Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Women's History Month: Nancy Dunitz is Interviewed by Fair Trade Winds

I was honored to be interviewed recently by Fair Trade Winds. Evidently every March, to commemorate Women's History Month, they choose to feature women on their blog who lead the way in the fair trade world. This year's theme is #InspireInclusion and for that they chose to highlight Dunitz & Company and have a chat with me. With their permission, I am reposting the interview here.

FTW: When did you begin your company, and what inspired you to get your start? How as it grown since then?

Nancy & Alisa
NANCY: It’s such a long time ago. I actually left a good corporate gig, where I was not happy back in 1989. I was already a seasoned traveler, loved learning about other’s crafts and have always been a bit of an artist myself.  At the time I didn’t know if I might start a retail or wholesale business. And while I was exploring what I might do and how to do it, I went to Guatemala which was relatively close to home. I managed a few trips there while I was still working corporate. I was young and innocent and had not processed that Guatemala was in the midst of civil war and not entirely the safest place to be traipsing around. I could write a book about all this, for sure. What I found were so many struggling artists without opportunity. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I just jumped in. I knew there had to be a market for the beautiful work I discovered there.  In the beginning my product mix was quite diverse. I offered textiles, pillows, glassware, wood products, traditional painted boxes, you name it. Back in 1989, “fair trade” wasn’t even a concept people were familiar with. One thing I can say about me is I’ve always lived by the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I mean Fair Trade Federation wasn’t even founded until 1994, and it’s not overnight that consumers have a light bulb go off.  I knew other wholesalers at the time who browbeat artisans for the lowest possible prices which I’m certain were below what would have ever been remotely fair.  I think it was always in my nature to listen and be fair.

To be honest, it took a handful of years before I think I really made a difference. Buying some goods at what seemed a fair price from this family or that artist in the beginning was really just a bandaid for those artists. I was living on borrowed money and personal savings myself.  It wasn’t until I specialized in only offering jewelry did my business grow.  That’s when I was able to provide consistent work for a group of artisans, mostly women. Beaded jewelry is not indigenous to Guatemala. Back in the early 90’s, I collaborated with (separately) two  women who had moved to Guatemala from elsewhere and taught Mayan woman to bead.  (Sadly one of those women passed away last week.) Together we collaborated on jewelry designs which I successfully wholesaled in the USA. I was one of a very few companies offering seed bead jewelry and the business took off.  Since many of the artisans were used to creating wonderful embroidery and woven textiles, beading jewelry was a natural thing to do.

FTW: What's the workplace like and what is a typical daily schedule? Do artisans work from home or collaborate together in a workshop?

NANCY: You have to understand I’ve been at this for a very long time. In the very beginning a small group of artisans used to work at a table at the homes of the women that first taught them how to make beadwork. Then there were workshops with several tables. The women would bring their lunches and snacks and giggle all day with one another while they worked. Whenever I was working with them, we’d collaborate and experiment making all sorts of designs. Thankfully many of our designs were successful. Trust me, I offered a lot of new designs I loved that totally flopped at the trade shows. Sometimes they flopped because they cost too much to make. Sometimes they just weren’t loved as much as I loved them.

You asked if artisans work from home? There always were women who worked at home if they had children or had to care for elderly parents.  They’d come to the workshop every few days to collect beads and string, and return the following week to deliver the work they’d made.  For our beaded jewelry, all of the artisans currently work from home. Other than having a hub, there is no longer a bead workshop.

Over the years our world changed. Guatemala became more politically stable and people felt more comfortable traveling there and starting businesses. We had office managers that stole materials and left and set up their own workshops. When one of the women I worked with (who taught women how to bead) had a small retail shop in Guatemala, the manager of that shop who had been taught to bead by us, would send customers to her son, who was managing a workshop they had started on the Q.T.  The women that had been taught by us, were now teaching others how to bead.  With increased demand for beadwork, our designs were  popping up in street stalls everywhere. Sadly, most of what you find on the street is sold very inexpensively. Over the years, this growing competition made it impossible for me to survive solely on our bead business. One thing I can say is since we always focus on creating new designs, we’re almost always a step ahead. For wholesale, many stores (definitely not all stores) are willing to pay more for original work, work where they also know the artisans earn living wages.

Nancy & Rosa

In 2011, I forged a new relationship with a Guatemalan woman I met who was beautifully making glass jewelry. Originally it was a bit garish for my taste, and the colors sometimes a bit quirky. Together we simplified designs, removed cheap Chinese findings that could be bought in Guatemala and followed fashion trends to create color combinations that would appeal to those wearing it here in the US. We’ve also recently launched a ceramic jewelry collection. And with her  husband, we’ve developed our laser cut jewelry which includes our famous painting earrings. A small group of artists come to work every day and work together to make these designs. 


FTW: The theme this year for International Women's Day is 'inspire inclusion.' How are women artisans supported and made to feel empowered and part of the team? What positive changes have you seen in the communities where the artisans work and live?

NANCY: There is no question in my mind that working within our communities, workers have been able to consistently learn new techniques while being able to pay school fees for their children and live proud lives. What is better? Doing janitorial work, which is what some of our artists used to do? Or learning to make jewelry and then train new artisans to make it too?

I might also like to add, that when you meet the artisans that make Dunitz & Company jewelry, you can feel good that they are treated with the respect and paid the fees they deserve. We don’t run an “under the table” business as many workshops do.  I remember some years ago, another Fair Trade Federation member asked if she could visit our bead workshop. I made the arrangements. She spent a lot of time there taking photos and observing the women working.  What did she find? She found a happy place where women were wearing their beautiful traditional clothing. What did she share on social media when she returned to the States? Photos from other workshops she visited where the women seemed a bit more sad and their clothing a bit worn out. I can only guess she thought tearing at customer heart strings might bring in more business. To me that isn’t want fair trade is about.

FTW: What advice would you give girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?

NANCY: I know you’ve heard this before. I say follow your heart. And if you never try, you’ll never know.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I first started Dunitz & Company. Be a bit stubborn and be determined. And be flexible. Nothing is as how you first guessed it. You have to be willing to make changes along the journey.  What is most rewarding to me is leading by example. I know I’ve been instrumental in changing so many lives in Guatemala. But, I know I’ve changed lives here at home too. At least two women I knew from my corporate days, who watched me quit a fast-track corporate job to start my own business told me years later that I was their inspiration to start their own businesses.  I had an employee for a few years, a single mother who told me it was my perseverance that convinced her she could go back to school and finish a nursing degree. And she did. What could make you feel better than that?

--end of interview--

Again, I'm so appreciative Fair Trade Winds asked to interview me. I rarely "talk" about my fair trade business. I'm most often on auto-pilot packing orders, getting orders made, collaborating with artisans, answering emails, taking product photos, updating our websites and walking dogs :). Did I mention that Fair Trade Winds sells our designs in their Boulder, Seattle and Bar Harbor stores? They also sell many of our designs on their website.

Thank you for reading and supporting Dunitz & Company. You definitely make a difference. -ND