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Laura and Brian Wells of Tougo Coffee.jpg
A pre-pandemic snap of Intentionalist CEO, Laura Clise, with Brian Wells, owner of Tougo Coffee, a multi-roaster coffee shop on Yesler. Small businesses like Tougo Coffee are places where we connect with familiar faces and make new connections, one cup of coffee at a time. (Image: Intentionalist)
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Spend Like It Matters: Small biz directory wants you to be Intentional with your dollars

When Laura Clise moved back to Seattle five years ago, quite a bit had changed in the nearly 20 years she had been away – especially in terms of technology. But our city's growth wasn't the only thing she noticed.

There was a tension between the Seattle she came home to and who still had a place physically in the city. Tuning into this tension got Clise thinking: "How do we harness technology in support of a sustainable, inclusive economy? How do we build a city we all want to live and work and play and be a part of?"

That's where Intentionalist steps in.

Intentionalist is a digital search engine and guide aimed at helping people support small businesses and connect with the diverse people behind them. The website lets you type in the kind of business you need, your location and then provides you with a list. From there, you can filter your options depending on what's important to you, if there's a certain community you'd like to support — Black-owned, veteran-owned, woman-owned or LGBTQ-owned, for example. There are also guides and resources to explore.

Simply put, it's an intentional list - but Intentionalist is also a type of person. Clise said the phrase can be used to describe a person who intentionally thinks about where and how they spend their money.

"It feels like we are on autopilot, and we miss so many easy opportunities to make simple small decisions that add up to support for the kind of city that we want to be a part of," the CEO said. "What if Intentionalist isn't just kind of punny, what if it is also somebody who takes the time to be intentional about supporting the diverse small businesses at the heart of our communities?"

Clise founded Intentionalist about two and a half years ago, but the sentiment has been especially poignant this year. When the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order went into effect mid-March and businesses had to close their doors, we saw the community rally around small businesses and local vendors in support. We saw lists go up on news websites; we saw business owners adapt and find ways to come together to support each other and our frontline workers. We saw people actively seek small businesses to shop from time and time again.

When Black Lives Matter demonstrations started happening all over the country after the murder of George Floyd, something similar happened. You couldn't go on the internet or social media without seeing tons of resources about how people could support Black-owned businesses, vendors and creators. And people everywhere were encouraging others to support them, as well.

It's this kind of intentional thinking that is literally at the heart of Intentionalist.

"The past five months have been filled with incredible challenge and hardship for a lot of people," said Clise. "One of the things that gives me hope is that we have absolutely seen a shift in consumer behavior toward support for small brick and mortar businesses, and, in addition to that, an emphasis on those owned by folks from historically marginalized or underrepresented communities."

And they have quite literally seen that in numbers — she said when comparing website traffic to Intentionalist in January to traffic in June, it increased 45 times over.

"I think crisis can be clarifying - crisis can be revealing, crisis reminds us what really matters, what our priorities truly are when we strip away some of the other things that occupy our time and mind space," Clise said.

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Bridging cultural differences and creating belonging has been a common theme in each stage of Clise's life — whether it was during her corporate career or high school. It's personal to her, she said, being a Korean-adoptee and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

"There have been different communities represented in my lived experience, and I think some of the challenges I encountered as I navigated a pathway to a sense of belonging and connection to my community made that a real focal area and passion of mine," she said.

Clise believes the everyday decisions about where we spend our money matters — the places we get takeout, go to happy hour, workout, do our dry cleaning. Intentionalist is there to make this easier by being a resource, just a phone screen away.

"At a time when so many of us have been inclined to swipe and click our way to immediate gratification, in order to interrupt that culture and that habit, [Intentionalist had] to offer something more, something different, something compelling," Clise said. "What we found we can offer is the opportunity to connect with and support real people in your community."

This connection helps us relate to these businesses not just as places where we transact, but as places we can engage with others, she said.

Wazhma Samizay, owner of Retail Therapy, said she's seen the way Clise and Intentionalist advocate for small businesses firsthand, and their philosophy is at the heart of what it means to be a small business. And for some, that support and connection to like-minded consumers is a lifeline during difficult times.

"Their tag line of 'Spend Like It Matters' I think says it best," Samizay said. "It really does matter how and where we spend our money."

The initial spark for Intentionalist came to Clise on a trip to Southeast Asia five years ago. During our Zoom call, she was wearing a silk pocket square handwoven by artisans in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Clise told me she wears it as a reminder that a product can be more than it's function.

"It can be, in this case, an artisanal collaborative that provides opportunity for folks from disadvantaged communities in Siem Reap to hone a skill and share their art while at the same time sustaining their families," she said. "As I think about the world that I would like to be a part of, it's a world where there is more connection, more intention and where we take the time to get to know and support each other through the decisions that we make about the money that we spend."

This isn't just a Seattle-thing, either — it's happening all over, Clise said. When thinking about the future of Intentionalist, she said they are working to catalyze a global #SpendLikeItMatters movement. They want Intentionalist to be a resource at the fingertips of people all around the world, so they can be intentional about who benefits from the money they spend anywhere.

"Take a moment to think about the money that you spend every day, and I mean even just take a minute and think about the things that you buy that you could potentially purchase from a diverse local business," Clise said. "Take a moment to be intentional and to 'Spend Like It Matters.'"

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