An artisan in Kolkata works on a clutch for Rubina's fall line. Photo by Hannah Thistlethwaite.
Over the last year, Dowser has tracked the nascency of Rubina Design, a social enterprise that aims to address rural poverty and women’s empowerment through ethical, informed consumerism.
When we first met Rubina’s founder, New York City-based Kari Litzmann, she was envisioning the enterprise as a design company that worked with rural artisans in India to expand their sources of income by bringing their products to new markets.
As Litzmann began working with an Indian firm on product development, she worried that the social mission of her company was becoming secondary to aesthetic or commercial factors. Litzmann had been working from New York and the gap in communication, culture, and distance was aggravating.
So she took the leap and made a five-month trip to India, hoping to find a way forward for Rubina that maintained its original emphasis on social impact. It turned out to be the right thing to do; Rubina has made enormous strides toward becoming a business that brings consumers hand-made goods alongside a deeper approach to fair trade. The company currently has some items in the Pratt Incubator store in Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market, is launching its web platform and a partner company’s line of hand-painted clutches in the fall.
Below, Litzmann shares details of her recent journey and how it is helping get Rubina going.
Dowser: What was the context for your trip to India? Litzmann: I went to India for the first half of 2012 to start building relationships with a wide range of traditional women artisans and designers working with them. These partnerships will result in exclusive products designed FOR Rubina BY external designer brands that work with women artisans, as well as suppliers for the Rubina proprietary collections coming out in phase two. There is so much interesting stuff happening in the design + artisan world that we wanted to partner with and promote the work of others that share the same goal of giving women artisans more steady work and preserving their traditional craft.
How did being “on the ground” help you reframe Rubina’s social mission, its structure, its potential value as a company?
First of all, I think anyone doing work in the developing world needs to be “on the ground” for a significant amount of time, if only to connect and establish trust with the artisans. But being on the ground has many other benefits, especially in the design and production process. I went in with a loose framework of what I wanted to accomplish and general questions to get me there. That helped me identify who I needed to talk to and where I needed to go to start. From there, I was introduced to more thought leaders, interacted with more artisans, and witnessed more and more programs in the public, academic and for-profit space that helped shape my original ideas. One of those was about the type of organizations I want to work with to accomplish Rubina’s goals. Another was about the issues of preserving traditional craft. It’s common to assume that if artisans have more work and more income, their children will want to take it over. But that is not the case in many of the traditional craft families I met with. So, as Rubina measures the social, environmental and financial impact of our work, we will also be looking at ways to create and measure “cultural” impact.
To what extent did Indian culture influence your business plan? Was there culture shock, and how did this influence your approach to Rubina?
Actually, I always say that I must have been Indian in another life because a lot of how I work fits in very well with the Indian way. It’s a dance between structure and chaos, and somehow things just get done. I realize that’s not for everybody, but as Rubina starts up, it’s how it is. I’m sure once we start growing and working with more partners, bring on more staff, etc that will get a little more structured. Of course there were times of frustration or wondering why there is a holiday every other week, but that’s one of the things I love about working in developing countries. It keeps you on your toes and inspires creativity.
What would you suggest to people who dream of starting up a social enterprise with an international focus, but have only begun working on it?
Two things. 1) Go there and meet people. Even if you don’t have the exact idea and questions formed, just go there and spend time with the people and places you are interested in working. And 2) Have some reflection time on yourself (how you work and process things and being okay with that) and the value you’re adding by pursuing this cause. Not every entrepreneur is the same and those that may not have the most articulate way about them or the loudest voice might not get recognized as much but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as (if not more) effective. I think being an entrepreneur is really about knowing yourself, always going back to why you are doing this, and staying focused.
Now that you’re back, what is your plan of action for the near future?
Sales! After 5 months of researching, establishing deep relationships and procuring the supply side of things, our team is now putting that much effort into the sales and marketing side. We are focusing on selling and building the Rubina brand mainly through our website through regular features of the exclusive products being made for us and using multimedia and social media to share the stories of the artisans’ lives, design process, history and culture. We’ll also be selling these collections through retailers in the US as we start design and production of the proprietary line this fall!