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Sarah White taps into her courage to drive change — and be her authentic self.

The co-founder of Fairware, a sustainable BCorp promotion business, shares her story.

Sarah White
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As Vice President, Client Diversity at BDC, Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs — whether they be racialized, identify as women, identify as members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, be living with a disability, or exist within a combination of these identities. She’s sharing their journeys through conversations, and this month it’s with Sarah White, co-founder of Fairwaire, North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.

 

It is often said that being an entrepreneur takes courage — but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. After nearly 27 years of working with entrepreneurs at BDC, I’ve learned that courage tends to take on different meanings for each individual. 

Sometimes it’s the courage to be an innovator, bringing a new and unproven idea out into the world. Sometimes it’s the ability to face down any obstacle and turn it into an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it’s a courageous act by an entrepreneur to simply be their authentic self, and build their company their own way (an issue for many underrepresented business owners — one that me and my team are working on improving). 

Rarely is it all three, as is the case with Sarah White and Denise Taschereau, co-founders of Fairware. Over the past 16 years, they have built their Vancouver-based business — which got its start in Sarah’s garage — into North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.

Not only have Sarah and Denise maintained a steadfast commitment to environmental and community impact since day one (they’re a Certified B Corporation (BCorp) and have been for years) — but they’ve also tapped into their own struggles as a queer-owned, women-owned, small business to guide their corporate policies. They’ve intentionally built a diverse team and, more importantly, a culture where people are encouraged to bring their true selves to work. 

I sat down with Sarah to unpack her personal and entrepreneurial journey, including her ongoing commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable business practices, her intense focus on purpose, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and her ability to survive and thrive during uncertain times. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with — committed, above all else, to use business as a force for good. 

Laura: When you and Denise launched Fairware in 2005, a focus on sustainability and bettering the world through business was relatively novel. How did the idea come about?

Sarah: Fairware started because my friend, and now business partner, Denise was the Director of Sustainability and Community at MEC in sustainability and ethical sourcing, and she found that many really good brands were giving away swag that was manufactured under suspect conditions. This was at the time that corporate social responsibility was bubbling up in the press and around the world, and the disconnect between good brands giving away bad stuff meant there was a gap — which was how the idea for Fairware was born. 

“To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.”

Laura: How was the idea received then? And how have you seen that evolve? I imagine companies today are more open to conversations around sustainable practices. 

Sarah: While sustainability is now much more embedded in the mainstream, it certainly wasn’t then. From day one we’d pick up the phone, call a potential supplier, and say, ‘we’d like to talk to you about where your products come from’ — and we were often hung up on. 

Over the years, that conversation has evolved significantly. It began with compliance and product safety, and moved into workers’ rights, environmental impact, and over the last few years, we’re now talking with other distributors about anti-racism and social justice. We are talking to suppliers about sustainable packaging and diverse representation in the catalogues. What we are seeing is night and day from the beginning of our entrepreneurial journey. 

Today, we are also reaching beyond our traditional supply chain to work with impact businesses — diverse-owned social enterprises that are often local — that wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity for large corporate orders. We consult with these companies to help them with pricing and capacity building so that they can create products for us. So, through our success, we’re not only lifting others up, we’re also helping to build an ecosystem that supports our beliefs on sustainability and equity.   

To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values. 

Laura: And I know that applies not only to how you do business with your customers and suppliers, but also to how you’ve shaped the corporate culture at Fairware. Can you share a bit about how your personal values and even your personal experiences have played a role in that?

Sarah: I sometimes joke that I started a business just so that I could dress and be how I wanted to be — but honestly, there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s power in setting the tone of acceptance and inclusion, because when I show up as myself, I hope I make it easier for others to do the same. To give you a sense of the culture we’ve created, one Halloween, our staff dressed up in business attire just to bug us. 

But being my true self in the world hasn’t always been easy. Because I’m gender non-conforming, I’ve often been misgendered, and I’ve experienced homophobia and misogyny in the form of microaggressions. While a lot of folks in the progressive business community see themselves as up to speed with anti-racism, LGBTQ+ issues, etc., what we’ve learned this year is that most of us aren’t. Some of us have a ton of work and learning to do.  

Laura: We know that many LGBTQ+ business owners actively hide this aspect of their identity to avoid repercussions. What do you think gave you the courage to be open and transparent about who you are?

Sarah: That journey has been a long one. I’ve been with my partner for 36 years and I have two adult kids. Having kids as a gay couple in the 1990s was pretty trailblazing. I’m not sure I’ve actually changed too much since then, but I do have more courage now to be myself, I feel more aware of LGBTQ+ issues, and I openly speak out about them and myself. 

But for my kids’ sake, even back then, I never wanted to change who I was, even if it was tough for them having a mom that didn’t look like all the other moms. If I were to have changed then, I would have given my kids the message that it’s not okay to be who you really are, that you must conform for others’ comfort. Plus, some of us don’t have a choice but to embrace who we are. Some people can pass as cisgender, and others can’t. I want others to see themselves in me and know they too have a place in the corporate world. 

“For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company.”

Laura: For business owners that hope to create the same inclusive corporate culture that you have — including those that don’t have the same lived experience to draw from — can you share a few specific tactics you’ve used to align your team and your values?

Sarah: For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company. We’re also very transparent on our website and in our job postings that if you apply to work with us, you’ll be joining an inclusive work environment, and if that doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not going to apply.

Also, while Denise and I are both hugely passionate about sustainability, our employees don’t necessarily have to be. We’ll say in an interview, ‘how does sustainability show up in your life?’ and if the response is, ‘I recycle, but I want to learn more about it,’ that’s good enough for us. We want people who are open and interested, above all else. 

When we on-board new staff we have a practice that I borrowed from participating in a reconciliation workshop. We have the new staff member say their name, their traditional name if they have one, and how they identify culturally, plus anything else they want the team to know about them. In a company of fewer than 20 employees there are at least 11 different languages spoken. Diversity is unquestionably ingrained in our culture. 

Laura: You’re also a Certified B Corporation, which means you’ve committed to create a positive impact for your employees, as well as for communities and the environment. It’s not an easy feat — and you did it back in 2010, as one of the founding members of the Canadian B Corp. What was that experience like and why was it so important to you?

Sarah: In the beginning we were a small company with a small staff. We wondered, if we are doing all of this anyway, do we have the capacity or time to undergo the rigorous process to gain this certification? But as we began to meet more like-minded folks in the Vancouver business community, we began to see that this wasn’t just about us, it was about being part of a movement that uses business as a force for good. 

Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve. To this day it pushes us to go further, to think about things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and to stretch us to meet goals. This is everything from supply chain management, to sustainable practices, to internal culture, to wages, to social commitments — and more. 

We’ve been really fortunate to have BDC as a funding partner, because you’ve not only provided great advice and service over the years, helping us build capacity, but you’ve become B Corp certified, which means we have even more values aligned. 

“Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve.”

Laura: I am sure your commitment to building a values-based business with an inclusive culture has played a huge role in Fairware’s success, but what about during the tough times? What have the last 18 months of pandemic uncertainty been like for you and your business? 

Sarah: As a young business, we survived the recession of 2008/2009, and that gave us a lot of insight into how to behave during COVID. We had just come out of a significant year of spending and had completed a major office renovation right before the pandemic hit. Incidentally, our team in Vancouver was set up to work remotely because of that reno —and then because of COVID, no one came back to the office. 

From there, we knew our runway was short — we knew we’d have to lay people off, and procrastinating could lead to losing the business. Those were the hardest and most brutal moments of our lives. We had to let half of our staff go. Talk about an impact on culture. Thankfully, we stayed close with everyone, and helped them access resources and support. Slowly, we were able to hire people back, thanks to Government subsidies.

During the pandemic, as you know, some major social issues also came up, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and more recently the discovery of unmarked graves of murdered Indigenous children. Through it all we kept talking, kept working, and learning. Our focus and values haven’t shifted at all. We meet daily online and slowly, people are starting to come back into the office.

And despite the challenges to the corporate world and our industry, COVID provided a nice opportunity for some companies to take their budgets that they weren’t spending on events or conferences and show their employees some love with packages and baskets — and we were able to help with these. We remained committed to only providing products and gifts that were practical and wouldn’t end up in the landfill, and we developed a program that if someone opted out of the gift, they could choose to have a donation made in their name instead. 

All in all, we came out stronger and more committed than ever to our mission. And we’re certainly excited to see our newly renovated office that’s been all too quiet, filling up with people again.

As Vice President, Client Diversity at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs. You can learn more about Laura, meet her team, and find her interviews with entrepreneurs and more on her Perspectives page.