Indigenous founder Scott Leonard blazes a trail from hardscrabble Andes villages to Saks and Bloomingdale's.
Scott Leonard’s passions for design, the environment, and social justice came together in the mountains of Ecuador. That’s where he conceived the idea of artisans using traditional tools and natural fibers to create clothes fashionable enough for the U.S. market. Indigenous is the first premium fashion company to receive fair trade certification: its new Fair Trace Tool lets customers use smart phones to see how and by whom their garments were made. Leonard talked about forging a modern supply chain from old-world elements with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan:
In the early 90s I was employed as a fruit shake maker in a natural-foods restaurant. One day I was late for work, running down a street in Palo Alto, and in the intersection I knocked down this shorter Ecuadorian individual. His books and groceries went flying all over the place. The lights turned green. People were beeping their horns. I picked him up; helped him gather his things, and then helped him across the street. I felt so bad that I brought him into the restaurant I was working at and made him a fruit smoothie. That man was Joe Flood. He’s the person I started the company with.
Right away Joe and I made a pact that one day we would do something in business that was extraordinary. I spent the next couple of years running an environmental surf shop, and he worked with me a little bit on that. Then we had the opportunity to take a trip to Ecuador together. In the Andes we saw these women who were knitting in cooperatives, and we wanted to help them. They had incredible skills, but they weren’t being paid or honored for them. At the time they were making these sort of bulky, rough sweaters. We thought if we could shape their skills to produce something more market-ready, with better designs and yarn and quality control, and if we could help them with marketing, then we could dictate a better price and give them a better wage.
We started making regular trips into these desolate regions of the Andes. We relied on the NGOs for help, because they were already working in these communities. They gave us the structure to interact with them. It was too much for us to orchestrate on our own. Right now we work with more than 275 little tiny groups that represent more than 1,500 artisans.
About a year after we started the company we brought in Matt Reynolds, who is my working partner. He and I share a lot of the day-to-day and have throughout the 18 years of the business.
This journey with Indigenous has been about scaling jobs at the base of the pyramid. Not only how do you take a skill and add quality control but also how do you elevate an entire supply chain, all the way from the fields of organic cotton through textile manufacturers and yarn makers. Then you have to deliver the material to these remote areas where the artisans live in pockets of as few as three to 30 women. They are working with the same tools they’ve always used: needles and lap looms. You have to show them the new designs, manage quality control, and do everything necessary to get the product in the store.
To fund these collectives we had to go beyond micro-credit lending. Because some of them might need one or two thousand dollars but some of the larger ones might need more. So we brought in Root Capital, which finances about 80% of our supply chain. We make the artisans financially literate, organize them into quality-control hubs where they deliver their products, and pay field ops to hand out money to them.
We met some people from Eileen Fisher’s company through the Social Venture Network. They fell in love with the idea of the artisan supply chain. We now produce through the indigenous supply chain thousands and thousands of sweaters for Eileen Fisher over the years as a private label. We’ve been doing that for almost seven years. The products are in Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Private label for Eileen Fisher and others is about 50% of revenues. The rest comes from our own brand, which is in 500 different stores across the United States.
We like to say that the sweet spot of Indigenous is someplace between sustainability and serendipity.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan