Josh Carroll is a second year student at Duke University School of Law and a Major in the United States Air Force Reserves. Josh is the co-founder and Chairman of Flying Scarfs Inc., a non-profit, social business that sells handcrafted fashion from female artisans in Afghanistan, Kenya and Haiti.
Our Conversation with Josh Carroll
Duke I&E: Tell us about yourself.
JC: My journey began in a Korean orphanage. Through the grace of God, fate, and maybe just dumb luck, amazing parents from New Hampshire adopted me. My family loved me unconditionally and believed I could do anything. In college, I enrolled in ROTC and upon graduation, commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. I spent 8 years as an intelligence officer, where I deployed several times. I worked for a variety of national level and unit level organizations from the National Security Agency, to the 355 Fighter Squadron. Along the way, I also got a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership.
Duke I&E: How did you come up with what was meaningful for your life?
JC: I think 9/11 was definitely a pivotal moment in my life. I was a freshman in college and hadn’t joined ROTC yet, and I saw the planes crash into the Twin Towers. There was a lot of mourning throughout my college campus and around the country, as well as fear and uncertainty. It wasn’t long after that that I knew what my career was going to be in – the military. As a naturalized citizen and college student, I felt a call to service to my country. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I wanted to see and to do. It was also a natural fit – my brother and Uncle served in the Air Force, my dad served during Vietnam, and my grandfather trained glider pilots in the Army, so in a way it was a family right of passage. I am very proud of the fact that when the Nation has gone to war, my family has always been there to answer the call.
Duke I&E: Could you please give a brief description of your organization?
JC: Flying Scarfs started in 2011, during my last deployment to Afghanistan. Before that deployment, I had read Banker of the Poor by Mohammed Yunus about providing microloans to women in Bangladesh. The idea that a small amount of capital could really jump-start some people’s lives was really inspiring to me. I’ve always been inclined to give to charities, but I think his book made me realize there is much more that we can do to empower people and give them some dignity in the process. After learning more about social business I began to believe more in giving people a hand-up, rather than a handout.
Before we went into Afghanistan, I knew how it was going to play out—we were going to drop a lot of bombs, there was going to be a lot of bullets, a lot of war, a lot of conflict. I also knew that there was going to be an impending withdrawal; the president said that we were going to leave pretty soon, and I thought – what was going to happen to these people after we leave? Much of the commerce in Afghanistan was being sustained by foreign aid, by the U.S. pumping billions of dollars in a top-down hierarchy. In actuality, the people who needed the help the most were the villagers who had nothing to do with Kabul, central government, military or those getting the foreign aid, people like the women.
We did research, and we learned that if you gave money to a man, they would spend it on themselves, but if you give it to a woman, she would provide for her family, send her kids to school, and the money would just go a lot farther. So we decided, a bottom up, small microeconomic development platform for these women would be the best solution. We already knew that these women were making these beautiful scarves, and we were sending them back home. I said, “ Why don’t we just sell these in the US, and give the money back to the women?” It was a very simple business idea.
One of my co-founders calls us an international trade company. While that’s a very simplistic way of looking at us, I think he’s right. All we do is take a service that’s already being done – for which these women already have a talent for it, and we’re using our network and business acumen to open up that market to people in the US who want to contribute to Afghanistan. We have something for everyone. Some are attracted to our model because they believe in women empowerment, fair trade, sustainability, dislike toxic charity, others love the fact that we are veterans, or simply like the scarf. Regardless of the reasons why someone would support our cause, when someone does buy a scarf from us, they’re not just buying a scarf; they’re also buying a beautiful story from war to peace.
That’s what our company represents – peace. We went into Afghanistan, but what’s the next step? The next step is peace. What’s the best way to do peace? Well, in a weird, ironic way, it’s capitalism. What we bring as Americans – it’s the idea that you can help yourself, and you can help your communities by working hard. A sort of rugged individualism that our nation was founded on. That is the ideal I wish to pass on through this company, while still understanding that many need to learn how to do that.
Duke I&E: How do you think that selling scarves can achieve peace?
JC: I think it bridges Americans who might not know a lot about what was happening in Afghanistan or why we were over there, and it’s connecting them with a product made by a women who has lived through war, and every hardship you could possibly imagine. The odds are stacked against these women, most of whom are illiterate, have not spent a day in school, have no access to medical care and are outcasts in their communities because they are widows. It’s also about what the Taliban represent – oppression to women. Now, we are empowering women, and we are saying, “we don’t need to fight you with violence.” We need to provide these women jobs and opportunities and money. That’s as scary of a proposition, if not more so than aiming a weapon at them. It’s a very peaceful solution to combating the Taliban and everything that they represent. We are service members – we were trained to go to war a fight, but we came up with this alternative solution and that’s the beauty of it.
Duke I&E: How have you taken these entrepreneurial experiences into your live and work, currently?
JC: First, the real entrepreneurs are the women who make our product. They’re the ones that are really making it happen. But I think being an entrepreneur is a way of thinking about problems, and doing things differently. The definition of insanity is doing things over and over again. That’s the way I felt about the war in Afghanistan. We dropped the same bombs on the same places and we were there for over 10 years, and we weren’t getting better outcomes. Instead it was always about output: how many bombs have you dropped today? When I think about what we are doing with the women, it’s outcome driven. My definition of an entrepreneur is someone who thinks differently in this market, in this industry, and is a problem solver. I think I’ve always been a problem solver and being an entrepreneur is one way of ensuring that I always will be. Entrepreneurship is not just a title, it’s a mindset.
As I traveled around, I realized that I couldn’t interact with people around the world and not want to make the world a better place, or give people better lives, or try to bridge communities. I’ve been to Haiti, Kenya, and Afghanistan. Every time I travel, I think of one thing: talent is universal but opportunity is not.
Duke I&E: Do you set regular goals in your life? In what increments?
JC: I always have a goal in mind, and I do it because I like to set goals, knowing that I don’t always achieve them. I purposely set goals that I can achieve. Ninety percent of my goals are things that I think that I can obtain. Then, there’s the ten percent that I don’t think I’ll ever get to, but it’s always out there, it’s always in my mind. I’m going to set a goal of becoming a Supreme Court Justice. It’ll probably never happen. I think that goal setting is important, especially as a social entrepreneur. You can’t start off without a goal in mind, or else you’ll just never get there.
Duke I&E: What advice would you give to people trying to build their own networks?
JC: Don’t just approach the biggest fish in the room – the senior professor, or the CEO in the company. When you’re at a networking event, that’s the first person people like to go to. I like to go to the quietest, the shyest, the people who can’t initially offer me anything – those are the people I talk to, because they end up being the most interesting people in the room and I am able to learn a lot. Not everyone is extraverted. I’m introverted, so I talk to another introvert, and I get a conversation going. I get to really know them intimately and deeply, and they tend to care about a lot of the same things that I care about. Sometimes the most unsuspecting people are the best people to network with and the people that you can build the best relationship with.
Duke I&E: What are the biggest challenges or crises that you’ve faced in your life?
JC: I haven’t faced the same adversity that other people face. I’ve lived a very comfortable life, and I’m not really proud of that fact. I’m not a self-made man – my family paid for me to go to school, they raised me, and they helped me get educated. There haven’t been a lot of barriers for me. It just speaks to the fact that we live in a great country. Taking account of the women of Afghanistan that we work with, they encounter roadblocks every single day – just for being a woman in a developing country. There’s violence. There’s poverty. There’s illiteracy. It’s a perfect storm of problems for them to face. If I have an issue, I don’t consider it a problem, because compared to everyone else in the world, my problems are miniscule.
Duke I&E: What keeps you up at night?
JC: I’m not maximizing my own potential and that I’ve left something that I want to be done undone. I think that not maximizing my own potential is a disgrace to the opportunities that I have had. Thinking that someone else could have been picked up from that Korean orphanage instead of me and raised the way I was raised, where they might have been given the same opportunities. The other thing that keeps me up at night is what we could be doing for others. I think with anybody’s skill set, there could be something that they could be doing for other people, not matter what that is. If you’re a businessman, a lawyer, or a doctor, there’s a way to treat people with dignity and how they should be treated, and there’s a way to solve problems using those skill sets. I don’t think anyone goes to school just to make money. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have institutes such Duke I&E and people interested in social entrepreneurship. I think one reason people go to school is to have an impact and to do something that is purposeful.
Duke I&E: What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone who is interested in pursuing social entrepreneurship as a career?
JC: Do something meaningful, and by that, useful. Dream big and do big. Think big picture. If you have a small idea, you’ll get a small result. If you dream big, you really have the potential to impact a lot of lives. Life is too short to dream small. I could open up a little lemonade stand right here. I could have a low overhead, and make a few bucks, but at the end of the day, who am I helping? Am I just helping myself, because now it’s on my resume, or am I really helping people? At a place like Duke, there are just so many smart, thoughtful individuals. You can afford to dream big here. There are just so many resources at your fingertips. There is no excuse for not taking advantage of the opportunities here.
To learn more about Flying Scarfs, click here.
To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.
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