Founded by my friends, Josh Kwan and Dave Blanchard, Praxis is an innovative organization which exists to equip and resource faith-motivated entrepreneurs “who have committed their lives to cultural and social impact, renewing the spirit of our age one organization at a time.”
Rather than aiming to serve all organizations everywhere, Praxis works within very defined constraints: They serve 12 nonprofits and 12 businesses each year. And not just any business or nonprofit. Even within that broad definition, Praxis holds high levels of specificity of entrepreneurs who thrive within the Praxis community. Kwan and Blanchard believe they can add the most value at particular stages of the organization’s lifecycle.
Each year, the number of quality applications exceeds the number of available slots they have open. More than once, candidly, Praxis has declined to pursue an opportunity I’ve proposed to them. Be it new partners they could work with or nominees we think they should consider for the program, we’ve regularly been denied. At times it’s been frustrating. I’m a mentor with Praxis, after all, and wonder why I don’t have more sway!
But, Praxis is a temperance-practicing organization. Nobody who knows Praxis’ team and vision would accuse them of having their sights set too low or of being risk-averse. They’re growing and expanding in unique ways each year.
But their growth is within the boundaries of their vision and guided by clear constraints. This posture of temperance creates the opportunity for them to invest deeply in the lives of the entrepreneurs, staff members, donors, and investors they serve. One way this manifests is in how they celebrate.
Part of what makes Praxis events unique is their “pitch night,” where the 12 entrepreneurs share the vision of their organizations in five minutes or less. Even in this setting, they’re challenging these entrepreneurs to distill their organization into five minutes or less. They’ve seen this constraint generate creativity and punchiness simply not realistic in an hourlong address.
Praxis pitch night (photo credit: Praxis web site)
In these pitch sessions, they’re sharing their vision with potential high-impact donors and investors. And, Praxis appropriately celebrates the courage it takes to do so. Without fail, when the pitch night concludes, the pizza arrives. And, the cohort of entrepreneurs and mentors heartily celebrate this key milestone in the Praxis journey. In a surprising way, instilling clear constraints and limits seems to allow the celebration to hold more meaning. When every meal is a feast, no meal is. Likewise, when an organization practices temperance, it makes indulgence all the more special.
Their first cohorts began in 2010. Since then, their fundraising revenue, staff size, and organizational reach have grown steadily and surely.
Who knows? Praxis might double their constraints this year, expanding to serve 48 entrepreneurs. They might stop holding pizza parties. They might begin enacting all of our wonderful ideas for how they can expand. But they won’t do it because they can, but because they should.
Leaders like Dave Blanchard and Josh Kwan practice temperance. And, they provide examples of how we can too.
“She looked me in the eyes, pointed at me, and said, ‘These notebooks need to be waiting for me in my office tomorrow morning.’”
Mica May, founder and CEO of May Designs, took in what she just heard. The stern instructions came to her from Tory Johnson, a regular contributor on ABC’sGood Morning America. She needed samples of May’s notebooks for a feature she was hosting on gift ideas.
At the time, May was a staff-of-one, a scrappy entrepreneur working from her home. Thrilled about this opportunity for increased publicity, she shipped off a few of her classic notebook designs.
But then the show aired.
When millions of viewers saw the May Designs notebooks on that Tuesday morning four years ago, her business exploded. In less than ten hours, more than 33,000 new customers ordered May Designs notebooks.
“I thought I was going to die,” May reflected about that crazy day. “I had no idea how I was going to do it. But I knew the customers were counting on me. I had their money and their trust, and I knew I could not let them down.”
May started recruiting staff, kept rolling out new products, and continued to answer phone calls. Over the next few years, May Designs showed up on The Today Show and in Elle, People, Glamour, and “Oprah’s Favorite Things” inO Magazine.
Today, her growing company employs 11 people at their sleek headquarters in downtown Austin, Texas. Last year May Designs grossed $4 million and today is on the brink of expanding their product line from notebooks and stationery into fashion and homewares.
“I feel called by God to be an entrepreneur,” May said.
Mica May, founder and owner of May Designs
Waging War (on Ugly Stuff)
For May, the idea of creating just another lifestyle brand is uninspiring. For her company, the vision is nothing less than bringing joy to their customers, staff, and community.
“I want to delight our customers with incredible products they really believe in,” May said, “down to even the envelopes, emails, and packaging.”
May started her company because she was frustrated with the dearth of beauty in the notebook aisle. Her frustration extends beyond bland journals, though. She’s tired of the “throwaway shopping culture” in which consumers buy cheap stuff devoid of any enduring meaning or beauty.
“One of the most powerful sources of cultural fragmentation has grown out of the great successes of the Industrial Revolution,” wrote artist Mako Fujimura in his book Culture Care: Reconnecting Beauty to Common Life. “Modern people began to equate progress with efficiency. Despite valiant and ongoing resistance from many quarters—including industry—success for a large part of our culture is now judged by efficient production and mass consumption.”
Even the word consumer is provocative. Consumers are not investors in the items they own. No, for modern Americans, we just consume what we buy. Buy, (ab)use, trash, repeat. It’s amid this voracious shopping landscape that entrepreneurs like May aim to not just sell trendy products, but actually challenge the way men and women think about what they buy and own.
“Mica’s is a typology of entrepreneur that is underappreciated in our Silicon Valley world,” reflected Dave Blanchard, co-founder of Praxis. May Designs is a fellow in the Praxis business accelerator. “Instead of starting with millions in venture capital and plans to take over the world, she started simply with a product she loved that the market around her asked her to make more of.”
May and her team create enduring products that are well-made, priced for the masses, and fun to look at and use. And May infuses her values into her products, offering gratitude journals and meal journals to help drive her customers to imbue meaning in their daily routines.
“I created May Designs because I believe everyday moments should be more lovely,” May said. “Our culture says, ‘Have more, be more, do more.’ It’s a crazy consumption world. That’s what we’re battling as a company.”
May’s view of beauty comes not from a desire to grow a bigger business, but from her convictions about her Creator.
“Isn’t God the most ultimate creator?” May asked. “He wants to delight us. The sunsets, water, movement; I believe all of it has come from God. And God has equipped us to be artists. We’re co-creators with him.”
Paper in a Digital Age
In some ways, a company creating paper notepads is a bit of a modern conundrum. As the world increasingly gravitates digitally, May Designs stands athwart popular culture by encouraging their customers to work offline.
“I’m on my screens all day long,” May said. “But I process, learn, and remember more deeply when I write things down. It’s not as efficient, but in the digital world, we’ve lost something as we’ve moved away from pen and paper.”
While some technologists believe everything everywhere will move digital, there are reasons to believe pen-and-paper isn’t going away quickly.
In the book industry, for example, the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores has increased 21 percent in the United States over the last five years. While e-books are certainly not a fad, printed book sales have remained very resilient.
Similarly, in schools, many teachers and professors are now banning laptops from their classrooms, requiring students take notes by hand. These educators cite a number of recent studies illustrating how students writing their notes by hand learned more deeply and tested better than their digital note-taking peers.
“Like so many others in today’s overly wired society, [students] are perpetually distracted, never fully present,” wrote Stuart Green, a law professor at Rutgers University who recently outlawed laptops in his classroom.
As the world’s interactions increasingly move digital, a wave of educators and entrepreneurs challenge us to not miss the power of working offline. Christians understand the importance of the tactile. In the bread and wine of communion, the mud used in healing, the oil for anointing, and the waters of baptism, Jesus created extraordinary moments with ordinary elements. It’s this same conviction undergirding the work of May Designs.
“When you’re interacting with something physical, it’s just a different experience,” she said.
Entrepreneur from Birth
The entrepreneurial itch started early for May. When she was six, she filled notebooks with drawings of dresses and other fashion concepts. At seven, she had launched her own handcrafted perfume business. By middle school, she was running an afterschool childcare center for kids in her apartment complex.
Over the last four years, May Designs has grown well beyond her home office. Today, May takes joy in creating opportunities for the 11 members of her team to use their gifts and abilities in her company.
Photos courtesy of May Designs
May Designs journals on display. The journal designs featuring butterflies and airplanes are part of the Rise Art Collection, which supports early intervention and inclusive education for children with special needs.
“I feel like a mother hen,” May said. “These are my people, and I feel really protective of our environment, our finances, and our culture. It’s a huge responsibility.”
She loves the generosity her business success has enabled. Already, her company has given over $80,000 to schools and organizations committed to early childhood intervention for children with special needs like Rise School of Austin, where May’s son, Jackson, is a student.
Stepping into her calling as an entrepreneur and a Christian has not been without its challenges, though.
“It’s challenging,” May said. “When I became a Christian, I felt an internal struggle, because I felt like I should be an overseas missionary, but I didn’t feel at peace about it.”
May felt an often unspoken pressure from the Christian culture around her to pursue a different type of work—to join a nonprofit or go serve overseas. But over time, she began to understand the unique way she was wired was not an accident. She began to feel burdened to serve her neighbors through doing what God designed her to do—create beautiful things and delight her staff, customers, and community.
“This is my calling,” May said. “I can’t believe I’ve been given the opportunity to steward this business and the opportunity to create joy in people’s lives.”
Originally posted at Christianity Today via The Work of Our Hands web series, which spotlights Christians bringing truth, goodness, and beauty to their workplaces and sectors of influence. Read our first article in the series here.