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Business helps create market for third-world artisans

Published 5:56 pm, Thursday, July 28, 2011
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Minerva, a woman living in Mexico, now makes consistently more than her husband, and has the potential to be an entrepreneur through her work with Lady Faith, an online business started recently by Fairfield resident Katie Coleman.

"I'm just trying to do that one thing in the world that will help change it in some small way, even if it is the point of a pin," said Coleman, who sells handcrafted jewelry and embroideries from Latin America out of a barn behind her home on Sasco Hill Road. It all started six years ago, when the former fashion designer was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at a meditation intensive. She stumbled upon jewelry made by natives, who she thought were "beautiful" people carrying on family traditions through handcrafted art.

"I love fashion," said Coleman, who travels to Latin America four times a year. "I love wearing it, but it didn't mean anything."

Coleman set out on a goal to help artisans in Mexico and Guatemala establish their own businesses by paying for the materials and their wages. She eventually formed Faith Colectiva, a group of seven women in Mexico who make mala bead necklaces with heart-shaped stones of tiger's eye, amethyst, onyx and turquoise.

"I want to use who I am, what I have, my tools, my education, and my contacts to get it out there and eventually let them do it on their own," she said. "Maybe I'll go some place different like Peru or Ecuador, but it has to have a spiritual connection of some type."

Lady Faith packages each mala bead necklace with a description of the gemstone in an embroidered pouch and sells them for $108 each and up. Used during meditation, the jewelry has a special meaning but can also be fashionable, Coleman said.

Coleman also sells metal jewelry made by Silver Hermanos, a group of seven male silversmiths she met from Taxco, Mexico. She has also traveled to Guatemala and formed the Colectiva Guatemala, a group of six women who make traditional huipils, a colorful textile and tunic worn by the indigenous women of Central and South America.

Lady Faith sells huipil backpacks and yoga mat carrying bags, which cost up to $100.

The hope is that the artisans will own Lady Faith one day, said Coleman, who started the business with $50,000 from her husband, a financier who works in New York City.

"In a few years, I'll turn it over to them," she said.

The business, which has four employees outside of Connecticut and has taken two years to establish, launched in May 2011 with the company's website www.ladyfaith.net. So far, Lady Faith has sold $2,000 worth of merchandise -- five bags, eight malas, 20 colorful charm keychains called "milagros," a yoga mat bag and two silver bracelets, Coleman said.

Coleman said she was not worried about who her competitors may be because she is doing this to help others rather than herself.

"If they do better than me, they deserve to do better because they just were able to get out there," she said. "This is not a competitive thing. It's from the heart."

There are thousands of entrepreneurs like Coleman who have set up similar trade businesses with the intent of helping disadvantaged people from poor nations, said Jonathan Huneke, vice president of communications for the U.S. Council for International Business in New York City.

"Generally, people in the business are in it for altruistic reasons," he said, adding that such enterprises avail consumers to new products. "When you trade goods, both sides benefit."

Part of Coleman's vision is that people are paid a fair wage, said Christina Larson, Lady Faith's production manager who spends seven months out of the year in Puerto Vallarta working with the women of the Faith Colectiva. On average, people in Mexico make about 50 pesos, or $4 a day. Manual laborers can make about 300 pesos, or $25 a day. The women of the Faith Colectiva make an average of 500 pesos, or $80 a day.

"It's good money for anywhere," said Larson, who oversees five artisans at a studio in Puerto Vallarta, which she described as a "clean, open space to work."

What stands out about the company, Larson said, is giving people in impoverished countries the opportunity for regular work.

"There's a lot of talent in Mexico and Latin America and not a lot of work," she said.

The slow economy hasn't hindered her business; instead, her biggest challenges have been paying expensive custom charges and shipping for the products and marketing the products online.

"How do I get that woman in Texas, in some town that I don't even know that is feeling just like I do?" she asked. "We want something with meaning -- we want to feel good."