Last month I participated in Aid to Artisans E-Market Readiness Program with attendees from around the world, attended the online gift show Shoppe On, where I bought products for 12 Small Things and listened to a great panel discussion moderated by Patti Carpenter on Building Diversity, sat in on a conversation with Vanity Fair's editor Radhika Jones, interviewing Ta Nehisi Coates about their brilliant The Great Fire September issue, and watched Beyonce perform songs from her new album Black is King, all from my laptop computer and was elated. Where have I been all these years? COVID forced me and many others of us I’m sure, to learn how to experience the world around us online. And I’m not sure I really miss those long flights to New York or how much my feet hurt walking the trade shows. I don’t think I would have ever gotten around to buying tickets to see Ta Nehisi Coates let alone Beyoncé. And I know how hard it is for many small artisans groups to find funding for air fare, hotels and registration for Aid to Artisan’s MRP at NY Now each summer. For their first ever virtual MRP workshop, they had over 50 attendees. These are all good things indeed.
What’s not so great? Not being able to be with family members and friends. All the people still getting this unforgiving virus, the closed businesses and loss of revenue and inability to afford basic needs for food and housing. Black lives still being lost by racism. Global warming continuing to attack our world with more violent storms and wildfires. With no leadership from our government to help us through this crisis how are we coping?
Some are finding comfort in the simple pleasures of domestic skills we once were too busy for, cooking from scratch, sewing, quilting, reading and writing, music and yoga. Others are becoming more socially active, protesting, forming support groups, organizing fundraising to help those in need, feeding those in the path of disasters and those who rely on community provided meals. Taking care of ourselves so we can help others.
My family and I are lucky to have a home and income during this uncertain time and my landlord for the store has been understanding about delayed rent payments. Customers have been buying masks and gifts to help support my local business, for which I am very grateful. I’m also very thankful for the wholesale representation I’ve been able to do at 12 Small Things for Cost Plus World Market and Whole Foods California, who are ordering artisan products for their stores. Many of the artisan groups I work with had little to no work during the pandemic, so being able to bring them orders from large retailers has been such a welcome bit of good news.
Currently I am working with Prosperity Catalyst on an order for metal votive holders and river stone hearts from Haiti. One of my favorite wholesale representatives to work with, Nathalie Tancrede, recently traveled to Haiti for Prosperity Catalyst, and we tried my first ever Instagram live video while she was visiting the metal-smiths working on our order. After a few attempts at calling her from my store, she connected with a big smile and loud banging of artisans at work in the background. Excited for the opportunity to learn more, we were quickly disconnected by the poor wifi connection, and as much as we tried, could not reestablish our call and had to abandon the mission. Wifi lesson learned and we will try again!
Another vendor I am working with on an order for World Market, is Swahili Imports, whose owner Leslie Mittelberg I have know since I started 12 Small Things 10 years ago. World Market has ordered the Leakey Collection grass bracelets that Leslie's company now represents, along with another artisan group from Kenya who make animal sculptures out of recycled flip flops washed up onshore. They are known for their larger, colorful animal sculptures carved from these discarded materials, but in this case, World Market was interested in smaller keychain sized versions, perfect for taking with you on aquatic outings where if tossed overboard, they will hopefully stay afloat! Leslie's home and warehouse are based in Eugene, Oregon, and we are thinking of her and her employees during this stressful fire season.
I'm also working on World Market orders for delightful paper elephant magnets made of recycled elephant poo paper from Shri Lanka, by Mr. Ellie Pooh Co, (love that name), whose products provide employment opportunities that help protect the native elephant population. Keeping with the elephant theme, I also sold credit card wallets from Malia Designs made from recycled rice bags with wonderful elephant graphics made by artisans in Cambodia, and raffia elephants and zebras from Madagascar working with the East African Company, and wooly safari animal finger puppets, made by artisans in Nepal working with DZI Designs.
These wholesalers have been working with their artisan groups for years to help bring income opportunities to many who have little alternatives in their rural communities. During this pandemic, their work has all but shut down, like so many businesses around the world, but has been harder to recover when the available resources and government subsidies are minuscule if even available. An order from a reputable company in the US is welcome relief, even if the workers aren't back in full force, it's at least a start, and encouraging sign.
Last month the Renaissance Entrepreneur Center in San Francisco where I wrote my business plan for 12 Small Things, held their first digital fundraiser gala, and honored my former instructor Paul Terry, for his 30 years of teaching and for inspiring me and so many others over the years to start our own business. Their director, Sharon Miller did a beautiful job bringing their annal fundraiser online and we even had a virtual cocktail party at our different "tables" meeting new friends and business partners. Like Aid to Artisans, the Ren Center is mentoring entrepreneurs who are seeking guidance and coaching from those with experience, to help launch their business dreams, like I did almost 12 years ago.
With all the digital inspiration I experienced last month, I decided to try another Instagram Live with 12 Small Things featured artisan this month, Linda Adimora of Batiqua who produces contemporary designed textiles made by a traditional batik process in Zimbabwe. Linda now lives in Vancouver where she manages design, sales and marketing for the company that was founded by her father, who still oversees the production in Zimbabwe. This time the wifi was not an issue, and I had a chance to learn more about the batik process and how Linda has been able to keep sales going during the pandemic. You can watch our short video on my Instagram link. With their beautifully designed products and website, and a secondary site on Etsy, Linda is finding customers who are interested in bringing unique, handmade decor into their homes.
My digital learning month concluded with a Handmade Futures Summit, hosted by my former employer Williams Sonoma Inc and the Trade & Impact Association. It was an ambitious project bringing artisans from around the world to learn about the business of selling and exporting handmade goods to large retailers for American consumers. Listening to the West Elm buyers explain the their processes to their virtual audience, I was reminded of my earlier years in corporate marketing, working for them as well as the Gap and Red Envelope, before leaving to start my own business. When was the last time I wore a suit let alone a dress?
One thing positive that has come from living through this pandemic, is the speed at which online communication has been brought to communities around the world to stay engaged while sheltering in place. Not only has it helped many of us stay in business, it has also brought opportunities to others who may not have had access to such a breadth of information or ability to travel to attend events in person. Don't get me wrong, I can't wait to have dinner with my girlfriends and hug my 90 year old in-laws again. But in the meantime, while we await the outcome of the impending election which can't come soon enough, I'm going to keep expanding my online experience and stay safely and actively connected, and vote!