One of my 12 Small Things vendors, Roy and Louise van Broekhuizen of Laga Designs sent me an email update on the recent earthquake damage in Padang, Indonesia. They described scenes of people huddled outside their crumbled homes in total darkness and pouring rain, too afraid of aftershocks to seek shelter. Unfortunately, the scene is all too familiar to Roy and Louise, who led a team of volunteers to Indonesia in 2004 after that powerful earthquake and tsunami struck, killing more than 200,000 people and damaging homes and businesses beyond repair. The devastation they saw and the help they realized was needed, was beyond the work they were able to do in repeat visits to the area. They both wanted to do more to help survivors who lost their family members and sources of income.
During one of their visits they admired a local store’s handbags using traditional Acehnese design patterns. Wanting to help generate more income and jobs for the survivors, Louise and Roy bought some bags and sold them at house parties back in their home in Irvine California, to very enthusiastic shoppers. Roy and Louise both quit their day jobs and created “Laga” Designs, which means “beautiful” in Acehnese. Starting with 12 Acehnese women in 2005, Laga now employs more than 120 workers in Indonesia who carefully stitch each bag by hand-powered sewing machines. The multiple styles of handbags, wallets and cosmetic bags offered by Laga all have a very distinguished, classic look and hold their own when compared to many designer bags that are mass-produced and overpriced for corporate profits.
I also checked in with my vendor Gianna Driver for our regular Friday meeting at Starbucks. Gianna has a website, Wear Gianna, selling beautiful scarves, pillows and bedding from Asian artisans in dire need of economic support. Gianna shared her story of how she started her company, which is focused on helping empower women around the world. Gianna’s mother was a mail-order bride from the streets of Manila who came to America to marry a Texas farmer with whom she had nothing in common. She had hopes of creating a better life for herself and eventually her children. Unfortunately her husband was a difficult man with three children from a previous marriage and the conditions were too difficult to endure. Gianna and her mother sought refuge in a woman’s shelter where her mother found employment as a night manager. Gianna remembers being woken up in the middle of the night in response to calls from battered women needing assistance from her mom.
Gianna’s mom worked two additional jobs while Gianna worked hard at school; her studies culminating in a degree from the Wharton School of Business. Gianna landed a top paying job at a commercial insurance company in San Francisco, where she finally experienced financial stability, but found her work personally unfulfilling. She realized she wanted to use her experience and education to help women less fortunate, as she and her mother once were. Gianna’s love of travel brought her to remote villages of Laos, Thailand and India where she met with severely disadvantaged artisans barely able to make ends meet. Gianna worked with these women to develop their homemade crafts into products she could sell in the United States. Wear Gianna was launched last year and is truly a labor of love in support of these artisans by a bright, young woman with a big heart. I was one of the many happy guests at Gianna’s wedding reception in Woodside last month, with her proud mom and her wonderful husband Chris Balme. Chris runs the Spark program in San Francisco, creating job opportunities for at-risk middle school students. As with Louise and Roy, the world is a better place because of the help being given by inspiring couples like Gianna and Chris.