Saturday, February 13, 2010

Empowering Women Artisans: An Interview with Rebecca Kousky of Nest

"She stood up in our meeting and said that was exactly why women are afraid of taking loans in India, but with Nest, because it's interest-free and they can repay in their necklaces, they didn't have that kind of fear. That was one of those profound moments when you know you're onto something."
Nest is a nonprofit organization that empowers female artists and artisans around the world. It's founder, Rebecca Kousky, started Nest when she was only 24 years old!

I've posted an edited transcript of my conversation with Rebecca during her interview for the Big Vision Podcast. You can listen to it on the little player below, on the Big Vision Podcast website, or download it from the iTunes Music Store.

Our conversation began with Rebecca describing how Nest works. Enjoy!

Rebecca Kousky: We do a very unique, specialized form of micro-lending. I coined the term "micro-bartering," where we work with women artists, but unlike traditional micro-lending, that has really high interest rates, we provide them with interest-free loans and allow them to repay those loans in product that we then market and sell in the United States. So, it provides them with both the loans needed to start their business, but also with access to the Western marketplace. They have increased sales, learn how to export, and can also grow their businesses at the same time.

Britt Bravo: What is one of your favorite Nest success stories?

There are several, but one of the reasons I started Nest was because in a lot of countries loan sharks are very prevalent. In countries like India there are predatory loan sharks that go into poor communities and offer these women, who are illiterate, loans that they can't read, and they charge really high interest rates. When you can't repay those loans, you essentially have to pay back the loans with yourself, which is how trafficking begins and how forced manual labor in the mines is. I mean, that's essentially just a step above slavery, which is really problematic. We wanted to create a model that had nothing to do with that so that the women weren't terrified to take our loans.

When I was in India about six months ago, we were having a meeting with the group we were just about to give loans to, and one of the women stood up to tell us her story. Her name was Lolita, and her husband had committed suicide during the financial collapse that also hit India.

They were poor already, and he couldn't find work, so that left her the primary breadwinner for all of their children, and because she was living with his family, which is traditional in their society, also for his unwed siblings and parents. She was going around selling beads that she made, necklaces. On one of her trips to sell them she got hit by a car and shattered her leg. She had all these mouths to feed, and also medical bills.

One of these predatory loan sharks came into their community. She was desperate and poor and needed money, and so she took a loan. She couldn't read the paperwork, and it had really high interest rates. He came back week after week after week, and one week she came home and found her house boarded up and her family on the street. The loan shark was demanding repayment.

She went door-to-door and begged, and was able to get the money she needed, but many women aren't that lucky. She stood up in our meeting and said that that was exactly why women are afraid of taking loans in India, but with Nest, because it's interest-free and they can repay in their necklaces, they don't have that kind of fear. That was one of those profound moments when you know you're onto something.

What is the biggest challenge for your organization? I'm sure it changes over time, but at the moment, what is the biggest challenge you face in reaching your mission?

There is a balance of wanting to work with artisans who are highly skilled - most are - but ones who make market-ready products, and then most of the artisan communities that really need our help also need product design assistance, quality control, and lessons on pricing. There is a huge amount of education that goes into business growth, particularly within products, before women are ready to export. It's finding a balance between taking new groups and providing all that education, but also having women who are repaying their loans in products that we can really easily sell and market.

How do you choose the countries that you work in?

We partner with existing NGOs, or international organizations that are already working with women artists. About half of our programs are Peace Corps-based, so we'll partner with Peace Corps volunteers who are working in artisan communities, or we'll work with organizations that are working with artisans, doing employment training, or other sorts of services. This is a way that they can expand their services and provide more to the women.

What's the path that brought you to this work? How did you end up doing this?

I knew I wanted to work abroad, and women and children were definitely the target population I wanted to work with. I had done several development projects in college, and right after college, and then I got my Master's in Social Work, and started Nest about two days after I graduated at 24. I went straight into it.

What advice do you have for people who have their own ideas for socially responsible businesses or nonprofits, and other projects that they think are going to make the world a better place, and they're going to be starting, like you did, from zero?

I have two. One of them is, I was so young, I was 24, I had this idea and I just ran with it. Looking back on it, I had a big vision for what I wanted, but I didn't focus on that. I definitely made to-do lists about what I had to get done to get it underway and going. I think that if I had looked at working in 10 countries, how much money I would have to raise, and all of that, I would have been really intimidated. Instead, I just focused on the day-to-day, rather than the distant mountains.

You certainly have to keep the big picture and the inspiration as part of it, but I think that a lot of people get overwhelmed when they think of everything they have to do. All of those big things can be broken down into pretty tangible steps that make it seem more manageable.

The other thing is that you have to talk to a lot of people. I had so many people that were like, "Aren't you afraid to tell people your great idea? What if someone else does it?" And particularly in the world of global development, there are so many people that need help, and need to be touched, that's hardly an issue.

Also, that's the only way to do it. You need support and help, and to get other people excited to be a part of the big picture. I probably took every single person in my phone out to coffee when I was starting Nest, and tried to garner as much support from other people as I could, which I think is really helpful, too.

It seems like there are more and more sites where people are working with artists or artisans, whether it's internationally or domestically, and they are helping them get their product to a wider market so that they can make a living, and learn business skills.

What have you learned about in terms of the market? It's starting to get very full. You don't have to give away your secret secrets, but what have you learned about working in that kind of market? It's sort of special, because you have to have a product that people want, but you also have a little something extra because they're buying it because it's also for a larger good. What advice do you have?

Two things. One is - well, we're about to launch an entirely new product line in April, this spring, that's going to look completely different from what we have now. So, I think we're learning along the way some product development, and what sells and what doesn't sell. We're really excited about that. I definitely think it is getting to be a saturated market, so I think product design plays an important role. Pricing, all that kind of stuff. The economic climate is not the best, and I was really worried going into the holiday season, but we actually ended up doing so much better than we did the year before.

I think that the market is becoming saturated, but at the same time, people are starting to care a lot more about where they're spending money. People are spending less, but they're caring more about where they spend the money they do spend. I think that is great for artisan development, local foods and the whole bit, because people really are starting to pay at lot more attention to how consumerism impacts the world around us, which I think is only positive.

One of the things I'm interested in is how people are either integrating having fun and doing good, or if their work is really intense and there's just nothing fun about it, how they're balancing it out with fun stuff. How do you have fun and do good in your work?

My work is definitely fun. I think that my job is completely inspiring. I was 24, so the only people I had reach to were my friends and family. I think I literally enlisted all of my friends, and every family member into helping Nest. Now we have these advisory boards in 12 cities around the United States, most of whom are led by friends of mine from high school, college, and my family members. I feel like the lines are very blurred in my life between my professional life and my personal life.

Even with that, balance is really important. I try to maintain a daily yoga practice and set aside time to write and read and take walks and do things outside of my job, though I certainly don't, probably, balance it as well as I should.

What is the most fun part of your work?

I have such a happy slice of the world. I mean, in watching the news and reading the newspaper, it often depresses me, but I get to see women in developing countries become successful and be motivated and passionate about what they do, and that's incredible. I also get to work with 200+ volunteers and board members in the United States, mostly professional young women, who feel the same way, want to see change, are excited and want to give of their time, money and energy. That's equally exciting. I feel very blessed to do what I do.

You mentioned you have groups in different cities. Advisory boards?


What are other ways people can get involved? Whether it's through those groups, or I know you sometimes incorporate domestic designers' work. It said on your site that people can have trunk shows. What are some ways people can get involved with Nest?

Shopping and donating online are two very easy ones, and helping to spread the word. In 12 cities we have teams of people that do all kinds of volunteer activities from hosting trunk shows to planning fundraisers, to taking interested people out to coffee. A lot of our board members in those cities travel with us and get to meet the women.

For domestic designers, we operate a bit like the site Etsy, where designers can create shops on our website where they upload their own products and sell through our site. A portion is donated to the women abroad. We call that campaign "Artists helping Artists, " which helps give exposure to domestic designers. I love independent craft and the handmade movement, and it also supports our mission, which is important. People can sign up for that online if they're interested in that, too.

You have such a great organization, and it's appealing to me because it is fun, the site has a joyful spirit, and you feel like you're making an impact, but you are also doing something fun: shopping and looking at beautiful things.

I did notice on your site that you have a book list of favorite books, and there were many on there that I also liked. Are you reading anything good right now that you'd like to share?

I just finished Half the Sky, which is incredible.

Me, too!

It's so good. I definitely encourage everyone to read that book, men and women. It's extremely powerful and very well-written. That was my most recent.

It was a really intense and powerful book. What in it resonated with the work you do? What made you say either, "A-ha!, what we're doing really helps with this, " or, "Oh, I wish what we're doing could do more about that?"

Well, I think that there are two really important messages in that book. One, international development is so important, but it's much more complicated than everyone would wish, and there are often unintended consequences, particularly with empowering women, since in so many parts of the world patriarchy is alive and well. It's important to monitor and evaluate your work to make sure that if you empower the women, that doesn't mean that they get abused more, or whatever it is. I think that is a really important thing that nonprofits need to pay attention to, and people need to know. They're really complicated issues. They're not simple. We try to monitor our work and re-evaluate when necessary, and I think that's a really important message.

Another important message is that it takes men and women to solve these problems. It's easy to get women excited about women's issues. It's really important that we get men excited about women's issues. I love that Nicholas Kristof, a man, is passionate and writing these books and columns, and I think that's a good sign.

Related blogs and blog posts:

Nest's blog, Bangles & Clay
Inspired by . . .Rebecca Kousky, Nest on Feminine Modern
tranquility du jour #163: do-gooding with rebecca kousky on Tranquility du Jour
My Mom and Our Nest by Rebecca Kousky on The Huffington Post

Cross-posted from

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  1. Anonymous1:15 PM

    I am always inspired to hear how others are working to make the world they come in contact with a better place. We are so much more than just our immediate day-to-day. By joining forces, sharing resources and ideas, we can and will continue to make a difference.

  2. Micro-lending is soo important to the economic, fair growth of the third world. Imagine if small businesses throughout the third world had only an option to get a loan with an extremely high interest rate. It would only put them into further poverty and debt. Thank you for what you do!

  3. Thanks for all of your comments AwarenessHomeFunding, Sahitau and People of Hope Crafts-Fair Trade Gifts.


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