Category Archives: Inspiration

Insight from Former Fair Trade Buyer Susan Yu

Last week I had the good chance of interviewing Susan Yu, a former buyer for the respected fair trade company Ten Thousand Villages. While there, Susan traveled throughout Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand) and Africa (Ghana, Burkino Faso, and Niger) to work with and better the lives of local artisans. Around eighteen months ago, she decided to quit and become a full time stay at home mom to her daughter Lauren. Below is a Q & A about her work, but this full version includes bonuses like how she feels having worked for Walmart.com before Ten Thousand Villages:

…What is fair trade?

In the simplest term, it’s just ethical sourcing, it’s knowing where your product comes from, who makes it, and that the people behind the product is being treated fairly.

And why did you go into that business?

You know I never grew up thinking I want to go into fair trade, its just, it kind of fell in my lap. I think it was just that constant curiosity in whatever job you have you question everyday about what interests you, and so I’ve always been in retail, I graduated from Davis in 2000, worked for Gap corporate downtown, so that was my first job out of college. So I did that for two years, I was a distribution analyst.

…And what did you love most about working for Ten Thousand Villages?

Oh there’s a lot of things. It was really my dream job I think because not only did I get to utilize all the skills I had built up to that point, analytical skills, merchandising skills, buying skills, but it allowed me to travel and see where these things are made and actually talk to the people behind the product, so that was really awesome of that job I think just working with artisans one on one. And also the people in my office, you know, the people that were there were there because they wanted to be there and not because they needed a job, you know, they really had passion for this, for fair trade, and the people that made the product are the reason they went to work every day, so it’s a different kind of world than corporate.

And how did you choose what to buy?

Well we were split up by countries so we would always bring products that were exciting from our trip and part of that is looking at what was selling in that market and what people are excited about. There’s trade shows every year and so we go out to those to see what’s popular. And then we try to think about is there anything our artisans are making that would excite our customers so it’s a little bit of both, shopping here for our U.S. market and also coming up with interesting things that our artisans have created themselves.

Wow. And how did you ensure that fair trade was being upheld?

…it’s all based on relationships because we work with I don’t know how many artisan groups but there are four buyers and I think all buyers alone had close to fifty six groups that we were close with for product development and each of these groups had other smaller groups that they would work with in other smaller villages so the basis of fair trade is really trust and relationships. A lot of these relationships have been established for twenty years and they have their own fair trade organizations that work with these to certify them as fair trade, the fair trade artisan group. So it’s different in every country how they are certified but it all started with working with them and our relationship that goes back and we also visit and interview the artisans one on one without the manager just to see how their livelihood is, if their enjoying, if their being paid a living wage, so we document all these on our trips there as well along with doing product development as well so it actually turns out to be a long trip–when you go out there you have to interview a lot of people but a lot of it is just relationship building.

… What is your most touching experience working for Ten Thousand Villages?

Hmm… I think there are several. I think what is the most touching experience was really, I think what stuck out in my mind was the women in Ghana. In my second year I went to Ghana to visit a shea butter producing village in Northern Ghana and it just amazed me how hard working these women were, and they pretty much did everything for the family… these women who were pretty much the root of the family, you know they took care of the kids, they did all the work, they did all the housework, and the men were notoriously known for taking the money and gambling–I’m not saying it was all like that but it was very common for that culture to do that and it just kind of touched me that they were superwomen in a different setting and type of world that we are. And I think that was amazing and really touching to see that they can run a family, run a household, make the money, and still be happy at the end of the day. They were very happy, very joyful people… And it wasn’t just Ghana I think it was a lot of places I just realized how strong women were across all kinds of countries that I visited, especially being a mom now I really appreciate the fact that raising a child is a full time job in itself.

And is Lauren the reason that you left Ten Thousand Villages

It is. It was a tough decision for me but I know it was the right one. My family lives in California and that job was in Pennsylvania and so it was really important to be here and raise her close to family.

…And what is it like being a stay at home mom after working so  extensively?

Wow. What’s the difference or what’s it like being a mom after working for so long? In terms of energy level and everything I think a full time mom is actually a lot more work. But you know the cliché is that it’s rewarding and it is. You know everything you give to them you see it come back to you and it’s amazing just to watch her grow and I know that this time–from the time she grows up until school–is so limited, and I just really appreciate my time with her. But the difference–I think both are work. I think it’s a hard adjustment at first–you know not going into work or having adult interaction on a daily basis so I think in terms of the mental exercises it’s different, it’s a different kind of stress and stuff but yeah I really enjoy it, but I do want to go back eventually.

What are your future plans with work?

If I could go back to Ten Thousand Villages I would, but they’re based in Pennsylvania so  I don’t think there’s a possibility of working for them, but I definitely want to stay within the fair trade industry, if not career wise then at least volunteering. But I think what’s a priority in the next few years is family, raising her, so I’d like to find something that can fit within my schedule with her. I might start my own fair trade organization or company out here—which is something I have been toying around with, or I might go back and work full time around here with an organization that is involved in fair trade.

That sounds exciting. So last question: what advice do you have for strivers of fair trade businesses?

For strivers of fair trade businesses, for people who are just starting out in a career, I would say learn as much as you can. There’s really great organizations in the Bay Area that you can get involved with. There’s TransFair, that’s in Oakland. I know there’s other ones in the Bay Area–I think one’s called Global Action through Fashion… but its fair trade eco clothing so there’s things like that that you can get involved with, interviewing people… and just talk to people and go to these events and learn more about it. There’s a lot of internet resources that you can read up on and go visit a country, if you have the resources, go visit these countries and try to seek out the artisans who make these wonderful products and learn about their life and you’ll probably learn more than just from reading–that personal experience.

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Filed under Getting In, Insider Insight, Inspiration, International Business, Interview, Leader, Positioning, Rerouting, Success

Insight from Tech Entrepreneur Mathieu Thouvenin

The other day I met with Mathieu Thouvenin, a tech entreprenuer who’s accomplishments range from starting GSM Online, one of the first French portals about mobile phones to launching iPhone applications like Voila. He is also the three time recipient of a scholarship to attend Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. Today he is a project manager at Seesmic, a social software company. The Bay Area transplant from France has much insight, so I have cut the interview down to the version below that includes his successes and advice for strivers.  Although I urge you to read the full version–which features valuables like his talk about social media, by clicking here.

Either way, enjoy!

You received a scholarship to attend one of Apple’s conferences, the Worldwide Developer Conference, three times—how did you do that?

I don’t know. When I was doing programming I subscribed to the program that Apple is doing, it’s basically a membership to get access to special resources to code for Apple and it’s cheaper because it’s for students and then that year I received an email they were like “oh you can apply, tell us why you are motivated and why we should invite you to go to the conference.” And I just filled out the form and explained why I was motivated and I guess it worked–I got invited the first year and then it was pretty easy to go the next years.

How many applications have you launched for the iPhone?

Two.

And can you tell us a little bit about them?

Yeah. The first one is called Voila and it allows you to share your location with your friends online so it seems pretty basic right now because all those apps like Four Square or Twitter allow you to share your location, but a year and a half ago there wasn’t much applications to share your location and that’s why I decided to create that. And it was a great opportunity for me to learn how to code for the iPhone, so that was the first application. And the second one, it’s called Serenade, it [launched] almost a year ago and it allows you to share on Twitter and Facebook the song you are listening to right now on your iPhone, from your iPod. And so it gives you a link to your friends so you can say “hey I’m listening to that song and I really like it” and your friends can click on that link and immediately listen to a preview of the song and buy it if they like it. And we give you the lyrics for the songs too, so you can sing on the bus, if you want.

And did you launch those by yourself or did you have some friends you launched them with?

Yeah I worked with some friends that did the design, the logo, and the website. I was focused more on the code of the application and I worked more with other people who were great designers.

How did you launch GSM? And would you say it was the foundation for all you’ve done?

Kind of. When I first got a computer with internet I started to play and see what was happening and quickly I really wanted to be part of that and create a website myself. And so at the time you could create a website with Microsoft Word and export it as a website and so I started with that and I thought it was limited and I learned how to code webpages and it’s kind of how I started. And so I created that website for mobile phones, like ringtones and stuff because I liked that at the time. I’m still really involved and passionate about everything that is mobile and that’s my job right now, so I guess it helps.

How did you get the job at Seesmic?

I knew the CEO because I did an internship at his previous company when I was in Paris so it was like three years ago and so I knew him and in the meantime he left that company that he founded and created a new company here so when I arrived here for my internship I just talked to him and I pinged him and we stayed in contact. And when I said I wanted a change of job he proposed to me the job.

So what is most challenging about being in your field?

It’s really interesting because lots of things are happening all the time and also in our field at Seesmic we have lots of applications and it’s really interesting because we all go really fast, we adopt ourselves into the market, and to what customers want, and so you don’t know what you’re really going to work on in a few months. You can’t really plan ahead because you have to adapt to that real time so it’s really interesting and really challenging.

What is most rewarding about what you do?

Working in a startup is really cool because since you usually don’t have a lot of people working with you, you have a lot of responsibilities–you can work on pretty much anything you want–and that’s what I like the most because if I tell my boss I want to work on that project and there is benefits from that and it makes sense then I can get that project and work on it and take care of it. So, it’s not like you’re always focused on the same thing compared to I guess if you work in a big company–I have never worked in a big company but I hear that you do pretty much the same job all the time and that’s definitely not the case in the startup.

So what is your typical work day like?

So when I arrive in the office I catch up with the teams that are pretty much all over the world: we have engineers in Europe, in Singapore, all over the U.S., so in the morning everyone usually is up so it’s the end of the day for Europe, beginning of the day here, so we catch up on the work that has been done during the day, answer any questions they have, ask them questions, then I answer my email, have meetings, etcetera. And then in the afternoon everyone, all the engineers, are pretty much offline so I can work on planning, planning the resources, and specs and mockups for new features on products. So the morning is more social with the teams and the afternoon is more thinking.

I’m going to segway and ask: what is the role of money in your definition of success?

The role of money, I don’t know… it’s just, I don’t think it’s that important. I mean, it’s a nice reward but I think it’s not as rewarding as liking your job and working on patience and being with your friends, your family, I think that’s the most rewarding. Money is nice to have, of course, but I think you can be really happy without having that money as a main reward for your job.

So what advice do you have for strivers?

I would say follow your passion, whatever you like, whatever is your passion, just work on it, do stuff  around it, create a blog, do videos about it, create a podcast, that kind of stuff–and show the world what is your passion. And ultimately, you will find people who have the same passion or that are interested in your passion and based on that you can maybe do a live-in or get a job or get hired by a company that is working that field–I think it’s really important. And feel free to just do it, whatever you like–just follow your passion, I think that’s really important.

Want more? Check out Thouvenin’s blog here, his Mac OS X dashboard widget Time Machine Launcher here, and his About Me here (which includes links to more of his work).

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Filed under accomplish, Advice, Entrepreneurship, Insider Insight, Inspiration, Interview, Leader, Learning, Mathieu Thouvenin, Positioning, Rising, Success, Tech Field, Technology, Vertical, Voila, Working Hard

Q & A with NYOF Founder Olga Murray

A few days ago I had the good fortune of doing a Q & A with Olga Murray. Soon before her retirement from practicing law in San Francisco she was trekking the Himalayan Mountains when she broke her leg. A local porter carried her for days, which significantly touched Murray, and then she was moved again by the countless children at the hospital with such terrible disabilities and bleak resources. So soon after her fall—in 1984, she started to work with children in Nepal. In 1990 she founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation. NYOF’s mission is to empower the youth of Nepal—and already their successes include freeing over five-thousand girls from bondage. But even after around two decades of service, Murray says she believes that there is still much work to be done. The eighty-four-year-old Californian volunteers full time to lead her causes forward, even living much of her time in Kathmandu, where she was when I interviewed her. Below is her insight:

When and why did you get into service work? Because I was approaching retirement, always had an interest in children, and wanted to do something to help them.

Before NYOF how did you picture retirement? I thought I would work as an advocate for a child in court or tutor at a community center, but I fell in love with the children of Nepal when I came trekking here in 1984, and decided that I would work with impoverished children here.

How did you start the nonprofit? NYOF developed organically, driven by the needs of children in Nepal. We started out by giving scholarships to orphans, but expanded to other programs when we encountered children in dire circumstances who really needed help.

How did you obtain support? At first, through friends. Later, we became more organized, wrote grant applications to foundations, and increased our donor base through publicity.

Is the work what you expected? Why or why not? The work has far exceeded my expectations both in scope and [in] the amount of satisfaction I get every day from knowing that we are providing a better life to thousands of Nepali children.

What were the needs you were originally filling? At first, we started by giving college scholarships, but eventually [we] increased our scholarship base to disabled children, those whose parents could not afford primary school, those who had no homes, and poor children in villages so that today we support thousands of youngsters in school, from kindergarten to medical school.

How have those needs evolved? They evolved from our observations about the needs of children in Nepal. When many children were dying or became stunted because of malnutrition, we began a nutritional rehabilitation home to restore them to health and educate their mothers about child care. [Today NYOF has restored the health of more than five thousand children and has educated thousands.] We now have ten such facilities all over the country. When we learned that little girls were being bonded away for fifty dollars a year for labor, we began a program to eradicate the practice, which is now on the verge of success. [Estimates are that around 1200 girls, which is twenty percent of the former total number, still need to be rescued from bondage.] When we discovered children who had no homes and no hope for an education, we established two homes for children—one for boys and one for girls.

What are your largest setbacks? Lack of funds. We could do so much more if we had more money.

What, if you can distinguish one, is your most touching experience in Nepal? My relationship with the children at our children’s homes is the most touching experience here. I see them come in as neglected, malnourished little waifs and leave to go to college as confident, happy young people ready to give back to society.

What is your typical work day like? I spend a good part of the day on the computer keeping in touch with donors and our office. In Nepal I also do this, but I also spend time with the children at our children’s homes and visit our projects.

Who are your idols and why them? The usual caste of characters—Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, The Dalai Lama, because they have found a way to encourage people to live in harmony together.

What are your future goals? To expand NYOF’s activities. So much needs to be done in Nepal, and we have a local staff and organization that is able, passionate about children, and could provide for their needs.

What advice do you have for people who want to get involved? Go to our website and find a program they are interested in. If they wish to do so, they can donate money to help the children of Nepal.

Want to help Murray but don’t know where to begin? Go here. For additional nonprofits click here.

Need more information about NYOF? Read on here.

Concerned about legitimacy? Be assured NYOF is authentic by contacting them here or visiting their newsroom here.

Photos are reproduced with permission from Gregg Tully of NYOF.

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Filed under accomplish, Advice, Altruism, Giver, Helping Youth, Insider Insight, Inspiration, Interview, Leader, Learning, mentor, Nepal, nonprofit, NYOF, Olga Murray, Opportunity, Overcoming, Service Work, Social Justice, Success, Working Hard

Exclusive Audio Featuring Physician Michael Rokeach

Yesterday I caught up with Dr. Michael Rokeach at California Pacific Medical Center where he works as an emergency room doctor, director of medical transport, and chief of staff–when he is not busy being president of the San Francisco Medical Society. After following him on urgent care rounds—where one patient even granted exclusive access into his treatment, Dr. Rokeach was nice enough to spare a few minutes for an interview. Included in it is how he came to be a doctor and advice for strivers.

Enjoy!

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Two Lessons on Advocacy from Pedro

Over the weekend I watched Pedro, a biopic based on the short life of Cuban immigrant, AIDS activist, and MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco star Pedro Zamora. Due to its raw inspiration stemming from Zamora’s personal and societal battles with HIV—he was the first HIV positive person to be on television (and in a time of HIV ignorance no less)—this film is a must see. But regardless as to whether you see it or not, I feel compelled to relay two main traits—openness and passion—which Pedro demonstrates as having leveraged success for HIV awareness.

From the first scene on when Zamora is defending to his sister his decision to be honest about having HIV to The Real World we are introduced to how vital openness is to undercutting prejudices. Then by continually being his kind and fun self while also being honest about not only having HIV but also being gay, Zamora helped normalize the once alienated HIV and LGBT communities.

Also, throughout Pedro we see how critical passion is to pushing HIV awareness into mainstream. Even as his own health deteriorated Zamora continued his efforts until he ended up in the hospital, reminding everyone of the towering importance he ascribed to HIV awareness. As is human nature, this fervor spurred people to pick up the ropes. But sixteen years later, with new cases of HIV in the United States hovering at over 50,000 annually—a number that the CDC reports is roughly stable since the late 1990s—Zamora’s successful advocacy tools of openness and passion surely need more use.

Want to take action? Visit AIDS Action.

Need more inspiration? Watch Pedro through Netflix or buy it off Amazon and/or see part one of the tribute on YouTube.

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Filed under Advice, Being Unique, Inspiration, Overcoming, Social Justice, Success