Sometimes you meet a person, a young person, who makes you think ‘our future is going to be ok’. Lucy Skelton is one such person. She was only 15 years old when she launched her social enterprise Be Happy Bags. We caught up with Lucy (now all of 16), after the 3:30 school bell one rainy Tuesday to get the lowdown.
I’m someone that goes to the mic
It takes a fairly gritty swag of daring to start a business at any age. Lucy clearly has this in buckets.
The idea for her business first took flight in a packed auditorium of over 1,000 high-energy teenagers for a World Vision inspired gathering. She was drawn to stand up and speak.
“I’m kind of someone that goes to the mic so I got up. I said I’d actually really like to go away from today and do something. I’ve been to so many conferences where nothing happens afterwards.”
On the spot she launched the idea for The Student Voice Network, a group of students across Victoria who come together to tackle issues that are important to them. “I went to the front and I was yelling for pens. Then we ran out of scraps of paper. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.” Over 100 people signed up then and there and the ground was laid for the Be Happy Bags idea to germinate.
Why don’t I make this into a business?
Today Be Happy Bags is in great shape and expanding. Like many successful ventures, the plan to produce bags began simply. “Some girls before me had done a very similar thing at a one-time market. So I thought ‘that’s a really good model, the bags are good they’re ethical and sustainable, why don’t I try and make this into a business?’ And that’s exactly what I did. I got an ABN, my website sorted and I found people who want to buy them. And then I just went out and did it I guess.”
Occasionally naivety can play an important role in getting a business off the ground. That notion of ‘well, I’ll just get on with it’ can more often than not, be stifled by a better understanding of the risks, potential pitfalls and possible challenges ahead. But this young woman wanted to do something. And that urge, to just do something trumps all else. To quote Walt Disney, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
So she did. Lucy’s bags are strong, 100% cotton and ethically produced. There’s a range of designs by a selection of artists, such as those from her Zoos Victoria Collection below. For each bag sold, she donates 20% to various not-for-profits, typically chosen by the artist.
I wasn’t even convincing myself to buy a bag
Small business can be a bumpy ride, regardless of age. And for purpose-led businesses like Be Happy Bags there can be many distractions. “Recently I kind of forgot why I started, which is to reduce plastic pollution and the amount of plastic bags. It turned into something else, like a focus on my Instagram account which just became photo after photo. Then I remembered that I started this because of plastic pollution and my posts didn’t have anything environmental about them. Like, I wasn’t even convincing myself to buy a bag!”
After pulling herself out of this slump, the bag business is growing. “It’s going really well. We’ve got a new order in with World Echo, a big international organisation. I’ve had a really good response and I’m very happy with my bags.”
It’s cool to support a 15 year old’s dream
To the outsider and the skeptic, it might seem crazy to think that a 15 year old can run a successful business that does good in the world. Lucy uses her age to her advantage. “At the start I didn’t want to tell anyone how old I am. I wanted to make myself look respectable. As a businesswoman and a saleswoman, I didn’t want to seem as if I would pull out or let anything bad happen. Then as it continued, the more I went on, I thought ‘wait no, my age is actually a really big selling tool’. It made my business even more unique and people saw my efforts and my age as an advantage, not only for my business but for theirs. Being able to support a 15 year old’s dreams is always really cool.”
Teenage girls don’t have a great reputation
Lucy might see her age as a positive, but not everyone does. “A lot of people make assumptions about what I’ll be like before they meet me because of my age. Teenage girls don’t have a great reputation. What I try to do though is take every opportunity where I get to meet people in person. They get to meet me, speak to me and get a feel for who I am as a person and that I’m serious about this business before unconscious bias sets in.”
Even a year on there are still a few limitations when running a business at such a young age. Lucy admits that, “Without my mum willing to drive me everywhere I couldn’t do this. She’s absolutely amazing.”
It’s not so much about the generation gap
Awareness of social issues has evolved considerably since many of us were Lucy’s age. In fact, care for the environment is now taught to our kids from the first year of primary school.
When asked about the different views her generation has about social issues compared to her parents, Lucy points to the abundance of information at her peers’ fingertips. “We have the internet, social media, teaching apps, activist pages and so on. I think before it was hard to express opinions in general and especially ones that concern social, environmental or political key points.”
Surprisingly she says there’s not a lot of differences between her generation and her parents. “I think that members of both generations can teach each other. I don’t personally think it’s a generational change thing. Some members of our society are more likely to be aware than others and I think that by living by our morals and not our habits, together we can inspire others to do the same.”
Those news stories about banning plastic bags
Businesses in the reusable bag market are some of the big winners from the media kerfuffle on single-use plastic bags. And while many of us became frustrated with the backlash, Lucy and her supporters welcomed the debate as a marketing gift. As she says, “It’s created a lot more conversation and it’s increased motivation.”
She’s keen to offer her view on the bigger issue of why Australians had a hard time with the change: “I think Australians have had trouble with the plastic bag ban because we live in a society that relies on convenience. The thing that I would say to these people is that it may be easier and more convenient to receive a plastic bag right now but the effort it will take and the lives it puts at risk later are not worth the cost of people not understanding their own impact, even if you can’t pick up dog poo with it.”
It’s the kind of future we want
We’ve all been there – a great idea, a dazzling thought, a seriously good plan. But then we don’t follow through. And the idea stays just that. Thank heaven for Lucy and all the change makers in the world who leap beyond their obstacles, get on and do things and build a positive tomorrow. As she humbly puts it: “Everything we do makes an impact. And this impact, big or small, makes a difference. By being aware of this we can live more ethical and sustainable lives that bring us closer to the kind of future we want.”
You can find Lucy’s Be Happy Bags here.