Rachel Hartgen of Artisans Thrive
Interview with Rachel Hartgen, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Artisans Thrive
Interview and Photography by Jordyn Timpson @demojordyn
What is Artisans Thrive? What do you do?
Artisans Thrive works with over 40 female artisan groups around the globe to provide skills training, design products, bring their products to market, and return a sizeable amount of the sales price back to the artisans so they can use the income to benefit themselves and their families. Our products include jewelry, accessories, bags, and housewares and are oriented toward the global consumer who wants their purchase to make a difference.
We are a registered benefit (B) corporation, so that means we’re concerned with not only our financial sustainability but also our social impact. Over the years, our services have grown from sourcing to also training and designing custom products with the women that we think our customers will enjoy. We now have an Artisans Thrive Training Program to help groups of women form a cooperative, design products, and bring those products to market in addition to receiving other life skills. We’ve helped form groups in Guatemala and Cameroon.
We’ve seen that the training program is not only a place for the artisans to learn and apply new skills, but it’s also a place where they come together as sisters to learn and support one another as well as to think about their own goals. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve been able to do really do this.
Take for example Loveline (from Cameroon). She's been creating in her workshop for over 8 years but joining the AT-supported cooperative was her first opportunity to work collaboratively with other women. When asked what she hoped for her future, she said that she wants to take all the lessons from the program and change her business, grow and be more successful in the future.
What is your company's mission?
Our mission is to accelerate skills, income, and dignity for female artisans worldwide to thrive while also providing customers unique, quality products that make a global impact and are an alternative to fast fashion.
Where did the drive to start Artisans Thrive originate from?
Our co-founder Dana Smith and I had been working in international development for a number of years, focusing on economic empowerment for small women’s groups. A number of the women were making some sort of craft to supplement their income and then use the earnings to pay for food, schooling, and other necessities. In this way, they hoped to break the cycle of poverty for their families moving forward.
However, many of the products they were making were for a local market and didn’t appeal to a Western market. It was also largely supply-driven rather than responding to what customers really wanted. As a result, we were seeing that the fair trade movement here in the US was saturated with larger, more established groups who could get their products to market easily.
We wanted to help build the capacity of these informal groups and to focus on places that you don’t often see fair trade items from while also ensuring the maximum amount back to the artisans. We set out helping the groups design more demand-driven, on-trend products and then bring those products to market. From that, our formal training program developed. The program now includes sewing, business, and life skills. Our goal is to empower the women throughout the process; we want them to eventually not need us.
What are some future short and long term goals/endeavors for the company?
Our short term goals are of course to grow the company’s revenues and diversify out into other sales avenues. We just started wholesaling and exploring trade shows. For the training program, our short term goals are to really focus on sustainability of the groups that have been started and helping them come up with new products. For product development, we are committed to new and unique designs with our partners while ensuring they get the most benefit, both in terms of financial return and training.
Long term, we’d love to hire a full-time person--right now we have a part time person and a lot of volunteer time! We’d also love to open a shop at a shared space. For the training program, we want to continue to support those organizations that need it, but make sure it’s done in a sustainable way. Our goal is to create a revolving fund where the initial capital needed to start and train the group is paid back by the profits of the products and then can be used to invest in other groups.
What kind of interaction do you have with the women creating these products? How often do you get to travel and meet the artisans?
At the beginning, the groups that we worked with were those that we’d discovered in our work and/or travels, so we knew them all personally. We also had referrals from our supporters and Board members. As we’ve grown, we have a number of groups that reach out to us for partnership regularly, but what’s important to us is that they meet our mission--we are committed to serving those groups that are largely left out of the fair trade market and that can ensure the artisans will get fair wages along with other important training. If we haven’t met them, we do our due diligence to find out if they meet this mission.
Since we now work with a number of groups in different capacities, we have different levels of interaction with each. For those that we are helping to start the group from the start, we are working on the ground with these groups for a set amount of time and then continue working with them remotely as well as providing occasional follow-up trainings. The goal is to empower the artisans themselves to take leadership of their group rather than us doing it for them.
We still keep an eye out for new groups through our day-to-day work and travels. Many of our team members have been abroad for significant amounts of time, so that allows us to also scope out groups we think fit our model.
What's the best way to learn more about the products and how to purchase them?
You can check us out online at artisansthrive.com where we have most of our products and more information on our artisans. You can also find us around town as different events and pop-ups. Follow us on social media @artisansthrive for updates!