Nott

A Magazine for Alumni and Friends


FallNott Memorial 2012

Colorfully Crafting Change

A Minerva fellowship brings the hues of Bagru to the world, and new autonomy to its artisans

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rilliant swaths of magenta, blue and light purple blanket the sandy ground, transforming the earth beneath Bagru, India into a rainbow as artisans dry their freshly dyed fabrics in the sun. But under this beauty, hardship lurks.


Poverty (n): a lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to; not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. (The United Nations)

According to the World Bank, nearly half of humanity—2.8 billion people—survives on less than $2 a day. In India alone, 300 million people (42 percent of the population), fall below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

This isn’t an unfamiliar story to the citizens of Bagru, a Rajasthan city in northern India that’s renowned for its exquisite, handmade fabrics. The individual artisans, who craft these textiles in a process that’s remained virtually unchanged for 350 years, generally earn $2 to $3 a day.

A new business, however, offers artisans more, much more—and not just money— because for this operation, profit isn’t the goal. It’s just a means to a substantially greater end.

“Bagru Textiles has changed the way we do business, we are now able to interact directly with the buyers and earn more money,” said artisan Vijendra Chhipa. “We now sell our products at a good price, and we will share the extra profits with all of the member artisans. With the extra profits we can improve artisan development, our community and education, and improve our lives.”

Bagru background

When Jeremy Fritzhand ’10 first visited Bagru during a Union mini-term in December 2009, he witnessed an economic and social discrepancy that disturbed him.

“These artisans deserve to get a fair price for their textiles and they really aren’t getting one, the profit margins they make are miniscule,” he said. “Cotton costs 50 rupees per meter, wholesale, so they buy that, print on it, and then only charge about 20 rupees for printing. That’s 40 cents.”

“Then they sell to a middleman, a wholesaler, who turns around and sells their textiles for $5 or $7,” he added. “So the wholesalers are making incredible profit off the work these artisans are doing. And the artisans are paid only $2 or $3 a day for their work.”

Fritzhand wanted to cut out the middleman and connect artisans directly with consumers. But to do this he needed capital, support, and a way back to India, all of which he found as a Minerva Fellow.

“For me, there was no better option than the Minerva Fellowship, than social entrepreneurship. Ever since I was 5 years old, my parents have taken myself and my two brothers to a different developing country every summer,” Fritzhand said. “I’ve been to over 50 nations and knew I wanted to work abroad and help people. I’m so happy Union had this amazing opportunity for me.”

He returned to Bagru in July 2010 with $10,000 from the fellowship to establish Bagru Textiles and a corresponding website linking artisans to customers around the world.

“The great thing about traveling is that when you go to different countries you see they have things we don’t and vice versa. You can really mix and match things, and that’s what’s happened,” said Fritzhand, who majored in psychology. “We have these amazing online platforms that connect people, and they do have Internet in India, but nobody thought that would be an option for these printers—to start an online business.”




Fabric is dried in the sun

Jeremy Fritzhand ’10 models items from Bagru Textile’s spring collection.

But developing this online presence would be—and still is—the hardest, most emotionally grueling and intellectually demanding thing Fritzhand has ever done.

“Jeremy has had to overcome a cumbersome government bureaucracy,” said Hal Fried, the David L. & Beverly B. Yunich Professor of Business Ethics. “He’s had to overcome an uneducated labor force, a rural village setting, people living on the edge with no financial cushion against failure, and an entrenched operational framework based on centuries of block printing tradition.”

And because he wasn’t sent to work with a known and established organization like The Global Child in Cambodia or Engeye in Uganda, as other Fellows were, Fritzhand had no entity to ground and guide him. He didn’t speak Hindi, he was without the companionship of another Fellow, and he knew no one.

“Two of the biggest challenges I had to overcome were the living conditions and the language,” he said. “In the home I was living in there was no air conditioning and the temperature during the summer was often above 110 degrees with 100 percent humidity. And, there was no toilet paper.”

“But if I could have changed anything, it wouldn’t be any of this, it would be to have one other person with me,” Fritzhand added. “That first year, I was there all alone. I was always questioning if what I was doing was right, and the only person I had to talk to was me.”

That’s not to say he was without support, though. Fried spoke by phone with Fritzhand once a month to offer encouragement and advice. The Bagru community, particularly Vijendra Chhipa, whose family he lived with at the time, was also open and welcoming.

“The people of Bagru wanted me to be a part of everything, they never excluded me and always asked me to come with them to temple or a wedding or a baby’s first birthday or a Bollywood movie,” Fritzhand said. “I never said no, unless I was working. I just did everything they did and so I learned their culture by doing.”

“I can also read and write Hindi now. I would write out the alphabet three times a day and go to temple every morning,” he added. “There’s also a 40-verse poem I learned that helped tremendously and once I started singing this at temple, people knew I was really trying hard. That really got me a lot of respect and trust.”

Without this trust Bagru Textiles wouldn’t exist, quite simply because it’s a business that depends on the artisans and their expertise. It’s also a business owned by the artisans.

Bagru Textiles

Social entrepreneurship (n): a combination of entrepreneurial ingenuity, business principles, sustainability, innovation and social impact. Social entrepreneurship stands in stark contrast to the charity that depends upon donations. The guiding principle is to invoke a business model that generates the revenue to sustain the initiative. This is often summarized with the phrase, the triple bottom line—people, profit and the planet. It is entrepreneurship with a heart. (Hal Fried, David L. & Beverly B. Yunich Professor of Business Ethics)

“Bagru Textiles was never really about me starting a business in India, it’s not for me; it’s for the artisans. The business is a way for them to use their skills and expertise to improve their lives and their community. I’m just a helper, a part of the foundation,” Fritzhand said. “Bagru Textiles is just an avenue they can use to change their own fortunes, and that’s what the Minerva Fellowship and social entrepreneurship are all about—empowering people.”

As a producers’ cooperative, Bagru Textiles members are equal partners in the business. Be they printers, washer men or women, or seamstresses, they are the company’s shareholders. They receive 35 percent of the net profits in an annual dividend, and have a voice—through a member committee—in how the business is run.

At press time, Bagru Textiles had 9 members representing 9 families, each comprised of several artisans.

“To become a member, they have to buy into the company, not monetarily but with an investment of printing services or product worth about $50,” Fritzhand explained. “We then take pictures of the textiles for the website, or use value-added methods like making fabric into shirts or skirts. All the profits from these materials go into the Bagru Textiles account, and they become an owner of that.”

“Before this system, printers were selling their fabric for approximately $1.25 a meter,” he added. “Now, through Bagru, they are selling fabric for about $8 a meter.”

Member-artisans aren’t the only ones who benefit from this model, however. Non-members can also participate on a consignment basis, earning a percentage of the profits from the sale of their products by Bagru.

In addition to member dividends, 30 percent of profits are reinvested in the company and 35 percent go into the 3E Bagru Fund, which supports environmental, educational or entrepreneurial efforts that benefit the larger Bagru community.

The website, bagrutextiles.com, has done wonders to support all three aspects of the company’s financial mission. But getting a handle on this dynamite business tool, which took off a little unexpectedly on a somewhat unprepared Fritzhand, was a challenge.

“I went through four versions of the site that first 10 months I was there and when the last one went live, I got incredible responses,” he recalled. “But I didn’t know yet how to deal with those orders. I didn’t know the logistics of processing, shipping orders all over the world and making orders.”

“So the site went offline in January 2011,” he continued, “and we weren’t going to re-launch it until it was 100-percent ready.”

Emily LaCroix ’11 was instrumental in perfecting the site. The Minerva Fellow arrived in India in July 2011, effectively making Bagru Textiles an established organization Union has proudly sent a Fellow to for the last three years.

“Emily was here for a month on her own before I came back,” said Fritzhand, who has lived in India roughly six months of every year since 2010. “She has been such a crucial part of the process, she’s extremely organized and she’s kept me focused. Without Emily, Bagru Textiles would not be where it is right now.”

Right now, the website having been re-launched in February, business is good for Bagru and its artisans. It’s a pleasant feeling for LaCroix.

“The launch of the Bagru Textiles website may have been the biggest triumph of my fellowship,” she wrote on her blog, “but I feel that my biggest personal triumph was in the connections that I made in Bagru.”

Fritzhand agrees because, after all, none of this would have been possible without the knowledge and skills of the artisans. Chhipa especially has been important, both personally and professionally.

“It was amazing staying with Vijendra and his family, getting home-cooked meals and living in such a happy house with him, his wife and two children, who are absolute sweethearts,” Fritzhand said. “Vijendra is also the secretary of the block printing society and he has since become director of Bagru Textiles. His is an extremely influential member of the community and he was able to introduce me to printers, dyers, washer men and other people involved in the block printing process.”

Chhipa, whose family has been printing for more than 150 years, is happy to help.

Gandhi Lal, a master block carver, works on a new block

Jessica Sarrantonio ’12, the current Fellow in India, shows off textiles made in Bagru in Reamer Campus Center

“My responsibility as director is lots of organizing. I get the fabrics ready for the website and distribute profits for consignment items,” he said. “My favorite part of the business is explaining to visitors the history of my craft.

“But I also really enjoy helping connect buyers directly with artisans so the artisans can make more money and improve their standard of living.”

This link, between entrepreneurship and welfare improvement, isn’t unique to the Bagru Textiles situation. The world over, it seems entrepreneurship has the potential to help alleviate privation.

An agent of change

In a 2010 paper for the Warrington College of Business, University of Florida, Ludovick Leon Shirima investigated the role of private sector initiatives in poverty reduction using data from 58 countries. In doing so, Shirima defined two proxies. One, innovation, was measured by worldwide patent applications submitted per country. The second, entrepreneurship, was depicted by enterprises per country identified in the global business registration database.

The study’s main thesis was that “entrepreneurs, by setting up enterprises, enhance economic growth by generating incomes, creating employment opportunities, paying state taxes and making available varieties of goods and services at competitive prices. Entrepreneurs facilitate innovations and therefore improve productivity.”

When poverty, innovation and entrepreneurship data were compared, this hypothesis was supported.

“Countries with higher poverty rates are associated with lower patent applications submitted,” Shirima wrote. “Similarly, countries with higher levels of business registration, our proxy for entrepreneurship, represent lower levels of poverty rates.”

Meenakshi Rishi, Seattle University, also found evidence of the correlation in her paper, “Promoting Entrepreneurship to Alleviate Poverty in India,” published early this year in Thunderbird International Business Review. A plethora of literature, she wrote, supports the association between entrepreneurship and human development. But she cautioned too that entrepreneurship isn’t a “magic bullet” and great hurdles still exist in reducing poverty.

“Poverty alleviation is not a simple matter. It is not just about raising incomes of the poor by any means necessary,” Rishi wrote. “Rather, it involves giving the poor voice and targeted programs that increase the capabilities and human and social capital of the poor.”

Fritzhand hopes Bagru Textiles contributes to such efforts in a meaningful way—by providing a company of the artisans’ own, by investing in and creating community programs, by providing artisans with new tools.

“Jeremy has helped teach myself and the artisans how the middlemen are getting more profits than the artisans, and how we can fix this,” Chhipa said. “He has also taught us about using the web as a tool to market, brand and better connect us and expose us to our buyers. And Emily has taught us how to send the products direct, use PayPal and accounting skills.”

He and the artisans will continue to sharpen these new talents until the business is operated solely by them.

“The goal I’m setting for this year’s Minerva Fellow—Jessica Sarrantonio ’12—is one of independence. By 2013, we want to be able to step back and have a local manager in position that is able to run Bagru Textiles on his or her own,” Fritzhand said. “This means getting products from printers, uploading pictures to the site, e-mailing back and forth with customers around the world, and distributing dividends and profits.”

He’s confident they can make this happen, and together, through their shared dedication and passion, improve the quality of life of people in Bagru.

“You see individuals all over in developing countries, even in the New York City subways, doing things like taking old plastic and weaving it into jewelry and selling it,” Fritzhand said. “There’s a creativity and independence and resilience in these dire life situations.”

“Imagine if these individuals had the opportunity to go to school and capitalize on their great ideas,” he continued. “They could have the answers for ending world poverty and hunger; they could be the people who are going to change the world. We can’t let these ideas disappear.”

Emily Lacroix ’11 learns block printing from Vijendra Chhipa, director of Bagru Textiles.

Silk square thatch-it scarves, from Bagru Textiles’ Spring 2012 Collection, dry in the sun.

 Fall  2012 table of contents