Q&A with Lisa D. Foster, author of Bag Lady: How I Started a Business for a Greener World and Changed the Way America Shops

1. What is Bag Lady: How I Started a Business for a Greener World and Changed the Way America Shops about and why did you write it? 

Bag Lady is the story of my entrepreneurship journey. I really didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to use the tools of business in service of my obsession to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. The journey taught me about the transformational power of purpose-driven entrepreneurship, and that’s really at the heart of the book. I wrote the book to share what I had learned about our environment, about the amazing people I met, and about the ups and downs of running a business. On the whole, it provides a blueprint for starting up a purpose driven company that I think others will find useful. I hope the book will inspire others to take action on issues or products they are passionate about. 

2. Your book begins with the Tragic Story of The Life of a Plastic Bag. Can you share that story with our readers/listeners? 

Here’s a quick version of the facts that motivated me to get out of bed every day for 12 years and run my business:

Plastic bags are the most ubiquitous item on earth. In 2005, the US was using a billion bags a day, about a third of which were escaping efforts to collect them as trash. That meant, a billion bags a week were drifting out into environment. There they wafted around a bit until they snagged on a tree or clogged a gutter. Most of us remember seeing them. 

So what happened to all those bags? Once they were exposed to the elements, they broke up into smaller and smaller plastic bits and washed into our waterways, which carried them to the ocean. 

The ocean currents swirl around like a big toilet but there’s no flush. So plastic is accumulating in the center of the oceans, what scientists call the gyre, at an alarming rate. Today, scientists estimate that a dump truck worth of plastic enters our oceans every minute, and unless we do something about it, we’ll have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. So I started a business to do something about it.

3. You were a high school English teacher. What made you think you could be an entrepreneur? 

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could. Still, I knew I had to try. I wasn’t motivated by money at all, and I think if I had been, I would have failed. I told my husband when I started that I might not make any money, but I promised not to lose any, or at least not much, and I remained true to that promise. Instead of profit, I was motivated by the idea of reducing the waste of single use plastics and changing shopping culture here in the US. Being mission driven gave me the energy and stick-to-itiveness that I needed to succeed. Surprisingly, being an English teacher was excellent training for business. My storytelling skills were useful and effective for marketing, selling, and publicizing the impacts of plastic bags on the environment. My classroom experiences were helpful talking to customers, helping people learn about the impacts of plastic on the planet and feel what I felt. Also, everything I knew about poetry was really useful. There is nothing like poetic devices if you want to say something memorable with the fewest number of words possible. 

4. What did you learn from doing business with China?

Actually, sourcing products from China was not at all what I thought it would be. I had only the vaguest idea of what China was like before I went there. Doing business with them gave a face to people from China, and I learned that they are as diverse as we are. From the beginning, I really connected with my supplier, Amy, who is still one of my best friends today. Everything about us couldn’t be more different—our lives, education, experiences—and yet, we are really alike in ways that matter. We were both dedicated to keeping our promises to our customers no matter what kind of crazy stunts we had to pull. We both managed our business relationships honestly and with mutual interest in mind, inspiring others to give us their best efforts and go above and beyond to deliver excellence. Our dedication to building relationships of trust all the way from the bottom to the top of our supply chain served us well. After years of doing business there, I found that most Chinese people are just like us. They are proud of their country and love their government in spite of its failings. They want safe communities in which to bring up their kids, access to good roads, good education, housing and food. They want to celebrate the important things—birthdays, weddings, births and success with friends and family. The people who make the billions of dollars of goods that we buy are a mirror image of the millions of people who buy them, wanting the same things we do. 

5. You talk honestly about your own mistakes. Can you share a little bit with our listeners about how you navigated that time?

Look, everyone makes mistakes in business. For entrepreneurs, the saying goes: fail fast, fail early. I probably failed too late. After running my business for about seven years, I invested heavily in building a line of branded bags of my own called SnapSac, and it was, in the end, a colossal failure. I built an excellent team with experts in branding, PR, and sales. The product had excellent design, and I was featured on Good Morning America, in Good Housekeeping, and lots of other places. Ultimately, I realized that this endeavor was not really about my core mission: saving the world, one bag at a time, so it ended up like any other example of mission drift and ended in failure. It was humbling and I lost a lot. For a time, I thought I would lose my whole business, but I found the courage and resources within myself to refocus on my mission, and that, more than anything else, helped me dig out from the hole that I dug for myself. That too was a steep learning curve.  

6. Statistics show that nine of out ten startups fail. What do you think you did to beat those odds?

I think if I had been motivated by money, I would have failed. Money can be a distraction. What kept me going was my dedication to the larger cause of reducing plastic waste, and to the people I served, specifically my customers, my employees, and my supply chain. I always felt that I couldn’t let them down. Serving them gave me the motivation and energy to keep going even when it was rough. Throughout it all, I stuck to a few core principles that guided me along the way. I have a list of those eight core principles in the book, but I’d like to share just one with you readers now. 

That is, to be to be a leader and not a boss. Let me explain the difference. A boss sees themselves as an authority figure, someone who makes decisions and judges whether people did it right or not. A boss spends most of the time telling people what to do. A leader, on the other hand, sees themselves as a source of inspiration for what an organization can do, someone who motivates and supports a talented team that wants to stretch, grow, and reach for ambitious goals. A leader spends most of the time inspiring people and supporting them. 

There were times when I acted as a boss and I saw those results. There were times when I was really leading, and the results I got when I did that surprised even me. Leaders beat bosses in organizational performance every time, and, having since become a business coach to share my experiences with others, I’ve found a lot of research on that. It’s something that I work on with my clients who want higher performance in their organizations. My mission now is to help mangers understand the conditions for high performance and become leaders of their own high performing teams.