Amanda North was thrown off her feet when the first bomb exploded 15 feet behind her. In an instant, the festive scene near the finish line of last year’s Boston Marathon became a surreal tableau of pain and panic. “All of a sudden, it went from this scene of cheering and flag-waving to total chaos,” North says. “It was horrible beyond imagination.” North, who had traveled from her home in Woodside, California, to watch her daughter, Lili, complete the race, had been soaking in the upbeat energy on the sidelines as spectators cheered for the runners and hugged each other.
There was a blinding flash, and suddenly North found herself on the ground. “When the first explosion occurred, I didn’t think ‘terrorism,’ I didn’t think ‘bombing,’” she says. “It just seemed so unlikely.” She wondered if there had been an accident. But when the second bomb detonated a few seconds later, she realized this was something else. She scanned the sky for airplanes, remembering the September 11th attacks. Wounded victims cried out around her. Blood, body parts, and debris littered the street. North’s right eardrum was blown out, and everything had gone eerily quiet.
On her left, North saw a woman who had been seriously injured–her leg was mangled, but she was still conscious. Amid the chaos and smoke, North crawled over, draped her coat around the woman’s shoulders, and grasped her hand. “Stay with me,” she told the woman, whose name, she later learned, was Erika Brannock. “Help is coming. I’m not going to let you go.” It wasn’t until EMTs arrived that North realized she, too, was injured. “I looked down and there was a gaping hole in my upper right thigh,” she says. She had suffered third-degree burns and lacerations on her legs. Hair on the right side of her head had been fused, in the heat, with bomb material.
North was taken to the hospital, where her leg was stitched up. Her daughter, shaken but uninjured, found her after a few hours. Later, in a moment of calm, they had time to reflect on what happened. “[Lili] said, ‘Our lives have been spared by a miracle; they will never be the same again,’” North recalls. “‘We need to think about our passions and our purpose and lead our lives with that in mind.’”
North had worked in the tech industry for more than 30 years. She managed Apple’s desktop-publishing division in its early days and later served as a marketing executive for a series of companies, including Splunk. At the time of the attack, she was VP of marketing for AOptix Technologies, based in Campbell, California. But sitting in the hospital, listening to her daughter’s appeal for passion and purpose, she started to think about fundamentally changing her life. “You just never know if there will be a next year or a next month or a next minute,” she says. “I decided to explore what was meaningful to me and where I could make a difference in the world.”
But where would she start? Back at home two days after the bombing, North took her spiritual temperature with a series of simple questions: What did she read about after work? What did she think about in her spare time? Travel, culture, and history were the topics that came up. She had traveled with her children throughout the developing world and always made a point of learning about local crafts and the artisans who made them. Over the years, she had amassed a collection of art from Bali, Cambodia, India, and elsewhere. She saw the pieces as reminders of the world beyond her neighborhood.
Yet artisans along the way had told her they might be the last generation carrying on their family craft businesses. Wages were no longer sufficient to warrant long hours of sometimes painstaking work. Young people were finding they could make more money working in call centers or other urban jobs. “It’s a way of life that’s going away,” North says.
North had been volunteering as a mentor to social entrepreneurs at Santa Clara University, where a few of her advisees worked with artisan groups around the world. They told her what artisans needed was access to global marketplaces where they could connect with consumers who would value their product. “I thought, ‘A-ha, marketing–that’s what I do,’” she says. Just a week after the Boston bombing, she had an idea. She left AOptix in June, and began work on the concept in July.
This week, North is launching the result: Artisan Connect, a startup that combines her passion for travel and traditional crafts with a long-brewing interest in social change. The company is an online marketplace where customers can shop for high-end home-decor products made by artisans in developing countries. Yet unlike charities that rely on donations to support artisans’ livelihoods, North envisioned her business as a for-profit venture that would provide craftspeople with a sustainable revenue source. Her site, she says, is a boon for both sides: Globally minded consumers can decorate their homes with meaningful treasures, while artisans receive a fair wage.
For North, launching her business so close to the April 15 anniversary of the Boston blasts is significant. “It’s been a year where so many people have been working through tough issues with such spirit and courage,” she says. “I wanted this to be a testament that you can go through unimaginable circumstances and come out of it with a changed life.”
Most existing businesses selling artisan wares to U.S. consumers are brick-and-mortar stores with an online presence, North discovered. But physical sales locations come with higher overhead costs, so she decided to operate solely online. “The whole idea would be to have a profitable business where we return as much of the margin as we can to the artisans to keep them in business,” she says. “We need to drive revenue, because that’s what’s going to sustain these artists over time.”
That’s why she avoided the nonprofit model–she didn’t want to keep craftspeople dependent on a donation pool that might run dry, or feel like they needed charity to survive. “A for-profit business indicates to the artisans that there is a strong market for what they’re doing–they are business people, and they can take a lot of pride in the fact that there’s value in their products,” says North, the company’s founder and CEO. “The thing that people haven’t done before is to give them a fair share of that value.”
According to market analysts, revenue could be substantial. Gift and home-décor sales grew 72%, from $37.9 billion to $65.2 billion, in the mid-2000s, market research firm Unity Marketing said in a 2008 report. And if online home-decor retailer One Kings Lane is any indication–the upscale flash-sales site more than doubled its valuation over the past three years, to $912 million this January–many of those shoppers may be moving to the web. But while existing artisanal craft marketplaces often focus on jewelry or clothing, North found the home-accent realm largely untapped. And she wanted to improve upon the “souveniry” nature of many such shops with a more curated feel.
Artisan Connect is launching with handmade goods from Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and Latin America. The company doesn’t work with individual craftspeople–vetting quality would be too difficult–but rather with collectives and nonprofits proven to provide artisans with fair wages. There are no contracts or membership fees; Artisan Connect issues purchase orders for the products featured on the site and buys them at wholesale prices set by the artisan groups themselves. Products are then sold at retail rates that cover the company’s shipping costs and what North believes are reasonable returns to investors.
On the site, awash in immersive images, customers can browse photos of the goods placed in thoughtfully designed living spaces to get a sense of how they might look at home. “We show how a pillow from Guatemala and a throw from Bolivia and a bowl from Swaziland harmonize together,” North says. “The rooms you look at don’t scream, ‘Backpacker!’ They’re actually elegant and beautiful.”
And consumers yearning for deeper ties to the artisans featured on the site can read their stories, or even learn how to visit or volunteer with them. “It’s about commerce, for sure–but in the bigger picture, it’s about engagement,” she says.
These principles garnered Artisan Connect $750,000 in seed funding from three investors, including Joshua Mailman of social impact fund Serious Change. “There’s a large global craft market, but it’s more focused on lower-end crafts–the idea of doing high-end home products is quite innovative,” Mailman says. “This could have a significant effect on the marketplace.”
Will artisans actually reap those benefits? North says financial gain is just one of the ways: Whenever she shows crafters photos of their products in customers’ homes, their joy is palpable. “The financial part is key–people have to have enough money to survive,” she says. “But beyond that, it’s knowing that you’re being appreciated–that people here in America love what you do. I think that’s going to be the secret to keeping their next generation interested in continuing the work.”
As Boston prepares for the 2014 marathon later this month, survivors mark a year of healing. North was reunited with Erika Brannock, whose lower left leg was amputated, after the Baltimore schoolteacher’s 50-day hospital stay. Now, she thinks of Brannock often as she launches her company. Brannock’s strong will to recover, she says, is an ongoing inspiration. “Starting a business is incredibly difficult,” says North, whom Brannock credits with saving her life. “There are a lot of times when you scratch your head and say, ‘How can I do this?’ But every time I have that feeling, I think of what she’s been through and what a positive spirit she is, and I draw upon that for strength. I think, ‘Boy, if Erika can do this, I can for sure get up tomorrow morning, be positive and think of a solution.’”