I had the pleasure of sitting down with Krista Carroll, CEO of Latitude, to talk about entrepreneurship, giving back and how to balance running a business and a family. Krista and her husband Jeremy co-founded Latitude in 2009 after visiting Haiti and feeling inspired to serve humanity.
Latitude is a creative agency and social enterprise based in Minnesota which builds businesses through strategy, design, marketing and production. In addition, Latitude gives away 50% of its profits to organizations dealing with extreme poverty around the world.
Allison: Krista, tell us about your journey starting Latitude. How did you get started?
Krista: We were living the American dream raising two kids in New York City, but we were feeling discontent with that. We needed to be about something bigger than ourselves. We felt called to serve humanity and we weren’t doing that in a big way.
In 2009, we traveled to Haiti and knew that we wanted to do what we do well, but use it to make a difference.
Allison: And you chose to create a business instead of a nonprofit?
Krista: For me, the biggest nightmare would be wanting to serve people and having to rely on donations to do what we wanted to do. It was logical for us to create a sustainable engine to serve, rather than depending on the generosity of others.
I’d much rather work hard and create an engine and empower those already in the nonprofit world. There are so many great nonprofits. We didn’t need to recreate the wheel. We could support and be a part of it in a financial way by doing business really well.
Allison: So walk me through the timeline of traveling to Haiti to creating Latitude.
Krista: In 2009 we went to Haiti. While we were there, we came up with concept of creating a production company and donating 50% of the profits. It became clear to us that we couldn’t wait. The world was in need right now. God was calling us to take action right now.
We laid out our worst case scenario. As an entrepreneur, it’s been really empowering for me to look at the worst case scenario. At the time, we owned an apartment on the Upper West Side in New York. And the market had just crashed, so we had no idea if we could sell it or not. So we called our parents and asked, “How would you feel if we lived in your basement for a while?” And they said, “Absolutely!” They said they would love to help us have the cushion to go after our business plan.
So 21 days after we got back from Haiti, we were sitting at our kitchen table and we realized that the worst case scenario was not closing on our house and moving into my parents’ basement. That wasn’t such a bad situation, so we decided that’s what we would do. We decided to quit our jobs the next day. Right then, my husband’s email dinged – it was the neighbor downstairs asking if we would ever consider selling our apartment to them – they were looking to expand. That was such a testament to God’s faithfulness.
In the first year of 2010, we celebrated $2.2 million in sales and gave $55,000 away. We’ve grown to $17 million in sales last year and have given away over $1.6 million since we started.
Allison: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur?
Krista: Growing from an entrepreneur to a leader is really challenging. You are going from pedaling a bike to drawing the road map. At the beginning, we had very little to lose. As you get bigger and have employees and different things like that, you have more to lose every day. Learning how to balance that stress and planning out your business opportunities to set your team up for success – those are challenges. We needed to develop that team from a few of us to 30, learning how to grow together in a healthy, but fast way.
Also, balancing work, philanthropy and family is one of my biggest challenges.
Allison: Yes, you and Jeremy have four kids at home. How have you managed to balance family and career? Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs and professionals trying to do the same thing?
Krista: One blessing that we have found is from living on our value system every day, instead of on our extras. We wanted our values to be interwoven into everything we do. The kids know why we’re working and we’re working for. They feel on-board with it which helps with the balance. So my advice is to be flexible and creative on how to include your family. Because they are a part of it, it’s easy to bring them to a meeting or for them to know why we are traveling.
My son was four when Jeremy went to Ethiopia for 10 days. When we picked Jeremy up at the airport, my son asked what he did in Africa, and he said, “We were looking at how to get clean water to a community. I met a boy who was about your age who lost a little brother because he didn’t have clean water. This boy’s little brother died because he didn’t have water.” I didn’t know how Cole [my son] would react since his dad had been away for a little while. So Jeremy asked, “What do you think buddy?” And Cole said, “You should go to work in Africa every day.”
The kids understand the collective vision for our lives. That helps define the balance. And you also need to know when enough is enough. Sometimes you need to step back and find balance and peace.
Allison: What have been some of the greatest rewards or highlights of starting your own business?
Krista: Being able to lead with our values has been a life-changer. You can decide the vision for your own business and what you want to be on the collective forefront. We know that when we work hard, people around the world are benefitting. And really, it’s just a whole lot of fun! Whenever I’m too stressed about the business, I remind myself that it is God’s business and I’m just on the team, I get to be a part of it. Ultimately, it’s about the people that we are serving. That is the most rewarding part.
Allison: Is there one particular moment or story that stands out as a highlight?
Krista: One of our cofounders, Joey Perry, she has the most servant heart but she wasn’t super vocal about why. Jeremy and I were more vocal about our faith. And a year into it, business was looking a little soft. Joey said, “God got us this far, he’s not going to let us down now!” She was encouraging us in our faith – and that was just the coolest testament to being able to do life with someone. We encourage each other. When we’re struggling, someone else is there reminding us what it’s all about.
Another highlight is that we take our clients and employees to experience and meet the people we are serving. Every employee gets to go once a year. It’s amazing to see people witnessing extreme poverty for the first time. Our clients say things like, “I had no idea of the difference that is made with our business with you.” It’s amazing to witness them seeing the transformation that has happened because of them.
Allison: Do you have a particular vision statement/quote/piece of advice that directs your activity?
Krista: Yes, for us, our life verse is Luke 12:48 – “To whom much as been given, much is expected.” As one of our friends says, we have won the lottery in life simply by the longitude and latitude in which we were born. We have more opportunity and resources in front of us than 90% of the world. And with that comes a lot of responsibility. We have the responsibility to serve humanity. To try to balance that inequality a little bit.
Allison: How do you choose which organizations to support?
Krista: We research organizations and look at what drives them, how they are spending their money and their work in the field. After determining that they are worthy organizations that we align with, we figure out if we can engage with them. We don’t simply write checks. We look for the impact we could potentially make by partnering. And we have to be able to get stories from the field. Half of our work is directing funds to make an impact, but the other half is telling their story. We can’t partner with an organization if we can’t have an engaged relationship with the work in the field.
We focus on women and children living in extreme poverty. That sometimes overflows to help men too, but our focus is on women and children. We meet with nonprofits often to decide what to engage with, and figure out how we can be involved. And often we travel to those specific areas to actually meet the people we are supporting.
Allison: And how did you get involved with Opportunity International?
Krista: When we moved back to Minneapolis, we met [former YAO-MN chairs] the Vennerstroms and they introduced us to Opportunity. We were instantly amazed at Opportunity’s model. Their values are focused on gospel teaching and serving humanity. And we were so impressed with the sustainable model. You can donate to Opportunity and the money continues to be recycled.
And we love that it provides opportunities to entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are what will create an economy. If you empower entrepreneurs they will build an economy with their creativity, bold ideology and thoughtful risk taking. I really don’t think there’s a more long-term worthy cause than empowering entrepreneurs to create sustainable change.
Allison: Speaking of entrepreneurs, do you have any advice for entrepreneurs here in the states?
Krista: Find out where your passions lie. What moves you to the core? What keeps you up at night? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? Find that, then jump off the highest cliff you can reach. Set lofty goals. Step out. Show up. Start working toward that goal.
We started a business on as little money as we could. We delivered a service and then we got paid. We didn’t have equipment and we didn’t hire staff right away. We started with big lofty goals, but then focused on transactions. We didn’t want tons and tons of loans. Not having loans allows you to own the business, as opposed to the business owning you. So think about creating a model that doesn’t involve you being owned by a bank. Even the micro approach works – take a little bit that allows you to create a margin so that you own it and it doesn’t own you.
Allison: Why do you think entrepreneurship is important, both here and abroad?
Krista: Entrepreneurship challenges the status quo. It diversifies the economy. It diversifies thought processes, challenges people think differently. It even challenges big companies. Entrepreneurs are showing up and changing things. They are thinking of new ways to do things, new products. Innovation drives our economy and thought leadership forward. I find so much value in entrepreneurs. They are our backbone and fuel for an economy.
Allison: What is one big dream you have for the future, either for Latitude or for yourself?
Krista: My dream is that we can continue to serve the people we set out to serve. I would also love to continue to grow and hire more people. Both so that we can serve more people, but so that we can also engage with more employees and clients.
A really big hairy audacious goal I have is that by showing that the model can work through Latitude, other businesses might want to also do things differently and make their businesses about serving humanity too. If businesses would look outside themselves, the world would look incredibly different.
Allison: Thanks so much for your time and insight, Krista!
Krista: Thank you! I can’t say enough about what Opportunity International is doing. It just makes sense. I want it to catch on like wildfire.