One of the threads woven into Rebecca Van Bergen’s childhood is the memory of her grandmother working with her hands to create beauty. So it may not be surprising that when Rebecca was pondering the design of her own future, handmade crafts produced by women would hold the key.
“My grandmother and my great-grandmother were sewers and quilters. And my dad and my grandfather were entrepreneurs. Therefore, I was able to observe and absorb both the entrepreneurial spirit and the beauty and complexity of women’s craft work.”
It was 2006, when the idea came to her over a glass of wine. Rebecca was 24 years old and had just received a Masters in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis. She had long dreamed of making a positive impact on the world and she felt there was no time like the present. In that moment, the past and the future came together.
“Recognizing craft as a viable form of employment for women around the world—one that allows them to care of their children while doing something they love—I conceived of the idea to leverage craft sector development as a force for positive change.”
With the support of her family, Rebecca founded NEST, a not-for-profit that strives to create opportunity for artisans, especially women, in some of the poorest countries of the developing world.
“I always knew that I would be a working woman and a working mother—and that I would use those skills and my fortunate background to help other women.”
Nest acts as a matchmaker between local artisans and companies in the fashion and home furnishings fields, overseeing those business relationships, offering advice, training and often equipment like computers or looms.
“We only work with artisans who show leadership and scalability,” says Rebecca. “We want them to grow their operations. We really want them to operate like a business.”
By helping artisans overcome early-stage hurdles to business growth through hands-on programming and training, the artisans can increase production capacity, enhance product quality, modernize design and update technology. Simultaneously, Nest facilitates artisan partnerships with western retailers, connecting artisans to the global marketplace and raising their brand awareness.
“Craft is primarily the work of women. So, even though artisan craft-making is a $32-billion industry, and the second largest employer of women in emerging markets behind only agriculture, it is still viewed by some, and dismissed by others, as “simply” women’s work.”
Through Nest, Rebecca is helping to change that perception.
Nest says 9 out of 10 artisan businesses it works with have increased their revenue, with artisans earning 120% more than their national minimum wage, on average. For every Nest artisan employed in places like India, Swaziland, West Java, Kenya and Oaxaca, an estimated 20 more people are impacted including family members and children.
Craft keeps women out of forced labor, empowers them to earn economic independence, and allows them to work from home while caring for their children. And there is an added bonus: by integrating modern techniques and training into the production of ancient craft forms, Nest is helping to keep cultural traditions alive.
Currently, Nest is working with more than 5,000 artisans globally, with a goal of bringing positive, sustainable change to more than 200-thousand artisans by 2020.
“In the last ten years alone, it has been incredible to watch the increase in consumer awareness around ethical production,” says Rebecca, “so we are very excited to see what the future brings!”
The Nest Professional Fellowship Program offers self-motivated individuals with distinctive skill sets the opportunity to work closely with Nest artisans around the world. Find out details at Buildanest.org