As told to Hillary Johnson
Five years ago, Amber Chand's only experience as a businesswoman had been running a museum gift shop. Instead of a career in business, she had earned a master's degree in anthropology. A sense of social responsibility stems in part from her heritage. She grew up a member of the South Asian diaspora in the East African nation of Uganda. That background instilled in her a sense of self-reliance and entrepreneurship. Where most individuals with a mission to foster social change might have gravitated toward the nonprofit sector, Chand went a different way: With her brother-in-law Dick Sabot, she co-founded Eziba, an artisan handicrafts retail company with the explicit mission of providing a market for entrepreneurs from around the world. With Sabot's help, Chand raised $40 million in venture capital. Today, Eziba is working with artisans in 70 countries, has annual sales of $10 million, retail boutiques in upscale stores, a catalog, and an Internet site, and Chand believes she is but an earnings statement away from turning a profit.
I left Uganda at the age of 21. It was in 1973, and Idi Amin had come to power through a military coup. All Ugandans of Asian extraction were expelled: We had to be gone within three months or we'd be shot. I was just heading to Cambridge, England, for graduate studies. But my father lost all his assets, so I had to quickly write to the schools that had accepted me, explaining the circumstances and asking for a full scholarship. The one that came through with flying colors was the University of Michigan, where I ended up studying anthropology.
That period was very powerful for me. I lost my house, my country, and my father -- he died that same year of a heart attack. The question was, was I going to live my life in bitterness and anger or use the experience as an opportunity to grow?
My brother-in-law and dear friend Dick Sabot, who comes from the worlds of business and academia, helped me dream up Eziba. Five years ago, I mentioned to him that I had an opportunity to import some beautiful Rajasthani paintings from India. From there, Dick and I came up with the idea of creating enterprise partnerships with artisans around the world. Our business model would be intensely bottom-line focused. It had to be because we wanted it to endure.
We founded the company at the perfect time in terms of excitement about the Internet. We saw Eziba as an e-commerce company, and we quickly put together a senior executive team that came from well-established organizations. The vice president of operations came from L.L. Bean. The VP of merchandising came from the Sundance catalog. The CEO came from FAO Schwarz. Our team was very careful, very pragmatic.
We discovered within a year that e-commerce alone wasn't going to work for us. So we tested a small catalog, rented a list, and sent it out. And it was extremely successful. Today the catalog does the lion's share of our business. We're typical of catalog retailers -- 2.2 million catalogs will be going out this holiday season. We've also opened up store-within-a-store outposts inside Marshall Field's.
We have a buying team traveling worldwide, and one of the things I've been concerned about is the situation in which you have a Gujarati embroiderer in India making Santa Claus stockings. I don't want Eziba to promote products that don't have an authentic connection to the culture that produces them. Yet you also have to consider how much income we could generate for the community by selling these. Could they dig a well and educate their children by selling Santa Claus stockings? It's not black-and-white.
We pay the fair trade standard that suggests that 25% of the retail price should be going back to the producer group. Sometimes we pay more. But we have to be careful not to create an imbalance through a false sense of generosity. For instance, if women are producing goods in Kabul, we have to consider how the men will perceive them when the women end up making more money than the men. These are some of the questions involved in how to create a balanced partnership.
Recently we had another cultural incident involving a large Chicago retailer -- it ordered through a wholesale program hundreds of beautiful Christmas tree skirts made in Gujarat. When they arrived, to the shock of the people in Chicago, there were swastikas on them! This is a very benign symbol in India. We had bought and paid for them. They were cut up and destroyed. So we went back to the women and explained that next time, could they please not use this symbol because of what it meant in the West.
At the beginning I was not a businesswoman. But oh, my God, do I love being in the business world. The business world offers a platform to engage in great action. Businesses do things that governments cannot. They can move in quickly and within a year make a huge transformational change.
Nine years after one of the worst massacres of the 20th century, I showed up in Rwanda representing an organization I helped to found called the Business Council for Peace. I had come looking for traditional Rwandan baskets that had been woven the same way for centuries. I saw Hutu and Tutsi women on a porch in Kigali -- widows of the genocide who had been traumatized and tortured -- weaving these baskets together in silence. Today, a year later, we have sold over $350,000 worth of Rwandan Peace Baskets, and they're now the No. 1 nonagricultural export coming out of Rwanda.
I am fascinated by the fact that, in the business world, the language is often very mechanistic, patriarchal, and militaristic. We talk about production and deadlines. The word company in itself is a military word. When I stopped using the word company and replaced it with the word community, my relationship to the organization changed.
We are not a charity. We never want customers to buy from a place of guilt. We want them to buy from Eziba because of the quality of the product first, and secondly because there is a story behind it.
Hillary Johnson lives in California.