Michelle Hamman founded MotherTongues from her home in Holland, Michigan in 2005.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
MotherTongues is a fair labor and organic cotton apparel company. I research words that have no direct English translation and print them with poetic and symbolic descriptions on t-shirts, socks, aprons, scarves, and tote bags.
How did you come up with your business idea?
I live between my mother tongue, Afrikaans, and American English. As someone born and raised in South Africa, I brought to the United States values of community and being that are very different from North American culture. Fifteen years after leaving South Africa, however, I am more convinced than ever that one culture can educate another. And so MotherTongues was born.
When did you start the business?
I started MotherTongues five years ago in an effort as a stay-at-home mom to find a creative outlet that went beyond changing diapers. Little did I know what a life-changing journey it would become! I was an electrical engineer for 10 years before starting MotherTongues.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
MotherTongues is a home-based business. This is great when one of our kids are home sick, but difficult when I need to take business calls while the house is anything but quiet!
For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur?
There are lots of resources and online groups for "women entrepreneurs" or "mom entrepreneurs" or "mom inventors." I think women tend to help each other with advice very readily.
Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?
Reasearch about words for MotherTongues is leading me on an interesting journey. While traveling in Australia and reading about Dadirri, which describes the way the Aboriginal people in Australia have lived in harmony with the earth for thousands of years, I felt that only 100% organic cotton would do the concept of Dadirri justice. This has led to more changes. All the hang tags of the T-shirts that describe the words in more detail, as well as the brochures and shipping labels, are now printed on 100% post-consumer waste (recycled) paper. Since 2007 all MotherTongues T-shirts are 100% organic cotton, made according to Fair Trade principles.
"Being green" is part of the MotherTongues ethos and culture. Sometimes it is difficult to find a green option for a specific business supply, but I think since more business are asking for it, more options are becoming available all the time for small businesses.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
I seek interesting words and concepts in diverse cultures and numerous languages through personal travel and lots of reading. I recognized that an interesting phenomenon occurred. I personally, and us as a family, started to change. The values of community, peace, justice, and ecological well-being contained in the words transformed me and our household, becoming part of our "philosophy of life."
For example, learning about Lagom, a word describing the Swedish outlook on life of good-enough, brought home the value of "just enough" vs. "more is better." Learning about Zen made me slow down, breathe and live in the moment instead of worrying about the future. And the African concept of Ubuntu – I am because we are – made me wonder about the community that I am a part of. Today I am much more attuned to the living human web. I recognize more than ever that my personal well-being is linked to the well-being of others, often nameless and faceless people on the other side of the globe.
As I grow MotherTongues, the company transforms me. It is indeed an unintended, but wonderful and exciting journey.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Since there are lots of t-shirts and apparel companies, you need to find your special niche. Luckily it is easier nowadays for people from all over the world to find you if you have an online store. Find a supportive online community – T-shirtforums.com is a great one.
That is an inspirational story, Michelle. Thank you for sharing your business ideas, and words, with the community at Gaebler.com.