Thursday, June 24, 2021

Meet Elisha Chan, Fair Trader & Executive Director of Fair Trade Los Angeles

Elisha & Me at FTLA event
Dunitz & Company has been a member of Fair Trade Los Angeles for many years. And it is through this organization that I first met Elisha Chan. Elisha is a 'superwoman'. She operates her own business, Elisha C. working with artisans in Haiti. And she is the Executive Director at Fair Trade LA. I'm impressed that she can juggle all these responsibilities. I wanted to learn how she does it. She agreed to be interviewed by me. Keep reading to hear what she had to say. 




NANCY:  Can you tell me what inspired you to get involved with fair trade? Was there a pivotal event in your life that encouraged you to work with artisans in Haiti?

Haitian Artisan Products
ELISHA: I started going to Haiti the summer of my sophomore year at UCLA. But it wasn't until my seventh trip to a small village, Fond Doux, that I came back with a newfound passion to end poverty. I felt a sense of responsibility to do something about the extreme poverty I saw and the suffering of the Haitian people that soon became my family. I wanted to find a sustainable, lasting, long-term solution to break the cycle of poverty. I believe if I can bring economic stability to one family in one community, perhaps I can impact a whole nation. That is when I realized that job creation is the key to ending poverty. I took my first "business" trip while I was still a student and found beautiful handmade products, as well as award winning coffee that no one knew about. That is when I started my fair trade journey working with Haitian artisans to bring their products to the global marketplace.

NANCY: Tell me a little bit about the work you do in Haiti. Is there a type of product you specialize in?


Haitian Producers
When I first found my passion to end poverty through job creation, I had no idea what resources Haiti had or what they were producing there. I thought my role was to create a workshop in Haiti and work on product development myself.  But after discovering so many artisanal products, including coffee, chocolate, jewelry, home goods, leather goods, and more, I realized that the real need was to bring these products to the marketplace. The Haitian people were already creating beautiful products, but there was a gap in marketing and storytelling.  I couldn't pick one type of product to specialize in. I was so proud of their work that I wanted the world to know all about what Haitians were capable of producing. I now work with over ten different artisan partners and have created an online marketplace of a wide range of products. We offer something for everyone.

NANCY: This is a bit random. Can you tell me why you chose the name Elisha C. for your business?  (When I started my own business, I didn't know exactly what I would end up selling or specializing in. This is part of the reason I chose my name, as my business name. I've actually written a blog post about it.)

ELISHA: To be completely honest with you, I don't like coming up with names. It stresses me out. When I first came up with this business idea, I knew that I did not want this to be seen simply as a "cause" or a charity. I have seen great quality products made in Haiti that are marketed as a charity project due to the lack of marketing resources. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to create an ethical brand that elevated the products, told the stories of the makers, and showcased the quality, not just the cause. I chose to name the company, Elisha C. in hopes that it would change the perception from a cause business to an ethical brand. 

NANCY: Is there something you feel particularly good about when you think about your work in Haiti. An accomplishment? A life you changed?

ELISHA: Changed lives, that is what is really about.  I never want to lose touch with the people we are impacting, because they are the reason why I am doing what I do. Through my small business, we've been able to give back towards breaking the cycle of poverty. We've helped local families start their own small businesses. We've given out over 300 scholarships to send students to school in their small village. From preschool to university, I've seen students excel in school who wouldn't normally have the opportunity to even attend. We've sent students to the big cities and have given them a once in a lifetime opportunity to graduate from a university. This changes their lives forever. Nurses, teachers, principals, businessmen, we are rising up future leaders for Haiti and putting Haiti in the hands of Haitians.

NANCY: How did you learn of Fair Trade Los Angeles and get involved with this group? Can you tell me a bit about Fair Trade LA?

ELISHA: When you follow your passion, you never know where it will lead you.  As I launched out to navigate my new business idea, Nataly Garcia, a friend from UCLA told me about a nonprofit called Fair Trade Los Angeles. She recommended that I check out their meetings that were then held at USC (University of Southern California). So, I did. It was so encouraging, especially during my beginning stages (of my business) to find a community in Los Angeles that was passionate about the same things as me.  Fair Trade LA is an educational nonprofit that is educating consumers about Fair Trade as a solution to fighting labor trafficking by ensuring the makers behind everything we buy are paid a fair and living wage. Fair Trade is a way to bring about social justice through the way we shop every day. I thought if we wanted to support job creations for artisans, I also needed to inspire consumers to buy products that are making real life impact. I knew I wanted to get involved with Fair Trade LA because I wanted to take what I learned from my experiences in Haiti and also impact developing communities all around the world.

NANCY: You took over as Executive Director of Fair Trade LA in 2018.  Is there an accomplishment during your tenure you're most proud of? What are the most important missions of this group?

ELISHA: Fair Trade LA's mission is to educate and inspire consumers to embrace Fair Trade products so global farmers and artisans have the opportunity to earn a fair and sustainable living. Since I stepped into the role of Executive Director, my main goal was to grow the Fair Trade movement by increasing the accessibility to Fair Trade products and educating more consumers about the impact of Fair Trade. And we have definitely seen that happen! Now Fair Trade products can be found not just in specialty grocery stores but also in all the major grocery stores. Our biggest accomplishment actually happened during 2020. After many years of hard work and the sacrifice of many selfless individuals, Los Angeles officially became the largest Fair Trade City in the USA and North America. In fact, LA is now the fourth largest in the world. In August 2020, with the help of our champion, Council member Paul Koretz, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to pass the Fair Trade Resolution declaring Los Angeles a Fair Trade City and declaring every second Saturday of May going forward "World Fair Trade Day."  Yet, our work has just begun. We much continue to our work because labor trafficking is still prevalent all around us.

NANCY: Do you have any pearls to share about time management? You must personally do the work of 3 people in order to operate your business and oversea the activities of Fair Trade LA. How do you juggle all that you do?

ELISHA: I am not sure I have the formula figured out. And the reality is, there probably is no perfect formula. When you are trying to make life better for people, you just do what it takes. I'll share two things I've learned on my journey. One, work never ends. I used to be a workaholic, working late nights with no boundaries, because I was passionate about what I do. And then I realized that work is endless, there will always be more work to do. Instead of chasing everything I think I need to do quickly, I've become better at prioritizing the things that seem most important. Two, I've learned that we need community. It is not possible to change the world by ourselves. We need each other. There is an old African proverb that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I've learned to collaborate and work with others, even it it means going slower. When you can grow as a community, you definitely can go much further.

NANCY: Is there anything you'd like to add?

Elisha Chan
ELISHA: My hope is that my story will inspire someone else to step out into the unknowns and pursue their hearts desire to make this world a better place. No one person can change the world. We need everyone to do their part to actually see change. If you see a need in the world, maybe you are the one that is supposed to do something about it. One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa. "I alone cannot change this world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples." I hope this interview will give someone the courage to rise up and answer the call in their heart.

# end of interview #   


I hope you have been inspired by Elisha's story. You all know how passionate I am about fair trade and the work I do at Dunitz & Company. Through equitable production of our fair trade jewelry, we make a difference in lives. I've enjoyed getting to know Elisha a bit more, learning about her passion and how she has enacted change for so many artisans and producers in Haiti. And she sure does an awesome job managing the activities of Fair Trade LA. I am so appreciative of all she does. -ND