To many, design and social work would appear as unrelated fields. But not to Rebecca Kousky, 26, of St Louis, Montana. A young post-graduate in social work, Kousky, has successfully managed to blend her passion for both into creating Nest, a non-profit organization that provides micro-credit loans to women artists and artisans in developing countries.
Kousky formed Nest just two weeks after completing her masters degree in International Social Work from Washington University where she specialized in women and families. "I wanted to merge fashion, art and design with my love for social work and quest for social change," she explains. Her earlier development work in Mexico and India, which she carried out as a volunteer, was instrumental in the creation of Nest.
When in India, Kousky taught at a preschool in Delhi - as part of a programme called Cross-Cultural Solutions that was run by an NGO - where half the students were disabled. "The school made its own prosthetics and taught the children how to use them, thereby becoming a trade school where everyone left with an employable skill," recalls Kousky. "My experience there really shaped Nest because I saw how it enabled people. A lot of charity actually is counterproductive and doesn't always enable people to help themselves. I see Nest as smart charity."
Nest's goal is to change the lives of women artisans in developing countries by helping them create sustainable entrepreneurial businesses. This is achieved by providing micro-credit loans that allow the women to begin or expand their craft-based businesses.
The funds for Nest's micro-credit loans are made possible by selling a wide variety of products made by Nest beneficiaries - loan recipients have the option of repaying either in cash or by giving their products for sale to Nest - and those donated by professional designers and artists. Inspired by Kousky's concept, not only have many designers offered exclusive merchandise for sale on Nest's website many have even agreed to advise loan recipients on building their businesses.
Initially though Kousky had started out on a shoestring budget. "I used my own meager savings and a bit of start-up capital from family and friends," she says. "Several months into the project, I got US$24,000 by winning a business plan competition for social enterprises at Washington University in April last year."
Nest was formed in June 2006 and the online store was launched three months later. Kousky then picked out names of designers from fashion magazines and sent them blind mails in the hope that at least ten would participate in the social enterprise. But the response was beyond her expectations. Many came forward enabling the venture to take off. Nest rang up sales of US$10,000 within the first two months and hit $85,000 after one year. "The first group of designers was instrumental in giving Nest a positive start," says Kousky.
Till now, Nest has provided micro-credit loans to women in eight countries - Brazil, Guatemala, Turkey, Israel, Morocco, Mexico, India and Tanzania.
In order to be eligible for a loan, applicants must specify what they need the money for. The loan amount varies but is usually between US$500 and US$2,000. "A lot of micro-lending can be as low as US$25. Ours tends to be on the higher side because we largely work in slightly more developed of the developing nations. In Africa, $25 can change a life. In Turkey it takes more like $500. That's still incredible since there are women in the US that drop that on a pair of shoes," remarks Kousky. The recipients usually repay loans between one and five years. "We agree on a wholesale price for the items ahead and that sets the number of products they owe us," explains Kousky, referring to recipients who opt to reply the loan in the form of goods instead of cash. "We also decide a time frame. Normally, they pay their facilitator products monthly and we ship biannually or quarterly depending on how expensive it is to ship from their country. By repaying in wholesale prices we can then mark up the goods for retail thereby creating a revolving loan cycle that allows us to keep lending without charging interest. The wholesale prices are also well above fair-trade standards."
At the moment, 64 recipients are in the process of repaying their loans. "We saw two finish this month, but everyone else is just in process," she adds. "The shortest time taken for repayment is one year, so our first recipients are just hitting that mark."
The loans are provided through facilitators, like NGOs, in the countries of the beneficiaries. These facilitators also help locate and process each loan recipient. "We partner with NGOs. It allows them to expand their services and it's also to our advantage, as they are already registered in their country."
Rose Deniz, a designer, is Nest's facilitator in Turkey. She began working with Kousky when the programme was just beginning. She became a Nest designer and felt that the micro-credit loans would address the needs of the women she worked with. "We found a perfect fit," she says. "Nest's first recipient was my jewelry and accessory maker, who continues to make items for Nest."
As a facilitator, Deniz considers her role to be both as a mentor and as the go-between person who helps make the loan process possible in an international setting. "I enable quarterly orders to be processed between Nest and the recipient, check on progress, facilitate payment, photograph, and ship items," she explains. Deniz also helps bridge a cultural gap by discussing issues of style, design and material quality with loan recipients. "The goal is to have the products designed by the loan recipients sell through Nest and make a full circle back into their loan or the loans of future recipients," says Deniz. "Therefore, it is important to have a product that translates stylistically from across the globe. I also see myself as a mentor because of the amount of time I spend with the loan recipients answering questions, discussing future goals and dreams, watching the loan transform their lives step by step."
Currently, Deniz facilitates loans for two recipients, Meral Tuncer and Sevinc Esen. Both women support their families through their businesses. Sevinc is a seamstress who runs a tailoring shop, while Meral works from home creating jewelry and knitted items. They applied for loans because they wanted their businesses to grow, but, according to Deniz, found limited resources in Turkey. "The micro-loan addresses their needs in a way that a bank loan never would," she points out. "They repay in the form of product, not money, so there are relatively no risks for them. The loan gives them confidence in their work, recognition world-wide for what they do, and the ability to flex their design skills."
Nest's success with micro-credit loans has encouraged Kousky to focus more closely on the communities where they have already established a presence, and to expand into education and training for these artisans. Now that the loans are starting to be repaid, first-time round recipients are applying for second loans and Nest will be giving them priority. "Micro-credit loans give women the tools they need to provide for their families, resulting in stability and hope to families and communities," says Kousky.
"By providing entrepreneurial loans to craftswomen and artisans, their life can become their livelihood and the decorative objects that are the fruits of their labor can be enjoyed by discerning patrons throughout the world," she adds.