Building a Nest

August 26th, 2011 by Laura Fraser

Through a system of “micro-bartering,” Rebecca Kousky’s international nonprofit Nest is helping women in poverty earn a living selling their handmade crafts.

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When Rebecca Kousky finished graduate school in social work, she did what a lot of people in their twenties do. She worked as a part-time nanny. She taught yoga. She took a volunteer trip to Mexico. A fashion junkie, she thumbed through magazines.

Then, at 24, she started her own international nonprofit organization, called Nest.

Touched by her volunteer work with Mayan women in Mexico, and by a trip she’d taken to India right after college, Kousky wanted to do something to help women like the ones she’d seen struggling to survive and feed their families. “Few of them had enough money to educate their children, which meant that the cycle of poverty would continue,” Kousky says from her office in New York City’s Meatpacking District. “They needed work.” Combining her interests in fashion, international travel and social work, Kousky, now 29, wanted to create a project that would enable poor women to earn a living by selling their jewelry, weaving and other crafts to Americans.

Kousky was inspired by her parents; her father is a for-profit entrepreneur, and her mother started an educational nonprofit. “It was ingrained in my sister and me that we needed to find what made us passionate and go for it,” she says. So she did. Initially, Kousky simply wanted to open a storefront in St. Louis, where she’s from, to sell jewelry, weavings, batiks and other crafts made by women around the globe. But with no savings, she found herself in the same quandary as many of the women she wanted to help: she couldn’t get a loan.

Undeterred, she built a website, www.buildanest.com, where she began selling clothing, bags and other wares made by emerging designers in the United States, as well as crafts made by women throughout the world. In effect, artists help artists: selling handmade items from U.S. designers – funky ballet flats, cashmere wraps, handmade paper, woven scarves – generates enough in proceeds to create a fund that gives craftswomen around the globe the seed money they need for supplies to make and sell their own crafts through Nest. Visitors to the site can buy handmade products, made either by the U.S. designers or by the global craftswomen they’ve helped to support.

Kousky contacted groups of women in other countries – Guatemala, Kenya, West Africa, Morocco – who were skilled in crafts but had no resources to go into business. Through Nest, she funded specific start-up supplies or equipment – a kiln, beads, a loom – in exchange for a promise that the women would pay Nest back with the products they made, which Nest would sell on its website.

Kousky’s model of giving is based on microfinancing, but with a twist. Most microfinance models work by lending people in developing countries small sums of money – from $50 to $2,000 – to start a business. Because of the risks involved in loaning money to very poor people, the interest on such loans is typically high. Kousky recognized that the idea of a loan with interest was problematic for many women, for various reasons. Muslim women can’t access microlending, because Islamic tradition doesn’t permit interest loans. Other women are afraid of taking loans because they live in cultures where loans that aren’t paid back are met with dire consequences. “In a lot of poor communities, lending was associated with loan sharks,” Kousky says, “and when you couldn’t repay, you got into terrible situations, including violence and trafficking.”

Instead, Kousky created an interest-free loan that would still require the recipients to pay Nest back, so that her project would be sustainable. She came up with “micro-bartering,” a model of purchasing business supplies and equipment for poor women – not loaning them cash – and making the women responsible for returning the investment with their jewelry, weavings, baskets and other crafts, interest free. “We cover the costs of servicing the loan by selling products to American consumers,” Kousky says.

After the initial costs are recouped, Nest goes a few steps further in helping the international craftswomen sell their products. In addition to offering their products for sale on Nest, Kousky insures that they have long-term outlets for their products, including trunk shows and partnerships with U.S. retailers. “We don’t want them to invest in supplies and have nowhere to sell their products,” Kousky says. “They may owe us 25 woven bags for the money we’ve given them, but then we guarantee that every time they repay us, we’ll buy 25 more to sell online or wholesale to stores.” To make sure the products appeal to consumers, Kousky enlists New York-based designers – such as Trina Turk, Tamara Magel and Lotta Jansdotter – to give advice on how to turn traditional crafts into something unusual and chic for a fashion-conscious consumer. A New York designer may look at traditional weavings that Guatemalan women produce, for instance, and suggest a more streamlined shape for a woven bag or specific colors that will appeal to an American shopper. One cooperative in Heshima, Kenya, is now selling their batiked scarves, via Nest, to an international high-fashion website, L-atitude.

Most of the crafts for sale on Nest are traditional to the communities they serve, and each project is different. Women from Guatemala have long produced beautiful textiles, but in recent years many of the factories have moved to Bangladesh and China, leaving them with skills but no work; Nest provides them with consistent orders. The Mayan women in the highlands also weave textiles, and Nest has helped them turn the fabric into bags and other products, eliminating middlemen and giving the women more profits.

Today, Nest works with about 700 women and 20 groups in seven countries around the globe. Their annual sales are now about $350,000, of which 60 to 70 percent goes toward funding women’s cooperatives. The staff is only two full-time and two part-time people, but they have a lot of volunteers. “Our network of amazing people, including artists and designers, makes up for the small staff,” says Kousky.

In some countries, Nest has branched out to offer training in exporting, accounting and quality control for the American marketplace. The program, called “From Creativity to Self-Sufficiency: Nest's Business Curriculum for Artisans,” helps women learn financial literacy, marketing, professional presentation and other business skills.

Nest is also beginning projects in areas where women don’t have traditional craft skills, in order to teach them new ones. In the Dominican Republic, many of the sugar plantations have closed, leaving thousands of workers in dire poverty, with no other form of livelihood. “I’ve traveled a lot of the world, but I’ve never seen anywhere so desperate,” Kousky says. She enlisted the help of St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Albert Pujols, who is from the Dominican Republic, to fund a program to buy sewing machines and materials and to teach illiterate women to sew. The women now make canvas tote bags for Nest and several nonprofit groups. “Now those people have consistent access to food,” Kousky says.

Nest particularly looks to support women who have been trafficked – abducted or lured from their countries with promises of jobs, then enslaved as prostitutes, with huge debts to pay their pimps. That life, once entered, is hard to escape: the women often return to prostitution because it’s the only way they know how to earn a living, and they can’t return home because they’ve been disgraced. “Giving them employment outside prostitution is the best way to keep them from going back,” Kousky says. In Calcutta, Nest partners with a safe house for women who have been rescued from brothels. Nest pays for the materials to make block print fabrics, and the women turn the fabric into cosmetic cases and scarves to sell on Nest’s website.

After Nest’s initial success, Kousky started to look at ways to help women closer to home. Recently the group partnered with Restore, a safe house for trafficked women in Queens, New York. The women receive counseling, and Nest provides them with employment; local jewelry designers teach classes in basic jewelry-making skills.

“It’s hard for me to make the stories from Calcutta real for the people in Missouri, where I come from,” Kousky says. “But people can relate to what’s happening to women in their own back yards.”

Kousky hasn’t let her youth or the audacious scope of her project daunt her. “Working internationally for women is what has always made me really happy,” she says. “After I was turned down for a loan, my father told me that if I really wanted to do this, I had to figure out a way for it to be feasible. That’s when I came up with the idea for a website. I’ve always believed that if you have a dream and a passion for something, you find a way to make it work.”

Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map.