It could have been a giant cinderblock. It certainly would have cost less and would have served the same general purpose. Soon to rise in Varansi, India, is a breathtaking structure to house silk artisans. Designed by celebrity architect David Adjaye, the facility will reflect Buddhist-Moghul-Hindu architecture and the values of the area. A 500-year tradition in this region of the world, handmade silk crafting has come under tremendous pressure from machines that can produce products faster, although at a lower level of quality. As an industry, it faces extinction in as little as a decade. Some have argued that the tide of history cannot be turned. Silk artisans, they contend, should be retrained and re-enter the workforce in a different capacity. Rebecca van Bergen will have none of that.
“These people are not laborers; this is an incredibly amazing and intricate craft. They are artists. They deserve a beautiful space to work,” van Bergen said. “And luxury fashion houses should see this as a luxury craft. So how do we shine a spotlight on this craft? A cinderblock building isn’t going to do it.”
Empowering artisans and connecting them to the global marketplace has been van Bergen’s passion since she started Nest almost a decade ago. It has been a long journey. Her advocacy, action, and audacity on behalf of the artisans of the developing world started back in a St. Louis coffee shop.
In 2006, van Bergen had just obtained her master’s degree in social work. Like many in her generation, she was a well-educated achiever. But what to do with her degree? She was frustrated. She had so many different interests and passions, it seemed like no profession out there could combine her talents.
Adding to her frustration, she had recently been told not to even bother applying for a business loan. She wanted to open a store and sell merchandise created by foreign artisans. The bank felt that she was a bad bet. She had no business experience and no collateral. Despite her noble effort, the loan was a nonstarter.
“I ended up listing all the things I liked on a sheet of paper, trying to come up with something that fulfilled many of my interests: working with women and children, social activism, international travel, fashion, design, art, and the green movement,” she said. A job that combined all those did not exist, so van Bergen decided to create it. And in doing so, she created a company that is helping to change the world. She started to build Nest, and she has never looked back.
Nest helps artisanal businesses connect to the global market. They perform an assessment and, depending on what is needed, can do everything from invest in infrastructure upgrades to provide skill development and business training. They create customized programs and devise a plan for scalable business development. And they connect artisans to retailers who are seeking high quality handmade products.
For the retailers, Nest provides assurance that the artisans meet ethical compliance and professional standards of excellence. This is a major issue for retailers who are interested in working with those in the developing world. Brands need to be careful with whom they employ.
“There are quality control issues, there are communication issues, there are timing issues,” van Bergen said. Nest addresses all these issues without resorting to an intermediary as the solution. This concept is very important to van Bergen. She wants to elevate the artisans so they can enter the marketplace themselves instead of being beholden to a middleman to get them there. This model is remarkably empowering and sustaining for the artisans.
Interestingly enough, Nest did not start out with this model. At first, Nest issued microloans to artisans, who used the proceeds to purchase tools and materials for their products. Nest then sold the products and repaid the loan with the proceeds. Five years ago the company made a strategic shift.
“We were fostering a model of dependency,” van Bergen said. “The artisans were relying on a nonprofit intermediary to get to market. From my perspective, there was an ethical dilemma. Artisans weren’t getting to market alone.” Even though this model had become increasingly popular with other ventures getting into the space, van Bergen was set on changing course. So Nest stepped out of the supply chain and became a third-party intermediary. As a result, Nest now puts the artisans in the global marketplace.
Nest works with thousands of artisans around the world. They are in India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and Swaziland. A Nest artisan earns, on average, 120% more than the local minimum wage. They are leaving behind poverty and oppression and becoming businesspeople, becoming part of the global economy. Eighty-nine percent of Nest artisans are women, who tend to reinvest earned income in food, education, and the community. A ripple effect takes hold. Nest calculates that for every one of its artisans, the ripple effect impacts more than 17 people. Before this decade is out, Nest hopes to bring sustainable change to more than 2 million people.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.
Photos from Nest