Just two weeks after completing her graduate degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, Rebecca van Bergen had a burning passion to do something good for the world, and she wanted to do it in a different way. She was inspired by the emerging field of social business and microloans, but she saw a need to go beyond microloans. "Lending small amounts of money to seed small businesses in developing countries just didn’t seem like enough," she says. "The people I wanted to help didn't have enough business knowledge to be able to put those loans to use effectively."
Van Bergen thought about an alternative model of "microbartering," in which you could provide loans to artisan communities to produce crafts, and then they could, in turn, repay those loans with craft products that could be marketed and sold internationally. If there was a way to connect the artisans to international markets, then the artisans could have a real sustainable business. Acting on her idea, Van Bergen established Nest, a not-for-profit that would strive to create opportunity for artisans, especially women, in some of the poorest countries of the developing world.
Participation grew quickly after the 2006 launch. After just one year, Nest was working with over 80 artisans around the world. The organization was growing, but since Nest was acting as a middleman between artisans and the consumer, the artisans weren’t being linked directly to markets. What was sustainable for Nest was seemingly unsustainable for the artisans. So Van Bergen decided to transform Nest into a business training program for artisans and a broker to connect the artisans with leading U.S. fashion brands that would pay the artisans to design for them. "We want to encourage artisans to have multiple markets, exporting and local," says Van Bergen, "But first and foremost we want to make sure they have enough work at all times to support their business. This model is a great way to do that."
With a new focus, Nest developed a comprehensive process for training their artisans, designed to ensure quality and ultimate self-reliance. Today, the model works like this: First, Nest identifies an artisan community with the help of organizations such as The Peace Corps, as well recommendations from individuals on the ground. Nest only begins a training program when they have a designer who is ready to work with artisans on a product that is on track to go to market. After identifying a community, Nest conducts a needs assessment and designs a tailor-made training program based on those needs. That training program includes leadership development, English and literacy courses, and a basic business curriculum. In addition Nest helps artisans develop safety and quality controls for their production and often helps obtain hard-to-find raw materials and supplies. A training program can run anywhere from three months to three years depending on the need, after which Nest offers ongoing advice and support. True to its roots, Nest also offers interest-free microbartering loans, removing the stigma of artisans owing a financial debt. As a result these loans have consistently had a 100% repayment rate.
Over the past six years, Nest has guided thousands of artisans through their program in countries including: Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Swaziland, and Togo. Nest's artisans have worked for organizations and brands including FEED Projects, Source4Style, American Eagle, and REEF. In the first half of 2012 designers purchased nearly $500,000 worth of inventory from artisan businesses trained by Nest. Nest works particularly closely with Maiyet, a fashion line with a focus on social impact. In the world of high-end fashion, there is obviously a high bar for quality, and Maiyet’s president Kristy Caylor says the quality of products coming from Nest-trained artisans has always met Maiyet's needs. "Our customers see a highly designed product on the shelf that competes with the other brands they like to buy, it just has a very different way it was sourced," says Caylor. "You can’t give a customer a product that fails on the design front but lives up to social impact. But if you can hit both marks, you can win."
While the designs are guided by brands like Maiyet, they are often inspired by the ethnic cultures of the artisans’ countries. In this way Nest also helps keep alive the art and heritage of the artisans’ native cultures. For Van Bergen this reinforces her first thought when she decided on the name Nest: "I really liked the visual of a nest. It symbolizes what we are, a safe and nurturing environment, working with these small communities of women and empowering them to create sustainable businesses so that they can provide for their families," she says.
[Image: Flickr user Furtwangl]