Marcie Muehlke is the co-founder of Celia Grace, a line of fair trade wedding dresses sold in the United States. Muehlke works with women-owned businesses and fair trade groups in India and Cambodia, where the dresses are handmade.
Why did you launch a fair-trade wedding dress business?
As I was looking for a wedding dress, I thought: “Boy, I’d really love a wedding dress that I loved not only for how it looked, but how it was made.”
This is an opportunity to provide women in developing countries, like India and Cambodia, with a long-term, sustainable, living wage, and a fair and safe job so they can send their kids to the doctor and send their girls to school.
There’s also a market need for a bride who wants a more meaningful wedding.
How did you do it?
Initially, I wanted to go into education and nonprofit management, which is why I enrolled in a dual degree program for public policy and business administration.
Whenever I had a project where I could use my business idea as the client or the topic, I would. I went to a Fair Trade Federation Conference in Boston, which really pushed me to the next level. I also went to a net impact conference. It really that opened my eyes to the world of social enterprise and leveraging business as a force for good in the world.
Finding producer partners was initially pretty hard. I visited 12 cut and sew producers in three countries before finding one that was able to meet our high quality production and strict ethical standards. Now potential producer partners find us!
Ultimately, it was three years from concept to launching Celia Grace in 2012.
How can a bride-to-be try on your dresses?
We have about seven independent bridal shops around the country that carry our brand. We also do a lot of direct sales online.
We have a really unique home try-on program where a bride can order a sample dress–similar to Warby Parker. We ship it to her home, she tries it on, and sees she loves it. The bride then ships it back to us and we place her order.
What people or companies in the social entrepreneurship space do you admire?
Prosperity Candle in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is a wonderful social enterprise helping women in some of the toughest situations around the world as well as refugees who are new to America.
Dean’s Beans is a coffee roaster in Orange, Massachusetts, that only purchases beans from small farm cooperatives.
On a more personal level, I am a chocolate lover. I love Equal Exchange of Boston, a fair trade, organic chocolate company, and Divine Chocolate, which is co-owned by 85,000 farmers in a Ghana cooperative.
How do you define social entrepreneurship?
Social entrepreneurship is a bit of the Wild West—it has lots of definitions. I define Celia Grace as a triple bottom line business. We think about people, planet, and profit with every decision we make. We work hard to make sure we’re treading as lightly as we can on the earth by using, whenever possible, handmade, heirloom, eco silks that use no electricity and very little water or chemicals to make; we’re providing great, safe, stable, empowering jobs; [and we’re] also selling a product that people want to buy.
What motivates you?
My favorite part of the business is hearing back from a bride after her wedding. Sometimes people will send us pictures of their wedding, and [I love] just seeing them so happy and beautiful in their dresses.
I can actually send the photo to the specific producer partner who will then share it with the specific seamstress who made the dress. The bride is helping this woman in a developing country to send her kids to the doctor and make sure her girls go to school. But that woman in India or Cambodia also gets to help the bride here have a really beautiful and meaningful wedding.
It’s a closed loop of women helping women around the world. And when I really get to touch and be part of that cycle, that’s what I love the most.
Marcie Muehlke completed an MBA/MPP dual degree program in 2012 at the Isenberg School of Management and the School of Public Policy at UMass Amherst.
Interview has been edited and condensed.