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.