You’re looking at a $32 billion business

Where did you buy your clothes? What about your furniture? If you’re like many people, chances are you went to a department store or discount house and bought the same pair of jeans or coffee table as thousands of others.

A modern spin on traditional beadwork in South Sudan (© Tim McKulka)

But what if you could buy something only a few people in the world have — and at the same time help women support their families, create jobs in their communities and preserve their culture?

You can, when you #chooseartisan.

Artisan enterprises are at the heart of the creative economy, connecting us to people and cultures around the globe. They represent a sizable — and growing — market. In the last decade alone, international trade in artisan goods has doubled to more than $32 billion a year.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.14.37 AM
Ancient silk weaving in Madagascar (© David Evans Media)

More important, these enterprises can drive sustainable community development in places that need it most. In much of the world, the artisan sector is the second-largest employer after agriculture. And that can make the difference between poverty and a livable income for women who support their families, says Patricia Maldonado, owner of a fair-trade handicrafts company in Bolivia.

That’s not the only benefit. Investing in artisans also preserves unique cultural traditions that are at risk of being replaced by lower-quality, machine-made products.

Don’t just choose artisan, become one — here’s how

When Maldonado returned to Bolivia after university, she wanted to share with the world the creativity and skill of her country’s artisans. So she started a company that exports hand-knit clothing and crafts.

Recently named “Entrepreneur of the Americas” by the National Association for Female Executives, Maldonado shares her advice on succeeding as an artisan entrepreneur.

On finding funding …
I always try to avoid high bank interest rates. So my advice would be to approach family or partners first. The second-best option would be international organizations that offer support for women’s projects. They may come with conditions, but they’ll still be better than what you could get at a bank.

On finding customers …
One of the best ways to find markets is to attend specialized trade fairs. There you’ll always find the customers you are looking for. Once you have a couple of good clients, and if your product is good and the service you provide is impeccable, word will spread, and customers will flock to you.

Most of the 500 women artisans Patricia Maldonado works with are their families’ sole support. (Courtesy photo)

On avoiding failure …
I think a lot of people fail because they are too informal with clients and don’t demonstrate a serious commitment. It is so important to make each and every client feel like he or she is the most important one, and to never make a promise that can’t be kept. Planning work based on realistic times and capacities is essential to avoiding any possible failure.

On managing a team …
Artisan handiwork is the result of many hands working together. It’s important that you never feel superior to anyone on your team. Be open to learning from them. And always be available for everyone, no matter who it is. Don’t ever show or say you are busy with more important matters.

On balancing work and family …
The hours of the day will never be enough for the work you have to do and the time you want to spend with your family. So involve your family. Have your kids and husband help you. Share the love of what you are doing with them, and make them love it too.

On knowing you’re on the right track …
As soon as an artisan entrepreneur starts finding that her work is generating income and meaningful impact, and that she is inspiring those around her to also become entrepreneurs, she can be sure that what she is doing is absolutely right — that she has found the purpose of her life.