Profile: Rebecca van Bergen Gives Wings to Struggling Artisans

If you’ve ever traveled outside the United States and wandered through a local market bustling with activity and local artisans pitching their wares, you might have picked up a beautifully woven scarf, a colorful mask, or a sandstone elephant carving.

The talents of countless small-scale craftspeople around the world are abundant, but many have trouble growing their businesses because they lack resources and connections to large-scale, and perhaps more importantly, consistent buyers in higher-income countries.

But what if those connections could be made, with some financial resources and business consulting made available? Enter Rebecca van Bergen, part social entrepreneur, part fashionista. Van Bergen is founder and executive director of Nest, a nonprofit dedicated to helping artisans in developing countries grow their businesses.

“We only work with artisans who show leadership and show scalability,” explained van Bergen. “We want them to grow their operations. We really want them to operate like a business.”

Artisan businesses selected to work with Nest also need to meet one of three criteria: They must work to alleviate poverty by hiring economically disadvantaged individuals; be woman-owned or -operated; or seek to promote peace.

Since founding Nest in 2006 right out of graduate school at age 24, van Bergen and her colleagues have worked with more than 2,000 artisans in 10 countries. When an individual or artisan co-op is selected, Nest staff meet with them to learn about their operations and assess their needs. In some cases, loans are given to upgrade technology or infrastructure. Staff members also spend time educating and training the artisans about business skills, finance, budgeting, and marketing to Western consumers.

Nest then connects the artisans with Western retailers who are interested in ethical sourcing. Surfer apparel maker Reef purchases fabric woven by Nest trained artisans in Guatemala for a line of sandals. Fashion designer Trina Turk has worked with a necklace-maker in India.

Photo courtesy of Nest

Nest’s biggest retail partner is Maiyet, a new luxury clothing line which, according to its website, “seeks to elevate the next generation of master craftsmen from places such as Colombia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mongolia, and Peru.”

One of the Nest artisans supplying Maiyet is “Jamel,” who makes poured brass jewelry in a small village outside Nairobi, Kenya. (Jamel’s real name has been changed due to privacy concerns). Before Nest, he was using large gas canisters to heat the brass in his small hut where his 10 children also lived and played. Nest provided him with a partial grant and a loan to build a new workshop on a nearby lot and enclose the gas canisters to improve the safety for his family.

In an email, Jamel said Nest helped him expand his business:

“Nest has brought a big change to my life. Before, it was a struggle to find work, to go out and find business. Now, Nest has provided stability by giving me constant work and also, very importantly, prompt payment for work done. Before, I suffered from inconsistent orders and late payments from customers. With this raise in income and with this stability, I am able to increase my team by two workers. I am very happy that I can offer them constant work and keep them employed, too.”

“You definitely see rising incomes with the artisans we work with,” said van Bergen. “That’s an important part of our partnership with Maiyet. We’re being more careful about the retailers we work with. In the past, artisans may have seen a big rise in income for a month and then it would be gone. We’re really trying to get retailers purchasing year after year.”

After the artisans complete Nest training and have established relationships with retailers, Nest continues to provide consulting and guidance, as needed. “We stay in touch with our artisans, even when we no longer have an active partnership,” said van Bergen. “We realize that businesses have different levels of scalability. In a year or two they may need something different to get to the next stage.”

Nest artisans receive the consulting and training services for free, although any loans received must be paid back. Van Bergen said the organization’s operating expenses are covered by individual and foundation support, as well as a percentage of profits from their retail partners.

Over the last six years, van Bergen has refined Nest’s mission several times. Her original plan — to offer small loans to women artisans and to receive their crafts as payment for those loans — proved unfeasible because she didn’t have enough consumers buying the goods from her online boutique. She then marketed directly to retailers, including American Eagle. But van Bergen said that model was unsustainable because in order for Nest take a cut of the profits, she had to set a high price for the artisans’ goods.

The model she settled on — part consultant, part lender, part “match-maker” — is working well for everyone involved, van Bergen said, adding that technology is helping facilitate how she and her fellow young social entrepreneurs engage with the world.

“One reason our generation is so different than our parents’ generation is because the world is so different,” she said. “Nest wouldn’t have been possible for my Mom to do. We have Skype, email, the ease of me going to India and Kenya, and doing conference calls on the web.”

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs. We’ll feature 10 of these social entrepreneurs just starting to make their mark, and invite your recommendations for others — tweet us @NewsHourWorld and use hashtag #AgentsforChange. Or you can post them in the below comments section.

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