10.11.2015

Why we love Malena.com – the heroic start-up aiding artisans from Rwanda to Ecuador

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Why would an international human rights lawyer start her own global e-commerce business selling fashion and handicrafts? To further the cause of international human rights, of course. Cayte Bosler reports on Flynn Coleman’s amazing plan to build an Amazon for the actual Amazon (among other remote parts of the world)…

It was in figuring out how to tell the story of a women’s cooperative in Chile that Flynn Coleman began her mission to turn places into stories. And to build a marketplace for those stories – one strong enough to pull communities out of economic crisis.

While studying in Chile 15 years ago, Coleman worked with a group of women called Arpilleristas who created arpilleras, tapestries depicting the violent and impoverished conditions they lived in under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Coleman made it her mission to directly support these women by selling their work back in the US.

 

Patterns: Coleman in Chile

Patterns: Coleman in Guatemala

 

“I returned to my university and set up a stand – this was pre-social media – so I made brochures about what was happening and sold the tapestries,” she says. “They sold out the first day. I saw again the immense power of communities coming together.”

Then, after a decade of work as an international human rights lawyer advising in regions wrought by war and genocide, Coleman returned to the idea of branding goods with stories of people she met in her unique line of work.

 

People power: Coleman in Rwanda

People power: Coleman in Rwanda

 

“Essentially what I found in my war-crimes work, plus through conversations around the world is that everyone wants the same thing – agency to make choices about their lives,” says Coleman, who speaks five languages, holds a foreign service degree from Georgetown University and law qualifications from both UC Berkeley School and the London School of Economics.

But often she saw that it was a lack of choices that defined communities she encountered.

That’s why six months ago she launched Malena.com, an e-commerce site linking rural artisans across 10 countries, including Rwanda, Ethiopia, India and the US, to a global marketplace. The products, ranging from accessories, clothing and home goods are designed to reflect each culture. (Malena takes its name from the an indigenous Chilean word for ‘girl’.)

 

Story to tell: Handicrafts from Uganda

Story to tell: Handicrafts from Uganda

 

“When the product arrives it feels like a magical present,” she enthuses. “Each card tells a story, then you can watch a video of exactly how it’s made.”

Click around the website and you’ll untangle the threads connecting each product to its maker. The opportunity to access this online platform is the difference between a life shackled by poverty and the chance to generate good income for their community. Though the partnerships are fairly new, artisans are already seeing an increase in profits.

 

Tightly knit: Weaving cooperative in Rwanda

Tightly knit: Weaving cooperative in Rwanda

 

“Empowerment and social justice are about much more than having rights in the abstract,” says Coleman. “Charity, donations and foreign aid are life-saving – critical at times of crisis and war, but ultimately people want opportunity to define their lives on their own terms. We can have a huge impact on people’s well-being by supporting their economic agency.”

The artisans are a network of people Coleman has organically built during her travels. Each is responsible for their own business operations on the ground. Coleman ships the goods to consumers once they arrive to her headquarters in San Francisco. She leverages her legal expertise, on occasion, to speed up pesky bureaucratic problems slowing down the export process.

And she’s the first to admit that peeling back the amorphous layers of international trade law is exceedingly difficult to wrap your head around as a consumer, too. Coleman adds a good first step is to demand to know where your goods come from. Collective consumer power, she says, forces brands to get in the fight against unethical practices before any deadly consequences strike.

 

Precision: An artisan at work

Precision: An artisan at work

 

“When the Bangladesh disaster occurred,” – in 2013 a factory collapsed in Rana Plaza killing more than 1,100 people, the worst garment industry disaster in history – “the public was largely unaware that their garments were even routed through that plaza.”

 

Sending kids to school

In an industry that’s valued at $3 trillion a year, she says she notices there is a tendency to talk about economics in terms of buzzwords that keep us asleep to the harrowing consequences. “We have to remember the term ‘labour’ equals a human life and that each life is intrinsically valuable.” She implores that even when a country claims to comply with labour wage laws it is rarely good enough because the legal standard is so poor.

Related story: Tripty backpacks – empowering artisans in Bangladesh following the Rana Plaza disaster

“I’m passionate about writing new constitutions, policies and laws, but ultimately I wanted to feel like if I died tomorrow people were actually impacted and moving forward with their lives,” she says of her newfound pursuit of social entrepreneurship. “We need it all and it’s all on a spectrum, but now I can support people who want to sell their goods and then they can send their kids to school and get better healthcare, for example.”

Coleman credits early travel experiences to catapulting her on the path to human rights work. She chuckles as she recalls her first living-abroad experience in a smalltown in Italy – how her nervousness transformed into total joy when the town converged to throw her a welcome parade. Since then, she’s lived in around 10 countries.

“In retrospect, pulling the threads full-circle, working with the women’s cooperative, the idea of the online store is new but I’ve been working at these issues my whole life.”


 

Watch: The Malena story

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