Jen, the founder of Venture Imports, is pictured with Venic, one of the best soapstone polishers there is.
In continuing with our celebration of International Women’s Day, we are proud to feature Jen Misner, the founder of Venture Imports. Since 2001, Venture Imports has been working with artisans who create inspiring brass charms and beautiful kisii soapstone and glass products in Kenya. The soapstone hearts are always a favorite! We are excited to share Jen’s story and the stories of all of the artisans who contribute to Venture Import’s success.
Watch this video of an artisan carving soapstone:
1. What inspired you to start Venture Imports and work with women artisans?
I took a trip to South Africa while I was in college. The dollar was very strong at the time so we were staying in 5-star accommodations, but driving through townships during the day, the income disparity was very evident.
I was also reading a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the time and was so inspired by the people of South Africa. In addition, I was working for a professor studying how trade affects income inequality in the Global South, which led to some of the philosophy behind my company.
During the trip we ran across a lot of people selling products in markets on the side of the road. We all bought items. When I returned, I researched where the products were being made and started introducing myself to as many artisans as possible (this was during dial-up internet time, so it took a loooooong time). I took another trip back to Africa, this time to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa with the goal of somehow assisting people in one or all of these countries to find a market in the US for their goods.
2. How is Venture Imports organized? How many women artisans do you currently work with and how many of them have leadership roles in the business?
Both. We have a workshop in Kenya where they usually work. This is a nice communal place where the women can talk and watch each other’s children while they all work. Many of the women also work from home at times. There is a limit to how much they can sand at home, however, since the stone is very heavy to carry back and forth to work.
There are about 50 women working on our orders now; sometimes they bring in more people for really large orders. Many of the departments are led by women! Diana does packing, Winifred does quality control, Ebisiba does polishing, Lilian and Mercy do sanding, Catherine does painting, Simon’s wife Alice manages the stained glass, and Christine leads the entire cooperative. When Christine took over those duties, it made all of the difference in the world. Previously the group was run by a couple of gentlemen who were not always working in the best interest of the group. Money was stolen from the group, and women were being harassed. When Christine became the leader, she moved the workplace close to a police station to protect the women. She has a unique ability to work very well with me as we try to tailor items and time schedules to North American customers, while also keeping well abreast of the situations of the individual women working in the group. For example, she thoughtfully explained to me that while all of the women get free lunch when they work at the workshop, one woman also gets breakfast because she walks from such a great distance to get there every day and is quite hungry by the time she finally arrives. Other women have HIV, but Christine helps them keep it private while helping them manage. Other women have very difficult home lives, so she makes special accommodations when working with them.
The women also have teamed up to help each other. Many of them participate in what they call merry-go-rounds. This is an investment group where all of the members of the group give a portion of each paycheck to the group. That money gets pooled together and the lump sum is given to one person per paycheck. That allows them to do bigger projects or make larger purchases when they get the lump sum.
Finally, we are very proud of the way the women are starting to expand the jobs they do. Traditionally the men do the carving and the “designing,” the final etching before packing. These jobs pay more than the job most of the women have traditionally done, sanding. More women in our group have started to learn to design, which means they will start making more money. And one woman, Rose, even uses a machete to carve some of the pieces (she specializes in wedding knots, so if you buy these, there is a good chance they were carved by Rose). Rose’s husband lives with a disability, so she supports her whole family with her carving.
And on this side of the ocean, we also make it a priority to hire women and work with other women-owned businesses. We team up with two main groups in the Chicago area—one is a group that works with refugees and the other is called New Moms. They work with young moms experiencing poverty and homelessness. Our accountant is a woman, our website was built by two women, and our print materials are all designed by a woman.
3. When women work, the impact of the investment is greatly multiplied. What benefits or positive changes have you seen in the communities where the women work and live?
What I hear more than anything from the women with whom I work is that they want to send their children to school. Unfortunately, too often their husbands do not assist at all with providing for the family so it’s all left to the women. Going to school in Kenya requires school fees and other expenses, so that’s the main focus of the women. Also, money as well as aptitude determines which kind of secondary school one can attend. We are proud that all of the school-age children of the women who work in our cooperative are attending school, and some have even graduated from college!
In addition to school fees, the women also very often have extended family members to care for. The income from one woman very often has to cover the expenses not only of her children, but parents, in-laws, nieces and nephews.
There are many ways women put their money to work. Besides school fees and the daily provisions of life, they’ll often use money to improve their homes. A home with a thatched roof may need a new roof fairly often to keep the rain from coming in, for example. They might also want to expand to have more rooms if they have more children or family members living with them. On occasion they might even save enough to start renting out a room.
Alternatively, they might use the money to purchase either plants or a chicken or even a cow! If a person in Kisii doesn’t have land, they have to purchase their food from the markets, which gets expensive. If they get even a little bit of land they can plant vegetables to feed their families, and maybe even have enough to sell. Chickens and cows, likewise, can help keep the cost of food down for a family, while also providing additional income when they sell the milk, etc.
4. We love your commitment to empowering other women. What advice would you give to girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?
Honestly, I think I would tell them to be serious about it. Think it through and do your research. Don’t be afraid to think big or outside of the box. But also think critically. Sometimes we can get a savior-complex and do more harm than good if we’re not careful in our approach. Be brave, but listen first! Think big, but make a plan, too! (You don’t find these sayings on our charms, but I really believe them!)
5. What woman in your life has had the biggest impact on you personally?
My mom. She went to seminary while raising three young children. She and my dad were and continue to be wonderfully supportive parents and grandparents.
I also had other great role models in my life growing up. I probably only recently realized how helpful it was to see examples of women living their lives in all different ways. For example, my aunt got her PhD and developed assistive technology to help children living with disabilities to communicate. She doesn’t have children and was able to go to many of my games and take me weight-lifting when I was growing up. Later she paid me to help her find microfiche pertinent to whatever topic she was working on at the time. My great aunt never married and hosted me for many meals while I was in college. She regaled me with stories of her travels around the world, the latest classes she was taking in college, and the books she was reading at the time.