The following is a conversation between Rebecca Van Bergen, founder and Executive Director of Nest, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New WNYM York City.
Denver: It is estimated that as much as 60% of garment manufacturing is subcontracted to artisans working out of their homes. These are primarily women working in developing economies and where it is very difficult to certify standards. We all know what so often occurs in circumstances like that, especially with no one advocating on these women’s behalf. Enter Nest, a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 and which has taken up this cause with remarkable energy and creativity. And it’s wonderful to have with us this evening its founder and executive director, Rebecca Van Bergen. Good evening, Rebecca, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me.
Denver: Give us a snapshot of Nest and what the organization was created to do.
Rebecca: Our mission as an organization is to help empower the global community of artisan workers. But more than just grassroots impact for each of those businesses, we also want to rethink the way we as consumers, as brands, as anybody, think about the handworker economy and what its potential is for supporting women globally.
Denver: You know, you started Nest in 2006 when you were only 24 and having just completed your Masters in Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. How did this story get started? And how did Nest come to be?
Rebecca: The year that I graduated, Muhammad Yunus had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for microfinance. In international development circles at least, it was starting to be considered a solution to poverty. People all over the world were starting to give out loans, and from the social work perspective– which is really sort of about individual practice with a woman or a man– about increasing their agency, microfinancing seemed like it would carry a lot of challenges in that it’s debt primarily. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have a successful business. So, I was really interested in rethinking how business could support increasing women’s agency around the world, but in a way that wasn’t solely reliant on debt.
So our original mission, which is still today was about how to support women artisans in particular; it’s the second largest employer of women in developing economies;it really seemed like the place where women were working to grow their businesses… with an emphasis on the exporting marketplace, given that I was based here in the United States.
I think it was only later that I realized that that combination of things– seeing the power that craft has for women in particular, and then also this kind of inherent drive to do something with my life that was meaningful for social problems that I was seeing around me– all combined in a perfect storm.
Denver: You were in many ways destined to start a nonprofit. Your mother started one. Your aunt started one. Tell us about your upbringing and the influence these two women, as well as your grandmother, had on your career path.
Rebecca: I think I only realized some of it later in life. My dad was a for-profit entrepreneur, and my mom did start a nonprofit. My aunt started a nonprofit. Just two years ago, my sister did. So, it clearly runs in the family– both entrepreneurship, but then also – my dad was a for-profit entrepreneur; the others were nonprofits. So, social justice was a big part of my childhood. In childhood discussions, we are involved politically and socially on a number of levels.
But my grandmother was also originally from rural North Carolina, and she grew up on a tobacco farm. Her mother was a quilter and sewer and would sew by necessity. She made quilts out of rags. That was before upcycling was a cool thing to do. Craft was also a part of my life. My grandmother was always sewing. She made all my mom’s clothes. I think it was only later that I realized that that combination of things– seeing the power that craft has for women in particular, and then also this kind of inherent drive to do something with my life that was meaningful for social problems that I was seeing around me– all combined in a perfect storm.
But I think it’s a hard term to define, and I think one of the things we’ll start talking about is that there’s a lot of people working in their homes with their hands that haven’t necessarily been considered an artisan, and the work may or may not be skilled.
…we’ve actually embraced the word “handwork.” We use it more often actually than “artisan” to really speak about the wide array of ways that women are using their hands as their primary source of income.
Denver: Does seem to be a pretty good fit, doesn’t it? Let me ask you, Rebecca, about the word “artisan.” What do you think that word conveys to most people? And do you think it portrays an accurate picture?
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting because when I started Nest now almost 13 years ago, nobody was using the word artisan, and now everybody is using the word artisan. We sort of keep a running joke list at the office of the bizarre ways you see the use of the word artisan, like artisan hotel or artisan potato chips. What does that actually mean? So, I think, while there has been this steady increase in the handmade and local and artisan; that’s really good in a lot of ways, but the downside to that is that it dilutes what the term means for a lot people.
UNESCO actually has a definition of artisan around the majority of the product being produced by hand, but it can include the use of some machinery or tools which we really like. But I think it’s a hard term to define, and I think one of the things we’ll start talking about is that there’s a lot of people working in their homes with their hands that haven’t necessarily been considered an artisan, and the work may or may not be skilled. So artisan may or may not be the right term for them. At our organization, we’ve actually embraced the word “handwork.” We use it more often actually than “artisan” to really speak about the wide array of ways that women are using their hands as their primary source of income.
Denver: Not only was “artisan” not being used 13 years ago when you started the organization, sustainable fashion really didn’t exist either, did it?
Rebecca: No it didn’t. There’s been a lot of industry trends around sustainable fashion, transparency, artisan that have really helped propel the work forward.
Denver: When you think of garment production, I think almost everybody thinks of those big old factories. A lot of people work in those factories. But there is quite an invisible workforce that we’ve alluded to out there. Tell us about them.
Rebecca: I learned about this on the go. I think they’re very invisible. So I think most people, including myself, didn’t know a lot about this, but as we started looking into bringing transparency to artisans who are largely working in their homes or unregulated workshops, as brands were increasing their artisan sourcing. And we all of a sudden had brands coming to us that didn’t really have “artisan agenda” or “artisan products” in their supply chain. And we really started realizing that there was a lot of production happening that was being subcontracted, which means that the factory gives that order to other people, whether it’s in a different factory or a different unregulated workshop or eventually into homes. This was considered homework, but historically in the industry, a lot of companies had “no homeworker” policies where they forbid that type of subcontracting because they couldn’t have transparency.
But the unintended consequence of that was that it pushed a lot of it underground. So, factories still did it. They just didn’t tell anyone. So, it ended up actually increasing the risk for those women in a lot of ways. The statistic is actually that there is anywhere between 20% to 60%… which I actually love because it shows that nobody has any idea… 20 or 60, are very, very different numbers. And as we talk to our team, the only way they found it is through disclosure or happening upon it, so it hasn’t been formally tracked until now.
Denver: And many of these women who work out of their homes really don’t have any other choice, do they?
Rebecca: I think we really advocate – in my vision for five years from now– maybe it will take 10, but hopefully just 5 – if you were a company or a brand or a retailer, and you said you had a no homeworker policy, that would be akin to saying: I have an anti-woman policy. For many of those women, they live in locations where their husbands might not allow them to work outside of the home. They might be rurally located which would mean urban migration, leaving their families behind. There are so many reasons – childcare, disability – that women really rely on home-based work. Those policies have had a negative effect for a lot of women, and we’re really hoping that increased transparency could mean that homework is a viable option for women around the world.
Denver: How does Nest work? What does it mean for an artisan to be part of the Nest Guild? And what are some of the benefits that you do give them?
Rebecca: We work two ways in parallel that obviously intersect quite a bit. We’re a nonprofit organization, so the majority of our funding is philanthropy, and we invest in the global community of artisans. We run what we call the Guild… which you just mentioned… which is an open access network for artisan businesses around the world. It’s free to join. It’s now over 500 businesses and a footprint of 92 countries, and we provide a range of resources for those businesses, including one of our most active programs is a pro bono consulting program. So, anyone with skills… listeners with skills… can volunteer their time, and they get matched with an artisan business whether it’s accounting or product development or building a website.
So, we help support business growth through that program and a variety of others. Then the remainder of the time we spend consulting with brands and retailers that want to be investing in artisan supply chains but don’t necessarily know how to do that ethically with transparency, etc. So, we have a range of programs that really help ensure that when brands are buying from all of the artisans in our guild, they are doing so in a way that’s sustainable and transparent.
Denver: How do artisans find you? And do they have to do anything to qualify to be part of this Nest Guild?
Rebecca: It’s amazing. It’s through word of mouth, I guess. We do do outreach sometimes too, and we travel a lot, but largely, they find out about it through others, and I think once you start giving away resources, and the resources are free, people find out. So, it grows. The network actually grows by about 10% a month. So, it’s steadily growing without any kind of formal outreach or very little. We do have some criteria. Obviously, you have to be an artisan business, so we make sure that you’re actually practicing an artisan technique. And then as a nonprofit, we really do have an emphasis on artisan businesses that are using that business for good. You have to meet one social criteria. You have to be in an area of high poverty or high unemployment. You have to have the agenda of an equity lens, so women leadership – majority of women entrepreneurs or women artisans or cultural preservation– which is our most fuzzy– since that obviously is hard to totally define. But I’d say the majority of our artisan businesses meet multiple of those criteria.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about your business. You have had two very interesting pivot points at least that I’m aware of since you started in 2006, and the first was about five years in when you changed your business model. How did it change, and what was the thinking behind it?
Rebecca: I think when we originally started, our goal was to help increase the market share for artisans, so we were helping brands source directly from artisan communities, and we were acting like a middle man. We wanted to be an ethical middle man, but act as a middle man. Our brand wanted to produce a bag, we would connect with artisan business and produce that bag, and we made money on that. So, 90% of our revenue at that time came from producing product, but we really realized that by doing that, there was a lot of ethical issues with that business model. If a brand came to us, and they wanted to produce, and we knew what their price restrictions would be, often we’d know that our cut was what was making the goods prohibitively expensive. So, if we weren’t involved, the artisan probably could get the order, and we also had no incentive to eventually have the artisan business work directly with the brand when they were capable of doing so because that was how we were making money.
So, to be making money in that way felt really uncomfortable to us, and we also didn’t ever make enough to invest enough in training for the artisan workforce, so that they could eventually sustain those relationships. So it was a really hard decision because a lot of our revenue was coming that way, but we decided to just clean slate it and switch to 100% philanthropy. And we did that, and it was really successful, and I think that has kind of opened our eyes into transparency and how supply chains get structured, even with artisans and so well meaning, that’s really really important that there’s transparency all the way through.
Denver: And also I’m sure these artisans became dependent upon you, and you wanted them to be able to stand up and grow their own business if you weren’t around. The second was several years later, and you alluded to this a few moments ago. That is when you returned to your earned income model, but now in a completely different way and with brands. Tell us what that looks like and who you work with.
Rebecca: We realized eventually that our brands were continuing to come to us. They never left after; that was our original model, and we had an odd relationship with them for a couple of years because we weren’t charging them for … we didn’t know how to charge them for services, but they were getting benefits. So, we really switched more to a consulting model where we support brands that are still not a middle man. So if a company wants to source, we help them find the appropriate partner, but it’s a one-time arrangement. But I’d say the majority of our work with brands was really that as artisans become increasingly popular, bigger and bigger companies want to source with artisans, and the bigger the company, the less likely it is that their systems are set up to work with small manufacturers. So a lot of the work that we do is around consulting with companies on how to create alternative, multifunctional pathways that they can source from local makers or from artisans in a way that’s different from how they onboard a factory. One of our partners is Target, and they have a binder for onboarding if you’re a factory, and that would be really onerous for a small manufacturer. So, how can we create alternative solutions for smaller manufacturers? And I think we’ll pivot to talking about transparency, but that’s a big piece of what we do with companies.
Denver: Who are some of the other brands you work with?
Rebecca: I think it’s really interesting. We work with a huge range of companies from Target to Patagonia to Hermes. What I love about craft is that we work with Target, which is about democratizing the ability to purchase craft, to Hermes which is about really supporting the most exquisite, the most skilled artisans in the world; that there’s a place at the table for both of those conversations within a singular movement is really exciting to me. West Elm here has been one of our founding and core partners, and they have a huge and sustained commitment to artisan handcraft, so we’re really lucky to work with them. Eileen Fisher, some amazing companies.
Denver: Technology is certainly vital to what you do. I just don’t even know how you would ever go about trying to map this workforce which is in homes and spread out across the world. Tell us about the Nest Remote Learning Center and the other ways that you’ve deployed technology.
Rebecca: I think technology is really critical on multiple levels. One, our global network, our Guild, we want to deploy as much consulting and support to those people as possible. And while onsite is always the preference because you can meet face to face… and it could be really impactful, it’s not always possible. So things like WeChat and Skype and just email has been really profound in enabling us to provide support from afar to businesses on a capacity-building front.
On the transparency front, it’s been interesting in two ways. One, I think even less about the services we use. I think the writing is on the wall for everybody in the industry. The transparency is coming whether or not you like it. Things like blockchain, we’re not technically using blockchain yet, but I think people are fearful and/or anticipatory that that’s going to take over, and end transparency will exist. So, I think there’s a rush by the industry to better map their supply chains and know who’s in them prior to people finding out without the brands’ consent.
So, I think that technology has really spurred the movement towards supply chain mapping for a lot of companies, and I think it shows a lot of promise for us. But right now, we use technology minimally. We actually go door to door– for lack of a better word– to meet with the homeworkers face to face. And right now, when we get onsite, generally there’s not paper records, let alone digital ones. So, we really are starting at the beginning, but you can see a day where instead of needing tablet paper, wage receipt, you’re being paid mobile money. And so then there is documentation which would make our lives easier certainly, but it’s one step at a time, I think. We don’t want to scare anyone.
Denver: Your organization is dealing with this on so many different levels. One of those would be the Nest Standards and Seal. How does that work?
Rebecca: I think one of the things, when we started the Guild… we have this network of 92 countries… one of the benefits of that was it gave…people think of artisan as a very localized and very niche, and that’s because it is in many ways. It’s traditions that have been passed down generationally. It’s very tied to people’s sense of community and family. But it’s also this global workforce with massive economic implications for women. And I think that part of the story gets lost all the time in terms of how important the sector is, and that it’s been very under-supported in a lot of ways because I think of this misconception that it’s very niche. So, one of the things that the Guild has provided us is this global pulse on: what are the challenges that are happening in Guatemala and Swaziland and in Peru and in India… and are happening everywhere? And how can we help solve some of those sector-wide hurdles, and one of them was transparency because they are working in homes. And so, if a company wanted to do it ethically, what does that even look like because they’re not set up to go door to door and see all of the artisans they’re working with?
We had a tool we had developed called the Artisan Audit which we use internally to make sure that we knew what was happening in the supply chains we were working with. And we are approached by West Elm actually about four years ago… whether we would turn that tool into an industry-facing tool. So, we did some diligence, and we couldn’t believe that it was possible that there wasn’t an industry standard for artists in their home-based work, but it turns out, there wasn’t. So, we really decided that if we were going to go down that journey, we wanted to do it for the industry at large, not just as a singular partnership. And West Elm was really onboard with that because I think there’s a lot of redundancy in factories. There is actually a joke, and it’s true that factories will sometimes have four fire extinguishers because four different companies will have their requirement that you have to have one, but at different heights. And it’s easier to have four than to change every time someone’s coming. And that’s a legitimate thing that’s happening because people run it alone.
So we put together a committee of brands, many of the ones I had mentioned to you, and we spent three years co-authoring, piloting, refining the first industry standard for home-based work. We piloted in over 50 locations and worked with many labor organizations, many of our artisan partners, to get their feedback. Held round tables with the artisans and the brands to talk about child labor and some of the thornier issues, and then ended up launching this standard at the United Nations last year… which it was really exciting. And now many companies have adopted it as their standard operating procedure, and then one of the bigger services we provide brands is “auditing” to that standard. So going into their supply chains and mapping them. And then passing artisan businesses carry a seal. The seal actually just launched in West Elm in December.
Denver: Congratulations. That is a major, major milestone.
I was just thinking about a woman’s hands… who’s doing these repetitive motions which are required day after day to do this work, and I thought that: number one, it could be very meditative. But on the other hand, I thought it also could lead to a lot of physical ailments. Is either the case?
Rebecca: Both are the case. Many forms of crafts have been linked to the same brain changes that meditation provides. So, I think it is very true that it is meditative. I think it’s also very true that it is bad for your hands. It’s bad for your eyes. A lot of the craft techniques have been passed down without a look at ergonomics, so they’re sitting in uncomfortable positions at looms. I think there’s a lot of health things that need to be looked at, especially when hours are long or production is high.
So, we really take as part of our compliance program, we look at health and safety. We make a lot of recommendations around ensuring that the time that they’re spending doing the craft… make sure it doesn’t cross into the territory of it being dangerous. I think the bigger thing about craft and the repetitive nature is that I think that there is a movement that thinks that cultural preservation movement… that people think that these crafts need to stay the same, and I think that there is a lot to lose by viewing craft that way. I think there is a lot to gain from thinking of craft as something artistic and creative and that communities can iterate, and design can iterate; that’s one of the things that will keep the younger generation coming back.
…the human psyche is not going to be comfortable with everything being technology-based and robotics-based. So, I think that there’s this yearning for the handmade, which is what we’re seeing now in this kind of boom and gig economy and local… and all of these terms. I think that we’re actually lucky that those are going to rise at equal pace because I think that the more things are made, mass produced, exactly the same by a machine, the more people are going to want authenticity and real handmade goods.
Denver: Picking up on that a little bit. I have a colleague who’s in the antiquing business, and she was saying that it’s pretty much dead in the water right now because people by and large, but young people in particular, millennials, really don’t care about antiques. Do you think the same thing could ever happen to handmade?
Rebecca: I hope not. I think one of the things that’s been really interesting to me is that we’ve never been asked that specific question, but we get asked about automation all the time and about the rise of production transferring to robotics. And I think what’s been really interesting is that you’ve seen a steady increase in the demand for handmade rising at the same speed and at the same time as the rise of automation, and I think in robotics in particular. And I think that people who work at a sewing line have a right to fear for their jobs in some ways because I think robotics is… I think that it’s coming.
I think the opposite is true for handmade in that I think that like the human psyche is not going to be comfortable with everything being technology-based and robotics-based. So, I think that there’s this yearning for the handmade, which is what we’re seeing now in this kind of boom and gig economy and local… and all of these terms. I think that we’re actually lucky that those are going to rise at equal pace because I think that the more things are made, mass produced, exactly the same by a machine, the more people are going to want authenticity and real handmade goods. So far, I think we’re seeing that.
Denver: We talked about some of the brands that you work with. Who have been some of your contributors, financial partners?
Rebecca: We’ve been very lucky; we have an incredible group of some of the world’s best philanthropists, honestly; and they’ve taught me as a 24-year-old when I started, I had a lot to learn about global development. We’re funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies here in the city, and their economic development portfolio has been fantastic, and I’ve learned an enormous amount from them. We’re hugely grateful for their support. We’re funded by the Swarovski Foundation, the Imago Dei Foundation, which is based Boston. I have been a fellow of a number of social enterprise programs. So, Ashoka, Draper Richards Kaplan. I’m a young global leader, so we have a range of social entrepreneurship support, which has been also very helpful for my leadership growth. We’ve been really lucky. I feel like we work with some of the best partners.
I do think, what I was saying earlier about the misconception that artisan is niche and non-scalable has meant that some major philanthropies have not looked at the sector. They have seen agriculture and technology and health and a whole range of issues that relate directly to women and emerging markets, and have not seen artisan that way. And I think that tide is changing. I think people are really recognizing that this is where women are working and if you want to make a play for economic development for women, then this needs to be part of the conversation. I’m hopeful we’re playing a role in that.
I knew nothing when I started, looking back on it. I think knowing nothing was actually a really helpful way to start because I had no conception that I knew anything.
Denver: I think you are, absolutely. You’re helping to define that sector. You said 20% to 60%. That’s a broad thing. The more you can begin to get that exact., the more people begin to see the breadth and scope of all this, I think the more money is going to be coming your way.
Talking about learning, you’ve been doing this for 12, 13 years right now. What have you learned about scaling and growing a successful nonprofit organization?
Rebecca: Oh my goodness! I’ve learned everything! I knew nothing when I started, looking back on it! I think knowing nothing was actually a really helpful way to start because I had no conception that I knew anything. So, I learned constantly, I think. My dad is an entrepreneur too. And when I called him to tell him I wanted to start Nest, he was like, “Great! Send me your business plans. Send me your financials.” To him, entrepreneurship was very linear in the way he thought about it. You start a business, you grow it, you sell it. And for me, it was very circular in the more… it was relational. I called people that I knew, and I asked for help. That led me to a lawyer and a PR consultant. All these things have people who felt inspired and joined the movement, and our growth has been very organic.
I think it took me 2-1/2 years to write our first business plan, and by then we had a business. I think he didn’t totally understand that, but the more that I’ve worked with women entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, I’ve really seen that that circular business creation is a legitimate way to run a business and start a business. It’s not just the traditional male-centric version. So I think I’ve become a vocal advocate for alternative entrepreneurship models and how you can think about growing a business when that’s not the way you see growth.
Denver: What’s it like to work at Nest? And what do you think makes it a special place to work? What’s really distinctive about your corporate culture?
Rebecca: I think there’s multiple things, but I think the biggest one is that we’re called ”Nest,” which is about supporting businesses and helping them go off on their own. But I think it really relates to the way our organization feels and runs. My husband is our COO/ CFO and has been my business partner for a very long time. So in many ways, it is a family, and it’s run by a couple. So I think there is definitely that kind of familial element to it. Our trustees, many of them have been with organizations for multiple terms and are very, very close to the organization. So I think as a nonprofit, we can’t pay what a for-profit company could to recruit the best employees. So I’m really hopeful that the creative environment – it’s fast-paced, we’re always changing, we’re very nimble – makes it an exciting place to work, and I think we’ve seeing rapid growth and see a lot of growth on the horizon. Hopefully, people like that kind of… we’re not totally sure what’s coming next, but we’re-ready-for-it kind of environment.
Denver: I know that you’re pretty much open to any idea that comes along, which is probably your greatest strength… and maybe your greatest weakness.
When it comes to this work, Rebecca, the products that are crafted and produced… as well as the women who do all this day after day after day, what should listeners know and be aware of as it pertains to that?
Rebecca: There are so many ways now with the growth in the handworker economy, as we like to call it, the consumers can be very involved in this economy. They’re everything from Etsy and Shopping Local to now… big companies and being able to just go to your local Target and buy a basket that was handmade. And with increase in transparency, there are very real ways that people can get involved. One of the things that I’m a big proponent of is that I think that we’re very black and white as a culture. You’re either a vegetarian, or you’re not. There’s lots of shades of gray. You can eat vegetarian once a week, and you can be helping eliminate…. support environmental practices.
I think people got very nervous around ethical fashion and sustainable purchasing because it seems overwhelming. How could I possibly change all of my purchasing practices? Don’t. Start with one thing. Whenever we have to buy a present for someone, we buy it locally in our town because it’s an easy way to always remember to go to a local store. So find very easy, very specific ways that you can start changing the way you’re purchasing things, and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s really important to remember that we could just take small steps. In those small steps, add in. I’m a really big proponent of that.
Denver: Just get started.
Denver: Let me close with this, Rebecca. Share with us one of your favorite Nest stories that helps inspire you and carry on with this work.
Rebecca: There are so many, but I think one of the things that I’ve been particularly reflective on recently is the intersection between the artisan business leadership that we work with and activism. I think we’re in such a strange time globally. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about activism and what that means, and then reflecting back. One of the first artisan entrepreneurs that we worked with was in Togo, West African. She was a batik artisan. She had a number of women that worked with her. When I was visiting with her, she had – this is probably a little funny to say on air – but she had a wooden penis right next to her sewing machine. “Why do you have that?” and she was like, “Well, because I hold condom workshops after work, and of course she does because she was a center for the community, and that’s where women came to work, and they respected her and listened to her. So it was really important that she leveraged that.
Similarly, we have a woman in our Guild who’s in Mississippi, and she decided to take time off from her business– which was making hand-carved wooden boxes– to run for political office because she realized that she had a voice in her community. And I think the great thing about social entrepreneurs is that they do have this vision for the community, and sometimes that means growing your business and sometimes that means you can do much more for the problems you’re seeing around you. So, I think we’re really inspired by them every day.
Denver: Rebecca Van Bergen, the founder and executive director of Nest, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and some of the information that listeners will find there.
Rebecca: Our website is buildanest.org. On the website you can find all the information about us, but there are volunteer opportunities if you want to be a pro bono consultant for our artisan network. You can find information about the brands that carry the Nest Seal, so you can buy ethically produced products. There is a range of information for listeners… Including donating.
Denver: Thanks, Rebecca. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.