What began as a business 12 years ago based on a book bag - after meeting a tailor in India - has turned into a burgeoning global empire for Byron Bay-based Shannon Sheedy. She started The Dharma Door after working in a Tibetan refugee community and this sense of wanting to help others while create useful and beautiful products has informed her business ever since. While Shannon has no formal design or business training - she worked in Early Education after finishing school before travelling and working overseas in a range of jobs - she has a passion for homewares and creating Fair Trade products. “I genuinely can’t imagine doing business any other way,” she says. “It gives me a greater sense of purpose beyond designing and selling products. Knowing that for every item we order and sell, there is a woman in a village in Bangladesh who is benefiting in a big way is awesome.” Through fair wages, sustainable work, skills training, the education of children, The Dharma Door helps to contribute to the wellbeing of whole villages and communities, she says. “I’m totally passionate about it!”
However, getting others to feel the same way has not always been easy. “In the early days most people would glaze over as I described what Fair Trade means,” she says. “I was so determined and now, 12 years later, customers often ask for more info and artisan stories. Even on the most challenging days - which are rare, I know it’s what I’m meant to be doing.”
It was after the company introduced homewares to its offering in 2008 that Shannon started to carve out a niche. The Dharma Door also gathered momentum after presenting its collections at trade shows in 2014 and launching The Dharma Door USA. Business growth has always been important. “The more we sell, the more artisans benefit,” Shannon says. Next stop is New York for a trade show in August and The Dharma Door Europe, which is about to be launched. At the same time, Shannon is working on new products for Summer 16/17, including the introduction of fashion into the collection.
Which five words best describe you? Persistent, compassionate, ambitious, perceptive, curious.
How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? My husband Mick and I quit our jobs and travelled to Asia in 2003. We were living and volunteering in a Tibetan refugee community in India when we met a tailor who had a dream of training and generating employment for young women. We wanted to help so we created our
very first product, the Book Bag to sell in Australia. I was selling them to hundreds of bookstores and decided to expand the range to homewares. After much research, in 2008 I moved all production to Fair Trade groups in Bangladesh because I love the raw materials and artisans skills there. It was a brand reinvention of sorts as it meant finding new customers for our new collections. We continue to develop new products and seek out new artisan groups to work with. I find my work very rewarding and can’t imagine doing anything else.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? I’ve learnt a lot of lessons! Patience. Patience. Patience. Trust your instincts. And amazing insights or opportunities usually arise from challenging times.
What’s your proudest career achievement? It makes me incredibly happy to have developed a thriving ethical business. Striking the balance of Fair Trade production, good product design, quality and profitability isn’t an easy feat. I always have the artisans in the forefront of my mind and I love knowing that we are contributing to the lives of so many people in a positive way.
What’s been your best decision? Starting The Dharma Door, moving to the Byron hinterland for lifestyle and outsourcing for business. The shift to outsourcing our warehousing and logistics was the result of a couple of negative experiences and is one of the best business decisions we’ve made yet. Outsourcing and technology allow us to work with people who really excel at what they do and the freedom to work from anywhere on the business in a more creative way.
Who inspires you? Our artisan partners and their resilience; risk-takers; anyone who is passionately following their dreams; people who comfortably embrace imperfection; effortlessly stylish folk and I love a heartwarming-underdog-makes-good tale.
What are you passionate about? Travel, nature, music, history, texture, good wine and giving disadvantaged people the opportunities to have a fair shot at improving their standard of living - the essence of Fair Trade.
Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? My paternal grandparents.
What dream do you still want to fulfil? Hmmm, so many. A tropical island holiday without devices. Home renovations. Seeing The Dharma Door become a globally recognised brand. More travel. Always, more travel.
What are you reading? The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts.