India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
In 2006, Benita Singh was named one ofNewsweek magazine’s “15 People Who Make America Great.” Singh is an advocate for social entrepreneurship, socially responsible business, and fair trade. She graduated from Yale University in 2004 with degrees in comparative literature and international studies. She is co-founder (with Ruth DeGolia) of Mercado Global, a nonprofit fair trade organization that links rural and underprivileged women’s artisan co-ops throughout Latin America to the U.S. market. Singh is also director of marketing of the League of Artisans, an organization dedicated to helping artisans in the craft sector in India by connecting them to markets in the United States.
Singh has been named among the “World’s Best Emerging Social Entrepreneurs” by the Echoing Green Foundation, and an “Outstanding Youth Leader” by the International Youth Foundation. She received the Leadership in Innovative Ideas award from the Social Enterprise Alliance in 2005.
Singh also sits on the board of the International Youth Foundation. She speaks often on youth entrepreneurship and fair trade, including speaking engagements at the World Bank and the United Nations.
What does the League of Artisans do?
League of Artisans is a nonprofit marketing organization that links India’s most highly skilled, yet underprivileged, artisan groups to the U.S. market through a model that provides fair wage employment and investments in artisan enterprise development.
Over 20 million artisans in India work in the handicrafts sector. Most of them live below the poverty line and in the country’s remotest areas. These artisans are forced to sell their crafts through middlemen, and often earn less than 5 percent of the end price of their goods.
We work with 12 different artisan cooperatives throughout India and connect them and their beautiful products to markets in the United States through an e-commerce site (www.lotusbyloa.com ) and wholesale activities.
All of these products are brought to market under the brand name LOTUS by loa. My marketing colleague Shruti Ganguly and I recently launched the LOTUS brand—the ethical brand under which League of Artisans’ products are marketed. I manage wholesale distribution of all the products.
LOTUS products—including tassar scarves and wraps, Gandhi Ashram bedding, and Kalamkari Earth accessories—are available not only atwww.lotusbyloa.com , but also at Barnes and Noble stores across the country, select hotels and resorts, and boutique stores across the United States.
Our vision is that when people are looking for a gift, personal accessory, or home accent that represents the best of Indian handiwork and promotes the livelihoods of thousands of artisans across India, they will immediately think of LOTUS and visit www.lotusbyloa.com
Your work with Mercado Global must have prepared you well for your work with the League of Artisans. How did Mercado Global come about?
The summer before my senior year of college, I took a trip to Guatemala to do research on my senior thesis, which was to be on the truth commissions that emerged after the country’s civil war. Countless indigenous peoples were stripped of their land, and the war left behind communities of widows throughout the country. I was going to spend four weeks living with one community of widows in San Alfonso, on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. My time with them was to be truly academic—I was to interview them about their experiences and study the narratives of their stories.
Well, I arrived in the community of San Alfonso in August 2003, and what I saw was amazing. This was a community that had been forced to flee to Chiapas after soldiers had invaded their land. All the men in the community had been killed. Today in San Alfonso, there still isn’t a boy over the age of 15. In 2000, the United Nations had repatriated the community of women to the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, which is known for being highly discriminatory against indigenous peoples. Before they fled for Chiapas, they were surrounded by lush, arable lands. In their new home of San Alfonso, the land was dry, unarable. They subsisted on canned foods and beans and tortillas that were sent by the United Nations.
I had never seen poverty like what I saw in the community of San Alfonso. For six months, they lived without shelter. Some women still sleep in tarps, or on the floor of the community center that was built for them by the U.N.
But despite the trauma they had gone through, and despite the lack of support from the government and organizations like the U.N., these women had come together and created a community cooperative, called San Martin Bag.
If there were anyone in the world who should’ve been looking for a handout, it was these women. But instead, they had created this cooperative business to rebuild their community. And they taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned—that they were not victims of trauma. They were actually entrepreneurs.
I got little research done during my time in Guatemala. Instead, I worked with their community cooperative to select products that could be marketed in the States. I worked with them to calculate the cost of production of each item, the cost of materials, and fair trade domestic prices. And then at the end of the summer, Ruth (who was also in Guatemala working on her thesis) and I filled our suitcases with their crafts and brought those crafts back to the U.S. and sold them.
How did you sell them?
We just had some on-campus sales at Yale in advance of the holiday season. After seeing how such a small effort could generate thousands of dollars in sales, we decided to take it to scale. We already had such a great consumer base that we decided to launch both a mail-order catalog and an online store.
The summer after we graduated from college, we were lucky enough to receive venture funding to launch. Our online store, www.mercadoglobal.org , has been very successful in connecting our partner groups to market, and you can also see the number of dollars we’ve raised for children’s educational projects on our home page.
Mercado Global also has a flourishing wholesale business. Mercado products can be found at Whole Foods and in several national catalogs.
Tell me a bit about your family.
I was born and raised on Long Island. My family is Punjabi—my mom’s family came to the States from Delhi around 1970 and my dad came from Punjab after finishing his graduate studies there. My dad owns a shipping company and my mom is an attorney. I have an older sister, Anika, who is an attorney—she does real estate and consumer protection law.
My family is so incredibly supportive of my work, particularly with my mom specializing in international trade law and my dad heading a company that manages international shipments. They’ve always encouraged me to pursue my passion. They appreciate the benefits, both from a social perspective as well as from a personal perspective with regards to the skills and knowledge it has given me.
Were you always interested in social change?
Yes. I went to a small Quaker school on Long Island that promoted social service. From there I went to Yale, where I majored in comparative literature and international studies. I’ve always been very fascinated by language, and I feel like I embrace my love of language each day as I tell the stories of the artisans I work with to our customers and buyers. Each time I create a new publicity material, website, or tag line for a marketing campaign, I think of my days as a comp lit major.
In college, I also did a lot of volunteer work with the homeless population in New Haven. And I, of course, have always had an attachment to India. I knew that I wanted to work in social change and in a way that would allow me to travel and live in other cultures and meet people from those cultures.
Do you have any role models in terms of socially responsible entrepreneurship?
I admire Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, for taking a socially responsible business to scale. I know a lot of people criticized her and her company last year when it was sold to L’Oreal, but I think that the business can and will still adhere to its socially responsible principles. I think that as the “new luxury” market of individuals looking for products with meaning continues to grow, even large conglomerates like L’Oreal will have to run their businesses by a metric that goes beyond the bottom line. I’d love to meet her; in fact, I hope to meet her soon, because I know that she has a strong interest in ethical sourcing and ethical trade initiatives.
I have also been lucky to work closely with another one of my role models, Chandrika Tandon, the founder of League of Artisans who is a visionary philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and businesswoman. I have learned much from her about realizing a vision that can change the world.
Do you have any recommended reading for people who are interested in social entrepreneurship and socially responsible business?
Specifically regarding social entrepreneurship, which is primarily about innovation in the nonprofit sector and does not necessarily involve the generation of revenue, I recommend David Bornstein’s How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurship and the Power of New Ideas .
In terms of socially responsible business, I’m particularly interested in how for-profit businesses can be launched in a way that financially benefits all the stakeholders—the investors, the owners, the customers, and the producers, whether they be artisans, factory workers, or people behind the scenes. For people who are interested in this double or triple bottom line, I suggest Anita Roddick’s Business as Unusual .
I also practice a lot of yoga and believe that some of what is taught in spiritual texts, like the The Diamond Sutra: the Perfection of Wisdom by Red Pine, holds true for the world of business today. One of the basic philosophies behind the Diamond Sutra is that one should help others out of sincere compassion, and not out of a desire for personal gain or recognition. Geshe Michael Roach has an interesting book called The Diamond Cutter , which is in part a translation of the Diamond Sutra and how the teachings of theDiamond Sutra can prepare one to be successful in the business world as well.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start social-change organizations?
Network a lot with like-minded people in the field so you know where best you can find your niche. Read a lot about the field you want to get into so you understand the problems. And spend a lot of time on the ground so you understand the people you want to help. There can be no helping without understanding.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|