Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bowl Me Over

Sometimes I get blown away.

I went to the Yerevan StartUp Mixer a couple weeks back, and met a room chock full of smart, savvy, techie young people- the next generation of Armenian IT ground breakers.

In the midst of all the riveting techie start-up discussion Al Eisaian, the man who took the initiative to arrange the mixer, did a shout out on Homeland Handicraft's little knitting start-up in Chinchin.  Techie entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship are two branches of the same tree, he said.  He showed the little CivilNet TV clip of Mariam Yesayan - 18 years old with cerebral palsy in a village of 400 - and her ambition to bring jobs to her village.

And I wondered if these techie kids with the next Facebook in their eyes would care about the plight of a little village on the outer edge of their reality? But they did. They clapped, they asked questions, they were curious.

It was a great day, an inspirational day, that mixer day.

The Tuesday after, when I was already in bed in the evening, an SMS ticked in. It said that a big chunk of the entrance fee collected at the mixer was to be donated to the project in Chinchin. Knock me over with a feather. Great. Wow.....

So, soon I will be going up to Chinchin and help them create a revolving materials fund. They buy yarn and knitting needles and such with the money, make the product, sell the product, and then pay the material cost back into the revolving fund, perhaps with a small interest paid so the fund grows.  This will not be a subsidy, it will be a seed that helps the Chinchin group grow.  With this generous contribution and a bunch of hard work, we will soon see a growing, sustainable, thriving handicrafts organization in Chinchin.

Thanks, Yerevan Start-Uppers, you guys rock.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

We're on to Something

I am in Sri Lanka today.  I will be here for the next three weeks or so.  During breakfast this morning, I got into a conversation with a bright young Sri Lanka law student.  Her name is Selyna, and she is the daughter of the founder of the fair trade company I design products for here- Selyn Exports. Despite the differences in the size(SL 66.000 sq. km.\ AM 30.000), population(SL 21 million\ AM 3 million), and history of the two countries, both Armenia and Sri Lanka are emerging economies.  Both have large emigration rates of workers that send money home.  Both struggle to create jobs at home.  Both have rich handicraft traditions.

Selyna lamented the big projects being done in Sri Lanka, often by large international organizations, saying that they are not sustainable due to a lack of local mental ownership of them- somebody rich from the outside comes and plops a project down in a village and leaves.  She pointed out a particular project where large sums of money were put into building a coconut fiber processing plant, while no plan was made for the electrical line to the plant, or how the electricity being used was to be paid.  That plant stands unused today, with the villagers there waiting for someone else from the outside to come along and pick up the pieces.  She said that Selyn, in contrast, is doing it right- privately owned, building on the weaving and sewing skills of the average village woman to make the product, while Selyn itself does the designing and marketing of them- at the same time guaranteeing a reasonable wage and decent working conditions to the women who make the products.  And they employ well over 400 women.

And I thought about Homeland Handicrafts.  We don't go into a village in Armenia with big promises, we go in with a product idea or two, and see if we can find the entrepreneurs.  We build on the skills the women have.  We do the marketing, and hope that a businessman or woman in the U.S., France, Russia or Australia will pick up on the idea, and work commercially with the groups we have created.  We don't make factories, we make groups of women who want to work. 

Armenia doesn't need big bucks projects, it needs lots of small ones.  And it doesn't need brilliant new ideas, it needs bodies on the ground to implement them.

I am in the process of developing a talk where I look into the importance of small and medium enterprises(SMEs) in other developing countries like Guatemala, Kenya and India -and yes, Sri Lanka- and take a look at the importance of products like teddy bears, crocheted animals and other handicrafts as a percentage of the total economy, and then at how many jobs for women have been created through handicrafts in those countries as a percentage of the total population.  I hope to be surprised.

If they can create thousands upon thousands of jobs for women through handicrafts, well then so can Armenia.  And this at a time when the world is tired of factory-made products, and wants the authentic, the hand made.

I think we're on to something, Selyna and I.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Charge My Batteries, Feed My Soul

I had one of those evenings yesterday that reaffirms my belief in the human spirit, the human will to do good. Pretty numb and tired after a (very fruitful) visit by the Norwegian foreign minister, I was asked by my friend Jussi in Norway to send as many as possible of our teddy bears from Berd and crocheted animals from Goris to Norway as soon as possible. But how?

Ann the psychiatrist who traveled with me to Shamshadin was due to fly home to Oslo next week, so I decided to try to get ahold of her...but have no number to her. An SMS arrives, asking me if I could join a group of Norwegians in town for the launch of a clean hydropower project for dinner. Am exhausted, but these are quality people, and it just might be the chance to get those teddies and animals to Norway. At the restaurant, Ann is there(Yerevan is a small town, Norwegians find each other) and the group pounces on both the teddies and animals, and within a few minutes, seven of the 13 teddies I had brought were sold, and every single one of the crocheted animals, too. All I had to do is explain that they are hand made by women in villages in Armenia, and they were snapped up.

Then they cheerfully insisted on transporting the balance six teddies to poor Jussi in Norway who wanted all those items, but will end up with just a few!

It is not the first time I have met spontaneous, honest, enthusiastic interest in the products that Homeland Handicrafts develops and the women behind them. Three or four times this summer in Yerevan the same thing happened- a group of Americans once, a group of Dutch with some Russians mixed in another time, and now the Norwegians. And then there are the great folks in Philly, Boston and LA who also are doing their best to promote what we do, and not from a profit motive, but from the bottom of their hearts. The ladies in Berd and Goris just can't keep up with the demand, so slowly more and more women are being added- jobs created.

Each decent person just wants to do good, to contribute in a positive way, given the opportunity to do so in a practical way. That principle was proven again last night.

Such spontaneous acts of genuine generosity charge my batteries, feed my soul.


We have only just begun!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Small Things

On Thursday I was up in Shamshadin again.

This time I took Ann, a Norwegian psychiatrist and Al, an American Armenian with me.  Al had been touched by my CivilNet.tv interview with Mariam Yesayan in Chinchin, and wanted to meet her.  But as we rolled into the village I thought I would take them up to the 'top of the world' in a park outside of Chinchin.  There they were blown away by the panorama view, the beauty of the rough nature, and the purity of the air. Al has found his new yoga place.

And then to the Yesayan house, where the knitting women came in and presented their wares- over 100 snowflake coasters in a range of colors.  Al had ordered a bunch of them, and paid the women then and there.  Their faces were precious as they saw the cash lay on the table.  Smiles ear to ear.  They had earned money for the first time in a long time- hard earned and sorely needed money.  Hasmik and Lilit leaned over the table, eager to show a better suggestion on how to finish the edges of the coasters so they wouldn't curl so much.  They chattered away, flush with the excitement of a new situation in Chinchin.  It was the strength of these women, combined with a wonderful Shamshadin sense of humor that impressed Al and Ann, and always impresses me.  Ann got caught up in the positiveness of it all, and ordered 50 coasters as Christmas gifts on the spot.  The women cackled in excitement- Do we have enough yarn?  When do you need them? 

After a fabulous village snack of fresh bread, pickles and home made cheese, we rolled full of impressions out of Chinchin towards Nerkin Karmiraghbyur.  I had interviewed a young man there named Vardan a few weeks earlier on CivilNet.tv, so I tried to call him to say we were coming.  But he didn't answer- hadn't answered for the past few days.  That probably means he is at the front line as a hired soldier.  Hope he is safe.

On to Berd, we visit the ladies of the Berd Womens Resource Center, and Tamara and Seda as always are knitting away, bear body parts strewn across the table, waiting for assembly.  They had five more bears ready for us.  We talked about the future, about how to increase production, lower prices, export, make these beautiful little creatures into a thriving business.  Seeds were planted.  They need nourishment to grow, but it will come.

Rushing home on the Berd-Chambarak road, we cannot see more than ten meters in front of us due to thick fog.  Nothing of the fantastic view on the left side of the road for about 50 kilometers is visible.  Oh well, at least the tree poachers were also kept off that road- a few trees saved today, maybe.  And so home to Yerevan.

These trips are so important to me.  They make me physically tired, but spiritually happy.  Al and Ann and all the others that have joined me on trips to Shamshadin will remember them- Mariam, Hasmik, Lilit, Vardan, Anahit, Seda, Tamara and all those other women up in our beloved Shamshadin.

But in addition to these great people, I will remember the small things, like this little flower at 'the top of the world' in Chinchin.