It started with a card. In 2004 my friend Maura Hurley, who lives in India, sent me birthday greetings in the form of a beautifully crafted silk screen card. Looking on the back I saw it had been made by a mute person working for an organisation called Silence, that works with handicapped people in Kolkata (Calcutta) to help them become economically independent. From that moment I was hooked. Maura told me there were other organisations like Silence, working with the poor and dispossessed and I was determined to find out more.
I asked Maura to select products made by charities that she thought would sell in a Western market and since 2004 she has been sending over exquisite items made using both traditional skills and new techniques. Iíve been selling them on a small scale to friends and families and at a Fair Trade market in Brighton.
The products were popular and I realised that I was in a position to help Maura, and the organisations she works with, on a far greater scale. With a background in finance and a degree in International Development I could start my own full time business importing goods from Kolkata.
After long and painful deliberations, visits to Business Link and many rewritings of my business plan, I resigned from a job with a comfortable income and booked a flight to Kolkata. With a small child to support it was a huge risk, but one I am so glad I took. I vividly remember the first day I drove around the city. I was overwhelmed by the heat, noise and pollution. Nobody was sitting still.
Although many people were living on the street, they had set up makeshift shops along the edges of roads, open kitchens on street corners were hives of activities and water pumps were being used as communal washhouses. Nobody was resigned to their fate.
Since then I have visited the city three times, developing working relationships with different groups and hand selecting products that would be popular in the UK market. Knowing how competitive the market here is, and how as consumers we have endless choices, I had to get it right. Not just for my business but for the people who were relying on me to sell their work. For them, it was a simple calculation of earning enough money to live.
Every visit I make to Kolkata inspires and revitalises me. The products people are designing and making are a testament to their creativity and skill, and the challenges they overcome are proof of their sheer determination and commitment to creating better lives for the cityís poor.
I have met people who set up charities to help women who have been made homeless due to domestic violence and abuse. There are people training street children in a craft to ensure they have a skill to earn a living once they leave their orphanages. I have had the honour of meeting women embroiderers from Kolkataís villages whose work in a collective has granted them a much higher position in their communities than they could ever have hoped to achieve. But it was a meeting with Chancal, who runs the Kolkata Silence workshop, who really embodies the importance of what the charity sector are doing, and in my own way what I am doing, in Kolkata.
Chancal is disabled. His is a story of triumph over very difficult circumstances. As a handicapped child his family decided not to educate him, creating a life of reliance on others. Determined to escape that trap he educated himself - learning to read and write by laying on the floor next to his brother who went to the local school.
Chancal believes, given the chance, strongly handicapped people are able to support themselves. He points out that their levels of concentration, and ability to pick up skills, means they can become highly successful at what they put their minds to. At Silence he provides that chance.
Six months into my decision to quit a secure job, Iíve made some fantastic new friends and built up a wealth of beautiful items to sell, including the silk scarves woven by Bai Lou, handmade paper boxes, embroidered cushion covers and wall hangings.
But now Iíve got to create the best markets for these products. Iím developing a range of products for weddings that Iíll source from all the groups I work with. I will offer silk beaded bags, silk shawls, table ornaments, handmade invitations, orders of service and thank you cards. Iím really excited as our first wedding is in August this year, with the products customised by the bride, who chose most of the colours and designs.
I am also working towards Fair Trade certification. All the organisations I work with are run on fair trade principals, itís therefore really important for the producers and the buyers to have the guarantee of a recognised certification.
Over the next two years I will be working towards that goal with the Fair Trade Foundation and the co-operatives and groups in Kolkata. In the meantime, any potential customer who would like to know more about the sources of our products is welcome to discuss them with me in great detail!
I am happy to share this rewarding experience.
It has been a long journey since 2004. I have given up a job and found a vocation. Itís sometimes challenging, often hard work, but most of all it is rewarding, fun, and full of adventure.
Click here to view Kolkata Products - the complete collection of scarves and gift boxes will be available by Monday, 8th May.