Meet the “Etsy for the developing world” – Artisan & Fox

Introducing of Artisan & Fox: Artisan & Fox is social enterprise on a mission to build the “Etsy for the developing world”. Founded on the belief that everyone should be able to shop responsibly without compromising style or quality, the startup brings consumers ethical fashion, paired with extraordinary craftsmanship. Their first partnership collection is mindfully handmade by artisans in five developing countries and is now available on Indiegogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/artisan-fox-extraordinary-ethical-craftsmanship–5/x/9618106.

 

1) What inspired you guys to start Artisan & Fox?

Artisan & Fox was born during a trip to Nepal in the summer of 2015. I had just completed my first year at the London School of Economics, and decided to spend a month across the Himalayas with a non-profit founded by a friend of mine.

Back then, an earthquake has just struck Nepal, so all I heard about the country before my arrival was about the devastation. However, when I did arrive in Nepal, what I saw and what I experienced was entirely different. Yes, many landmarks were damaged. Yes, many people were rendered homeless. Yet, the country remains warm and beautiful, with awe-inspiring scenery and welcoming locals.

During my trip, I had a chance meeting with a Nepali silversmith named Prem, and I was surprised to learn that he was struggling despite his excellent craftsmanship and beautiful products. He makes these amazing sterling silver rings, at very affordable prices. There were virtually no tourists visiting his little stall. Local demand for his crafts was also non-existent due to the high unemployment in his area.

I bought some sterling silver rings from Prem, and started selling them through a pilot online store that I built for £100. Soon afterward, I realized that Prem’s story is not unique. Many artisans globally are struggling with similar issues, with a lack of access to global markets. Some face even more dire conditions: extortionate middlemen or exploitative factories. I knew, and I wanted to do something, and so Artisan & Fox was born.

With the artisan Prem in summer of 2015. Copyright Artisan & Fox.

Now, we work with over 25 artisans across the Himalayas, and have expanded to partnering with artisan communities in Afghanistan, Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico.

We revisited Prem in January of this year to film some footage for our crowdfunding video. Copyright Artisan & Fox.

 

2) Why go through the trouble of starting a business of your own, instead of joining an NGO who focused on preserving craftsmanship and helping artisans?

We’re very different from traditional nonprofits.

Nonprofits face a lot of restrictions in scaling up their impact, because they are constrained by the amount of donations or grants they can get. Massive amount of time can be spent applying for grants, and large overheads spent on fundraising. Nonprofits are also unable to do equity fundraising. Raising equity from external investors can be very valuable in getting access to new networks and expertise. Instead of joining an NGO as an employee, what I’d like to do is build a platform that can support traditional nonprofits in the same space. Currently, we’re collaborating with a nonprofit in Afghanistan to help Afghan artisans sell their crafts globally, and preserve craftsmanship in a country facing the threat of war.

We’re also different from typical social enterprises that work with artisans. A typical social enterprise employs locals as makers. It is often a norm that a social business employs 1-2 artisans in a developing country, such as Kenya, and then promise to provide a fair wage to these artisans. However, profits that these businesses make will flow back to where the company is incorporated and where the founders are from, such as the United States. Yes, the local artisans receive a fair wage, but they are not encouraged to be entrepreneurs themselves. The local economy also does not benefit from profits gained from these artisans’ crafts and it results in a net capital outflow.

In a similar scenario, we would instead help these local Kenyan artisans expand their own micro-businesses as entrepreneurs, with the hopes of creating more jobs for their fellow Kenyans. Profits reaped by Kenyan businesses, staying within the country, and reinvigorating the local economy.

Our aim is to help these micro-businesses expand. Eventually, when they are no longer reliant on us for support, that is when we’ve succeeded. Artisan production is the second largest employer in developing countries, and the majority of them are small producers. So we know there is huge potential in this sector for raising the economic productivity and reducing unemployment across developing nations.

One of the perks of starting Artisan & Fox. Breathtaking views of the Himalayas at sunrise. Copyright Artisan & Fox.

 

3) While creating Artisan & Fox, what were the most challenging hurdles you needed to overcome?

Navigating the local dynamics. We work in five different countries, and intend to reach out to 10,000 artisans across the two years, so there are many cultural nuances we have to recognise, understand and respect.

One issue has to do with the fact that many artisans are women, often from communities where they often are not treated equally. Factor in corrupt local officials, and you face a toxic cocktail of politics which you cannot afford to get involved in because there is so little you know. In countries where we have formal partnerships with established nonprofits or co-operatives, this is less of an issue – but where we rely on forging independent partnerships, this is where it gets more tricky.

For example, in a part of Asia, we had to withdraw a partnership as the corrupt chieftain of the village and some men were continuously harassing the women artisans, who were making accessories from organic vines. Eventually, we had to terminate the partnership so they’d stop harassing the women.

As outsiders, we have to be respectful of the dynamics of the community, and try to work in a way that is mutually beneficial. Consequently, this in turns limits our ability to scale up quickly.

Sterling silver rings with moonstones, made by the artisan Prem. Copyright Artisan & Fox.

 

4) What would be the best advice you could give to other potential social entrepreneurs so that they can be successful?

Find a problem you are passionate for, and then apprentice with said problem.

You have to build up your understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. In countries like the UK, we often have an idealised notion of the Majority World, with grandiose ideas of what we can do to impact others. I sometimes hear people wanting to work ‘somewhere in Africa’ because it sounds adventurous or exotic, which sounds silly even to me, given how little I know about the continent.

But the fact is, you cannot build something sustainable for people you don’t know, or build solutions to a problem you have not lived.

For Artisan & Fox, we’ve tried our best to approach each community by starting with a needs assessment done locally when possible, or an informal outreach with a point-of-contact. In Nepal, by living with the artisans we’re working with, and having direct conversations, we have developed a better understanding of the problems they are facing. So it is okay if you’d like to be a social entrepreneur, and aspire to build an impactful venture. But that shouldn’t be your end goal. The world doesn’t need more solutions looking for problems. First find your problem, and build a contextualised solution.

Prem’s moonstones rings, styled by Artisan & Fox. Copyright Artisan & Fox.

 

Artisan & Fox is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo, featuring extraordinary craftsmanship by artisans in Nepal, Kenya, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Mexico. Learn more here: https://www.igg.me/at/knowyourartisan/.

Live Messy Lives

I want to begin by sharing with you three stories from my life that you will not read in my bio or see on my CV.

The first begins at the age of 17, when I attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City.  I was attending one of the finest schools in New York, if not America, surrounded by bright, motivated people, and presented with ample opportunities to learn and to grow.  In my third year, I dropped out.

In life, people often see failure in a romantic way when a person has overcome it.  Look at the many successful entrepreneurs who proudly share and derive lessons from their past business failures.  Similarly, when I tell people about my having dropped out, they ask me whether I perhaps volunteered to help others, travelled the world, or focused on my passions in sport and music. “No,” I tell them. I just wandered around New York City, thinking and trying to make sense of complex family and personal issues I faced as a teenager. Nothing romantic about it.  But I went on to graduate Bronx Science, attend Rice University, and later receive my Masters and Doctoral degrees from Oxford University, where I was a Marshall Scholar – all proudly listed on my CV.

After graduating Oxford, I embarked on an exciting career in international banking with Citigroup. I advanced rapidly, and in five years had reached and even surpassed many of my goals and expectations. I believed that professional life was a steady climb to the top, the faster the better. But then I changed my life, rather dramatically, for family reasons, moving from my home in Geneva to the United States. I learned the hard way about corporate politics, and wound up leaving Citigroup and being “between jobs” –  something I never imagined was possible.

I quickly found what seemed a fabulous opportunity running a New York City based asset management firm with a 30-year history and billions under management. But that opportunity disappeared just as quickly when the firm was undermined by fraud on the part of its main owner. I take great pride in having played a major role in saving the company, but was not able to save my own job in the process.

I tell these stories as valuable educational experiences along some determined path to success, and they certainly were.  At the time, however, they were anything but.  They were traumatic, soul searching, messy episodes that did not conform at all to my vision of success and accomplishment.

The final story I want to share is personal, and by far the most difficult.  I am the proud father of three amazing daughters, ages 17, 19, and 22, who are all moving forward and striving on their own journeys.  I am very involved and feel vital in their lives, as they certainly are in mine.  We are close, and we are happy. But there was a time, almost a decade ago, when I was cut off from them for three years, during which time I could not see them, communicate with them, or even know how they were doing.  I could not tell them how much I loved them and missed them, no matter how often or hard I tried. This horrible silence was the result of what I came to learn was called “parental alienation,” which is when one parent alienates their children from the other parent.  I did not see it coming. Not at all.  It tested my resolve, and cut to the core of my being.  Through love and determination, my daughters and I were reunited.  We survived this and came to prosper together. We are lucky beyond measure, and I feel deeply for the many families that are not so fortunate.

 

Our Non-Linear, Messy Lives

Each of these stories clearly is highly meaningful to me in my life. But that is not why I describe them here.  I do so because they illustrate how life, despite our achievements, professional and personal, is inherently messy.  And while the messiness of my life has made me the person I am, it is largely hidden from view in terms of my public profile.

Life is not neat, and it is certainly not linear. Some of you reading this may be studying economics, as I did, and for that you certainly have my sympathy(!)  Joking aside, though, in econometrics we map data points, and through regression analysis create trends to make sense of the many dots we see.  We do this in our lives as well through the narratives we create in our public profiles, through bios, CVs, and social media.  Long marches of achievements and paths of success fill the narratives of our lives as we try to smooth out the dots in our lives.

But no matter the smoothing we do, in the end, life is not the lines but the dots. Never forget that.  In his classic text on the history of science, Thomas Kuhn argued that science is not some steady march of progress, with ongoing advances on the path to greater truth and knowledge. Quite the contrary. Science progresses through revolutions that turn established thinking on its head and lead to what he calls changing paradigms.  This process is not linear and it is very messy.

So, too, are our lives, as they evolve through good and bad times, and ups and downs.  Another brilliant observer of science, Stephen J. Gould, pointed out that theories may explain facts, but facts occur continuously, whether they fit a given theory or not: “Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome.”  The messiness in our lives, seen through the many dots scattered across them, also does not fit neatly into any framework or narrative, as much as we may try to force it. 

In addition, we often do not understand the dots in our lives while they are occurring.  Steve Jobs keenly observed, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” While Jobs’ astute observation offers an important perspective on the challenges we all face in planning our future, I would argue that the dots in our lives do not connect so neatly looking backwards either, and we should not force them to do so.

 

Our Messy Lives and Our Neat Public Profiles

So much of our life journey is focused on creating our public profile in terms of our brand or reputation. We use our public profile to present the world with a compelling case to hire us, invite us, seek us out, quote us, reward us, respect and admire us.  To this end, the CV becomes a central document in our lives.  Especially for millennials, creating and launching their careers, I am acutely aware of the importance placed on CVs to open doors and put one’s best face forward.  To create excellent CVs, people of all ages follow tried and tested principles: show ongoing progress and increasing responsibility; show continuity and no gaps between jobs; and highlight the achievements of each role, even by presenting setbacks in positive terms.  Don’t say half of your employees quit, but rather that you amazingly managed to retain half of the workforce. There are countless other ways this technique is used.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it hides the person, and also hides the key moments in the person’s life when they were faced with challenges, choices, and, yes, failures and other traumatic events. This is akin to photo-shopping one’s life to blot out problems, brighten areas of darkness, and delete photos that fall outside the positive narrative.  For this reason, I have refrained from looking at so many CVs over the years as a hiring manager.  For me, the CV is often irrelevant because I want to understand what the CV does not say rather than what it does.

CVs also become tools we use to convince ourselves of our own narratives.  We are much more than the list of achievements presented in our CV.  The danger is that if we do not accept the messy episodes and transitions in our lives we can never learn from them and grow.  The seminal work of William Bridges is essential reading for people wanting to understand how to interpret and manage life’s messy transitions.  He describes what he calls “grey zones” in our lives, or periods where we depart one phase of life but are yet to enter the next.  We do not enjoy grey zones, but they are essential for us to advance and succeed through the transitions we face.  And these grey zones are usually precisely the episodes that we go to great lengths to keep off our CVs!

Finally, and importantly, we must not look at other people’s neat public profiles and compare them to our messy private realities, lest we convince ourselves that others are more successful than we are. It is easy to fall into this trap, and it can create insecurities and lead us to unhealthy places.

 

Five Personal Thoughts on Living Messy, Happy Lives

I want to share with you some thoughts on how I have learned to live with and learn from the messiness in my life.  While I hope these thoughts resonate with you, I am sure you will have and develop your own ideas and approaches.  First, accept and embrace the messiness of life.  Don’t try to cover it up or smooth it out. It makes you who you are.  Second, embrace risk and build resilience.  Take chances and try things out. If they do not work out you will learn from them and build your resilience.  When considering taking a risk, I find it helpful to ask myself, “what is the worst that can happen if this does not work out?”  The answer is almost always less severe than I think.  Moreover, life is like working out in the gym, the messy episodes in our life initially cause some aches and pains but over time they strengthen us.

Third, nurture curiosity and creativity.  Lifetime learning is a great gift to ourselves, and we must ask questions, read, and discover new things.  Creating something new, be it a story, a piece of art, or a song is exhilarating.  Fourth, recognize that people matter. A lot.  In tough times, especially, people have been there for me, and made all the difference. Mentors and others can play important roles in our lives.   There is a wise saying that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. People that challenge us, motivate us, and care about us make us grow and prosper.

Fifth, feel gratitude. This idea has become widely advocated, and it is something I have appreciated increasingly over time through reflection.  An important component of gratitude for me is understanding and managing one’s ego.  This involves setting the right measures of success and not focusing on the wrong things.  When we compare our private, messy lives to others’ public, “successful” ones, our ego often plays a central role in focusing us on the wrong things.  Measuring wealth is a classic case of where people get distracted. Remember, your net worth does not equal your self worth, no matter how much or little money you have.

 

 A Final Word and a Request

I applaud Fypster, and commend all of you millennials who are seeking and striving to make your lives full, enjoyable and meaningful. Your generation has a lot to consider and process, and also a lot to contribute.  Each of you has to think about yourselves and your unique and special paths in life. It is not easy! Apart from my reflections and suggestions above, I offer you a cliché: the journey means as much as or more than the destination. Enjoy all of it!

My request regards how to share this concept of messy lives with people, especially young people, so they can benefit from it. As I consider different ways to do so, I have purchased the url LiveMessyLives.com and am thinking of how best to use it. I would welcome and deeply appreciate your feedback and creative ideas on how the site and a corresponding community could be created and developed and, naturally, to invite you to be a part of it if you so choose.

 

Thank you.

 

Gregg Robins

Gregg
I am a very proud father of three amazing daughters – millennials. I also advise wealthy individuals and families and am a specialist on Russia. I am a singer-songwriter – www.greggrobins.com – and love creating new songs and generally developing ideas. Teaching is a passion of mine, and I have been a professor in select business schools and lectured around the world. I firmly believe in living passionate, messy lives!

What do you seek in life?

Never judge a book by its cover… With this idea we approached him, the strange, confused man that was kicked out of the Starbucks we were just standing in because of his wild rants and uncontrolled shouting. He was sitting there, just outside the same Starbucks on Times Square when we approached him and asked him that one question: “What do you seek in life?”

At first he was skeptical. He didn’t trust us, thought we were maybe from the police. After we gained some trust, he opened up to us. He explained that he sought liberation. He sought to be liberated from the police. He believed that we are controlled by all that we see. He elaborated on his answer by using mice, science and the New York ‘system’ as his examples. “We are all slaves of the society…”

Although his answer was pretty odd, it was unlike anything we expected. He was truly interesting, and we would’ve never said so. He was someone who had a story to tell, someone who needed to express his thoughts. Of course, he was mentally incapacitated to a certain extent, but he wasn’t taken serious by anyone. He was a book, constantly judged by its cover.

I hear you thinking: Why this question? Well, we had been philosophizing the night before and we (jokingly) concluded that we considered this question the most interesting one to ask. A question that captures your personality and makes you think about yourself. Once we heard this man shouting in the Starbucks, we knew we’d have to ask him. And so we did. But it did not stop with only this man…

We decided to move on with it, ask more people on Times Square. We got the most beautiful answers that night. We got so surprised and inspired by all the wonderful things that strangers had to share that I knew I wanted to continue with this. I brought the question home and wanted to explore the thoughts and ideas of one of the most open-minded, culturally diverse and crazy cities in the world: Amsterdam. And that is how Declenimo was born.

DSC_0208[2]

Declenimo derives from the old Gaelic word ‘Declan’, which means ‘Full of Goodness’. We changed it into Declenimo in which we indicate a moment that is full of goodness, referring to the small talks we have with the strangers. I approach complete random strangers and ask them what they seek in life. The idea is to get inspired by an answer or inspire one to think of an answer. At first, I would keep the interactions always short. I would take the answer and then thank them for their time and that’s it. But as I progress in this project, I have longer and longer conversations with the strangers. I get to know where they’re from, what their story is and every now and then I even make new friends. I’ve learned many life lessons from the strangers that I meet. And it is not (only) the white-collar high-end people that taught me valuable lessons, but people from all over the society. From students to homeless people to street artists. Everybody has their own story and we learn from our own experiences and memories. Sometimes, the most inspiring words come from the people that you would expect the least.

The goal is to ask 101 people in Amsterdam what they seek in life. I know, why that number? Well, the idea is that I ask 100 strangers what they seek in life. At the end of the adventure, I will be asking myself as the 101st person what I seek in life. This project has already changed my view on people and my life so much and I can’t wait until I have all the answers collected and to read them back, thinking about what I seek in life.

“So, you just approached them and like… ask them?”

“I wouldn’t know how to talk to someone just like that…”

“Wouldn’t people sometimes get angry? I think it’s scary to just go and talk to a stranger…”

DSC_0168[1]

All I need is another stranger and around approximately 15 minutes. That’s all it takes. Nobody gets angry if you ask them for their time. What is the worst that could happen? They say they don’t have time for you and you leave them alone. Obviously, you always need to be careful when it comes to people you don’t know. It’s a learning process and you’ll teach yourself how to approach strangers and how to talk to them. If you’re standing somewhere on a busy square, to almost everybody around you, you are a stranger too. A stranger is a stranger until one of the two says hello.

It took quite some courage for me to approach the first few strangers in Amsterdam. The weird thing is that once you ask these people and you start to have an actual conversation, it feels so natural. It feels so comfortable and normal. And then you realize that he/ she is just a human. You realize that this interaction between human and human has nothing to do with race/ nationality/ skin color/ sexual orientation/ hobbies or whatever. It is just one stranger, telling their story to another stranger. And after you talk about their story, discuss certain elements and perhaps share a good few laughs, you are suddenly no strangers anymore. This warm feeling of connection, kindness and humanity. That is what we mean with Declenimo.

All the stories (so far) are published online. The difficult thing is that no matter how hard you try to document a conversation, it never gets as close as the real experience. You can’t describe accurately enough how the emotion on their face looked like, or how the cracking in his voice sounded like or how beautiful the smiles on their faces are. Life is beautiful, and so are the people. There are so many stories out there and all we see are the covers. Never judge a book by its cover. So ask yourself, or even better; ask someone else: What do you seek in life?

Declenimo

 

So far, I have asked 35 strangers of the goal of 101 in Amsterdam. Be sure to follow the progress on www.declenimo.nl. Ask a man a question, and he’ll think for the moment. Make a man ask you a question and he’ll think for a lifetime.  

 

Nour
Graduating student International Business and Management. Interested in marketing, football and tech but interested the most in people and asking them what they seek in life! Lived in Canada for a bit and planning on studying in France after my bachelor’s. Currently on an adventure to discover the beauty behind anonymity of strangers in Amsterdam. Follow the adventure on www.declenimo.nl.