Amanda North founded Artisan Connect with the goal of bringing beauty and prosperity together. Beauty in the form of the handcrafted artisan goods from around the world that are available on the company’s e-commerce site, and prosperity for those who make the crafts and for their communities.
Amanda doesn’t have a background in home decor or in the developing world. Instead, she started her career at design-driven technology firm – Apple – where she embraced the company’s mission of helping people through technology and their goal of designing “beautiful products that are also functional and that have a human feel.” After years heading marketing departments at various technology firms, however, she knew it was time for a change. Amanda connected with the Global Social Benefits Incubator at Santa Clara College and began volunteering with social entrepreneurs around the world.
What impact did that volunteering have?
I ended up on a project with Jaipur Rugs, one of the few of the artisan groups that has been able to scale to the point that they’ve been able to have a presence in the United States. What I I came to find out was there are a lot of organizations working in countries with artisans giving them services, but they feel their biggest need is market connection. So I just filed that away.
And then you were watching your daughter run the Boston Marathon in 2013 when two bombs exploded.
Fortunately, although I was wounded, I wasn’t gravely wounded and was able to recover, but it shook me up needless to say. My daughter was also close to the blast site, so we hadn’t known for many hours what had happened to each other so when we were able to connect in the hospital was a pretty profound moment. She said, “You know, we were spared by a miracle. Our lives will never be the same. We need to think about our passions and our purpose.” I said, “You know you are so right. If this isn’t the Universe with a wakeup call, I don’t know what is.” So I resolved on the spot that I was going to leave high tech and I thought about my passions and my purpose, literally in that order.
My passion has been traveling the world and meeting these artisans and seeing the beautiful things they are making and bringing them back to my home. And during the kind of dark days in Silcon Valley, it had been my home where I would look at something from Turkey or Cambodia and remember the world out there. The story that I’d heard that artisans are going away in droves. Something like 30% of artisans in India have ceased their work in the past decade. So I thought, “What is my purpose? What can I uniquely bring?” And I thought about market connection, the missing piece. There’s a connection that is missing, hence Artisan Connect.
So you jumped in. You obviously had a lot of advantages because of your background in marketing which is a huge part of making Artisan Connect a success, but there is a lot more to starting such a complex business. How did you do it?
Sometimes I think being naïve is the only way to go because if you knew, you wouldn’t do it. We’re in a position now where technology powers a tremendous movement of product. It takes some of the friction out of the system. We’ve got a consumer movement that not only cares about the look but cares about the social impact part, and that’s growing very rapidly. We focused on home décor because it feels like there are some good companies working in the fashion world, the jewelry world but the home décor area was wide open.
Artisan Connect’s mission is close the gap between makers and those looking to purchase their goods. How do you accomplish this?
A good example would be Mitra Bali. This group works with sixteen or seventeen groups around Bali, some of them do ceramics, some do woodcarving, and some do weaving. What Mitra Bali ensures is that the artisans are being paid very fairly and we’ve got a breakdown of how much money goes to raw materials, how much goes to artisan wages, but they also believe in empowering the community so it’s not just the artisan in the village who is suddenly getting a big spike in income and everyone hates them but what they do is bring in services like clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, education, that everyone benefits from so that the standing of artisans in the community starts getting really high because they are seen as bringing benefits for all. And since 80% of the artisans we work with are women, you can see that [women’s] stature is benefiting as well.
Many of your products are interesting interpretations of traditional crafts. Who designs your products- your team or the artisans?
This was sort of a learning for me. I thought originally we’d be hands off. Why should we tell artisans who have been doing this for centuries what to do? Turns out, they want to thrive too. They are business people. They don’t want handouts; they want revenue. They want to know they have a good business that people care about and will pay good value for. So they ask us all the time for feedback. They ask what colors are working, what size pillows are working. You wouldn’t want to take something and do it completely differently. You want to work with the materials and the craft, the way people have done things traditionally, and maybe tweak it a little bit so it’s more consistent with an aesthetic people are looking for. It could be something like textiles that were used in Guatemala originally for scarves and wraps but they can be pillows. So you take something and make it a little different than the base intention.
To learn more and discover goods from across the world, start the slideshow.