Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Conversation with Rikki Quintana of HoonArts

Nancy & Rikki
When I started the Dunitz & Company blog, I didn't quite know what shape it would take.  I knew I would blog about Dunitz activities and our fair trade jewelry.  I also knew the pearls I share, would be much more interesting if they often included topics and conversations with others involved with allied businesses. This is one of the reasons I decided to interview Rikki Quintana of HoonArts. Along with Dunitz & Company and others, HoonArts is a verified Fair Trade Federation member. Rikki and I have been roommates at several conferences which has allowed us to become great friends. Because I am so impressed with her and her dedication to helping artisans in Central Asia, it seemed a great idea to share a bit about her with you. And she's so open, I knew anyone reading this interview would also learn a thing or two.

NANCY:  You were once a high-powered attorney. Can you tell me a little bit about how and why you first got involved with fair trade? Was there a pivotal life experience that encouraged you to create your fair trade business?

Rikki Quintana
RIKKI: I sometimes call myself a "recovering attorney." I spent 31 years as a practicing business attorney, and while it was a great career in many ways, it never really spoke to my heart. From the first time I had the chance, at age 14, to actually carry on a (very limited) conversation with someone in a foreign language, I was hooked by the magic of connecting with people from different cultures. That lead to my undergraduate degree in languages, and a life-long love of travel. I lived in Ecuador and Mexico for extended periods during my education.

Map of Central Asia
When I retired (from attorney work), I wanted to return to that world of international connections. I never had any entrepreneurial aspirations. I started volunteering with a local nonprofit organization that hosts short-term professional delegations from around the world.  We hosted our first delegation from Tajikistan in 2013, and that began my fascination with Central Asia, a part of the world that I previously knew nothing about. One of my colleagues and I started a mini-nonprofit (Bridges to Tajikistan) after the first delegation, and we helped fund several small grants for educational projects with Tajikistan. We were also so inspired by the young Tajikistani professionals that we worked with, who were so passionate about making a difference in their communities, while working under conditions that Americans can barely imagine.

Bridges to Tajikistan hosted the second delegation from Tajikistan, in 2014.  That delegation included a young man, Bakhriddin Isamutdinov, who works in eco-tourism and handicraft promotion. We learned that no one at all in the US was working with the artisans of Tajikistan to build a sustainable market in the US for Tajik handicrafts, and no one else was coming.  By the end of the delegation's weeklong stay in New Mexico, I found myself raising my hand and declaring, "I'll do it. I'll build that US market for Tajik handicrafts." And thank goodness I didn't know what I didn't know.

But in the course of hosting many international delegations, I had learned about fair trade. I knew that I wanted to become a member of Fair Trade Federation and build a sustainable business based on the equitable principles of fair trade. So I dug in and have spent the last 5 years building HoonArts, which I consider my legacy - my tiny contribution to building a better world. 

NANCY: I'm partial to your wood combs and barrettes. And the scarves you sell are gorgeous. Can you tell me a bit about them and where they come from?

From My Collection!
RIKKI:  The wooden combs and barrettes are hand-carved by Master Sodiq Zaripov, a fifth generation master carver from the Tajik city of Istaravshan (which recently celebrated its 2500 year anniversary and was a popular stop along the Silk Road). Master Sodiq uses only hard woods (walnut and apricot), and does all his work by hand. I've visited his studio and he doesn't have a single power tool anywhere, which is probably a good thing because Tajikistan still suffers from frequent extended power outages (daily during certain seasons) that limit many activities.  Master Sodiq decorates each comb and barrette with traditional Tajik patterns, so that each comb is a beautiful reflection of his cultural heritage. The barrettes were actually first created for HoonArts, which is a point of pride. One of the joys of working directly with the artisans is that we can create new products that both reflect the authentic cultural heritage of the artisans and better meet the needs of the US market.

Ikat from Uzbekistan
My scarves come from two different countries in Central Asia. I work with Craft Studio IkatUz in Margilan, Uzbekistan to bring handwoven ikat scarves to the US. The traditional ikat dyeing and weaving process (a resist dyeing process in which the threads are dyed before the warp threads are threaded onto the narrow pedal-operated loom) requires 37 different steps, to produce these gorgeous silk and silk/cotton blend scarves.  Each master develops his own designs that he passes on to the apprentices in his family-based studio. Craft Studio IkatUz involves 5 master weavers and their teams.

Making Felt Scarf
Our hand-felted scarves come from Seven Sisters of Kyrgyzstan. Seven Sisters is a family-based studio, with 7 sisters from the same amazingly talented family, who learned their traditional felting techniques and the stories behind each pattern from their grandmother and their aunt.  Their most popular products are the felted silks, which involve an intricate wet felting process of rolling handmade felt into handwoven silk to produce dramatic and unique items of wearable art.

NANCY: And I'm super impressed with how you network with other entrepreneurs in an effort to promote fair trade and build your fair trade business. Any advice for other small businesses?

RIKKI: One of the most important lessons that I learned early on is that you can't do it alone. It takes more than a village to build a successful fair trade business (or any small business for that matter). I try to approach every conversation, and every relationship, from the perspective of mutual benefit and the prospect of building a community that improves life for everyone in that community.  I consider everyone I work with, from the artisans, to my Tajik shipper, to my graphic design team, my bookkeeper, my business coach, my educational consultants, my branding consultants, my customers, etc. as part of the HoonArts team.  I always listen for how i can be of assistance for them, as well as sharing what we're up to at HoonArts. It's all about building long-term relationships, rather than just selling a product.

NANCY: Is there something you enjoy most about operating your business? 

RIKKI: It's a toss-up between two areas of the business for me.  First, one of my absolute favorite parts of the business is "show and tell." I absolutely love being able to talk to people in person about the stories behind our products - the people,culture, history and artistic processes behind our memorable handmade products. There's just something about seeing someone's eyes light up when they learn the backstory and realize that there's a real human connection behind the product.  The other thing I love is working directly with our artisans to develop new products-which is ironic, since I have absolutely no background in art, color or design, and lawyers aren't exactly known for their "creativity."

NANCY: Can you share a story that makes you smile? A story where you were integral in making a positive change?

Tajik Embroidery
RIKKI: I'm excited about the work we're doing with my embroidery artists from Tajikistan.  I recognized from the beginning that the quality and finish work of embroidered products from the Armughon Handicrafts group of the Panjakent region (another major Silk Road stop) was extraordinary, and had real potential for the US market. As I have learned more about the US market and US tastes, I have been able to pass my learning on to my Tajik designer, Munira Akilova. As a consequence, Munira has been able to adapt authentic traditional embroidery design for home decor products, bags and clothing designs to better meet US and European needs. We're learning together about the principle of "less is more," by simplifying patterns and color combinations. The result has been increased sales to international visitors and the diplomatic community in Tajikistan. We're gaining traction in the USA too. One of our most exciting developments was gaining the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco as a customer.  Stay tuned. We're about to launch some new embroidered tops for the US market.

NANCY: You've mentioned to me that you'll be planning an artisan tour of Central Asia, possibly next year. I've been drooling about possibly joining in. Can you tell me a bit about what you're organizing?

RIKKI: Yes, I'm working right now with an experienced US-based small tour company, to develop the itinerary for our tour, currently planned for October 2021.  The tour is being planned as an intimate insider's craft tour (maximum 12 participants), with a focus on life and art from the locals' perspectives.  We will be visiting our key artisan groups in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with several hands-on master classes along the way.  We'll be working with local tour companies, and staying in locally owned lodging along the way.  Munira Akilova (HoonArts' embroidery designer from Tajikistan) has agreed to be our tour guide for the entire trip, which will make for a fantastic trip because she has excellent English, she herself is a master artist and she is acquainted with all the artists we'll meet. I hope to announce the final itinerary and open the tour for registration in March or April.

NANCY: And of course, you know I have to ask. You've been caught sporting a piece of Dunitz & Company jewelry now and again. Will you share with me which is your favorite?

Dunitz Glass Earrings
RIKKI: I have several Dunitz & Company pieces that I love, but I come back over and over to my triangular fused glass earrings, in my favorite turquoise color.  I wear a lot of turquoise, so they travel with me everywhere, because they are versatile. They go great with jeans or a more formal look. (I promise I didn't pay her to say this!)

NANCY: Anything else you'd like to share?

RIKKI: I'm very excited about the rising interest among consumers everywhere in sustainability - giving people and planet equal billing with profit.  It's great to see the long-time principles of fair trade going "mainstream." I truly believe that we all have the opportunity to make a real difference in the world with every purchase.  And even more fundamentally, for me, these commercial relationships an serve as a foundation for building relationships between people from vastly different cultures - demonstrating that we truly have far more in common than the things that divide us.
--end of interview

After reading this interview, can you see why I adore Rikki? (It's not just because she adores her Dunitz & Company jewelry!)  She's so completely transparent about her work at HoonArts and  her efforts to help others. She's putting her mark on our world and making it a better place for many. I can tell you one thing for certain, our friendship has made my world a better place. -ND