If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I love talking to social entrepreneurs — particularly adoptive parents who find innovative ways to connect with and help the countries where their children were born. Lisa Scott is one such person. She found my blog one day and dropped me a line: Not only are we both from Nova Scotia (she still lives there), but each of us is privileged to be raising Ethiopian daughters.
When Lisa shared the launch of her new business, Second Life Ethiopian Artisans, I knew I wanted to tell you about it. Lisa has curated a gorgeous collection of handmade Ethiopian goods, and some may be ideal for your holiday gift lists. Plus, Lisa’s own story is pretty fascinating…
Zoe Saint-Paul: Congratulations on your new business, Lisa! Everything about it is right up my alley. What inspired you to launch Second Life Ethiopian Artisans?
Lisa Scott: Thank you! This business was a slow and natural evolution. It originated during my first visit to Ethiopia as a new mother. In 2008, I travelled with my husband and 5-year-old son to Ethiopia for a month to meet our daughter and prepare her for the journey home with us. Our primary concern was her adjustment, but we also wanted to use our time there to learn about Ethiopian culture firsthand.
Like many adoptive parents, we were firmly committed to maintaining our daughter’s culture. We live in Eastern Canada where our city has fewer than 1,000 Ethiopians, and only about six kids adopted from Ethiopia. The community here has been so loving to our family, but opportunities to come together are limited. I felt the need to travel back to Ethiopia and experience more of the country, and this opportunity came in 2012 when I volunteered with Canadian Humanitarian. It turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life.
I travelled with a group of people, including several doctors, to do medicals on children, and my role was to do presentations on grief and loss to the guardians of orphaned children. I was allowed into the lives of so many women, mainly grandmothers, who wanted to share their grief around the loss of their child and their desire to help their grandchildren deal with it. It connected me face-to-face with the different degrees of loss for these women and children. I, too, had lost my mother as a child, and my daughter had lost her birth mother through adoption, so I was proud of the work and honored to do it. While I was there, I found time to visit carpet makers, weavers, and art galleries. I brought home bags full of treasures — and while I didn’t know it at the time, this was the birth of Second Life Ethiopian Artisans.
The adjustment home from this trip was difficult. There was so much to process and I jumped right back into my professional life supporting vulnerable families at a pediatric hospital. I wouldn’t trade the trip for the world, but I knew it wasn’t something I could do regularly. I couldn’t really talk about it with anyone — even my family — because it was too hard to verbalize. What I could share were the amazing gifts I bought home. They gave me an opportunity to share stories of the people I met and the culture of the country.
ZSP: For any budding entrepreneurs out there, can you share what the process was like to get this business off the ground?
LS: The recommended way to start a business is with a business plan. I consciously didn’t do that. Not that I advise this approach; it depends on your expectations. I wanted to share the high-quality handmade products made in Ethiopia and to show consumers that you can get some of the best quality goods in the world at a fair price and provide fair working conditions. I also wanted my son and daughter to hear the daily dialogue of doing business with Ethiopians, and for them to understand both the process of importing, as well as how it translates to quality of life in that country.
I started to research the importing process and the access to goods. I thought long and hard about the name of the business and the image it would project. I knew I wanted to start very small, and to feel the direction of the business and respond accordingly. My first shipment arrived in the fall of 2013. I financed the shipment on my own and, through word-of-mouth, I sold out. I resorted to more of a plan for my subsequent orders: I sourced out a graphic artist to take photos for the website and began a catalog of products. I tailored my order to the quickest sellers and took a bit of a risk on some of the items I had no experience with, such as household goods like throws, towels, and tablecloths. The household goods have been crazy popular, and this fall I’ve been developing the next stage of business: wholesaling.
My word of advice when starting a business is to be conservative with your financial risk and follow your gut. I started this business while I was still employed part-time. I left that job recently, for a variety of reasons, but I never expected to have immediate personal revenue from this business.
ZSP: Where do you source your products, and how do you select them?
LS: Fibers have always been one of my main loves, and during my first trip to Ethiopia, I visited the former wood-carrying women who were working in a cooperative as weavers. The products they produced were outstanding, and I was buying one for everyone I could think of. The weavers work in a compound at the base of Entoto Mountain, where so many women carry wood to earn a living. These women were producing, on average, two scarves a day and were involved in all aspects of running the business. Their children were in a preschool on site, and they all had access to health care. Each season, these women release a new line of colors and patterns and I select from them. It’s very difficult to choose which ones, and sometimes I get them all! This year, these weavers also fulfilled a custom order for my business: Together we designed and produced a child’s striped scarf in four different colors. The proceeds from the sale of this scarf will go to vulnerable children in Ethiopia through Canadian Humanitarian.
The jewelry came to me through my cousin — also a mom to a beautiful Ethiopian daughter. During her last trip to Ethiopia I asked her to pick me up some interesting jewelry — and she delivered! My socks were knocked off when she told me how this jewelry was being produced on Entoto Mountain by women living with HIV. I took the little brochure provided with the bracelets and started an online search. Once I made contact, I reached out to another business that worked with this group to ensure the organization was sound and fair.
The third group of artisans came to me via word of mouth. Internationally known for their superb products and world-certified as fair trade, I felt they were a great fit for the types of products I wanted to showcase. My first order was a few scarves from their catalog, and my orders have increased each time.
I purchase products that I myself would want to wear or have in my home. The older I get, the less I buy — but I want the best quality and something meaningful. Every piece I carry is something I would purchase myself and would be proud of to give as a gift.
ZSP: How often do you get new products in? Would you recommend anything in particular for the holidays?
LS: I get orders in the spring, and in the fall for the holiday season. The products take quite some time to produce, so I typically order three months in advance. It’s hard to make recommendations, as I love everything!
In the under-$30 price point, the earrings are beautiful. Hoops are very fashionable at the moment, and the hoops have beads of silver, copper, and brass, so they go with everything. And who doesn’t love a scarf? Grandma, babysitter, teacher, sister, aunt, or uncle. They are easy to ship and no sizing necessary. Our scarves are made from hand-spun Ethiopian cotton or silk, hand-dyed and hand-woven.
The runaway hit has probably been the organic Omo towels. You’ve not felt cotton until you’ve touched these. The hand towels are popular in the bathroom and the kitchen and make perfect hostess gifts. You can wrap one around a bottle of wine or a bag of coffee and have a one-of-a-kind gift. The larger towels can be used for so many things: In our home we use them as bath towels — they easily wrap around my 6’5” husband, dry quickly, and just get better with each wash. Most of my customers have been purchasing them as couch throws, tablecloths, yoga mat blankets, and baby blankets. They’re beautiful and feel so good that I find customers looking for a reason to buy them.
ZSP: What are your dreams for Second Life Artisans?
LS: My dream is that this business will never waiver from its roots and spirit. I want the products to speak for themselves, for my customer to never look at a mass-produced product the same way again. I also want people to feel connected to the people behind the products by knowing the stories behind what they buy.
On a personal level, my dream is that this business will allow my family to continue to discover Ethiopia and build relationships there. My daughter is Ethiopian-Canadian; I am not, but through the miracle of becoming her mother, I fell in love with her birth country. So much is gained in love and life through adoption, but so much is also lost. I cannot replace all my daughter has lost, but I can show her that her family is invested in her culture. My dream is that this business will generate enough income for us to make regular visits to Ethiopia and that both of my children can participate in knowing the artisans and in selection of our goods. It would be pretty neat if my kids’ first jobs were working for Second Life Ethiopian Artisans.
Lisa, thanks so much for sharing the story of your inspiring new business! I love how you’re finding a way to incorporate Ethiopian culture into your family’s life. I must say, those towels sound divine and are now on my Christmas list! I’m eyeing a few other things for gifts, too.
I hope SlowMama readers will consider supporting businesses like Second Life Ethiopian Artisans this holiday season: Not only will you end up with handcrafted, high-quality items, but you’ll be helping lives on the other side of the world. Besides her website, you can connect with Lisa on Instagram, too.
Images: Lisa Scott