feel the discomfort that comes with growth and change?
Do you have a favorite quote?
There are so many quotes that have meant so much to me over the years, but one that I’ve been thinking on lately is, “Don’t measure your progress using someone else’s ruler.”
What are you reading, listening to, who are you following?
The titles I’ve read lately are: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, White Awake, by Daniel Hill, The Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes, and I’m just finally cracking open Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I am becoming increasingly aware of how important it is to have diverse teachers and influencers in my life and have loved each of these books!
My favorite podcast at the moment is Typology with Ian Cron, which is all about the Enneagram. If you don’t know about the Enneagram, it is a tool to understand our personality types. I love learning about how people are wired and understanding how each of us are made uniquely!
What’s NEXT for you?
I am in a season of growth, both personally and professionally. I feel like my business is starting to hit a stride and my focus is on growing it sustainably and dreaming about what I’d like it to look like in 5 years and 10 years from now. Personally, I’ve done a lot of work with my life coach and feel like I am living from a place of growing awareness and peace, which feels really good for now.
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