During a trip to India in May 2010, mother-of-five Kirsten Monson discovered the beautiful artisan work of the local women and determined that she would provide a way for their work to reach a receptive market. The result was Elevita, a site that sells products from artisans in developing countries and then funnels all of the revenue back into the local communities. In this interview, Kirsten talks about the status of women in the countries she serves and the drive she feels from the Spirit to help them.
You’ve lived in several countries abroad. How did this lead to the founding of your website, Elevita?
We currently live in Singapore for my husband’s work. He works for a medical device company and his responsibility is to get the company’s medical devices into developing countries around the world. This is what led to Elevita in a way because he travels a lot and I felt like I needed to go with him to India. I finally got to go in May of 2010; I felt like there was something calling me there. I had no idea what. When I got there, what I loved was seeing all of the beautiful artisan work, the native handicraft, and I met people who didn’t seem to have very much demand for their beautiful work. On my way home, I felt that there could be a much larger market for these people’s wares so that they could become more financially independent. I felt that there just needed to be a bridge from the product to the market.
Elevita is something that is completely volunteer, we donate all our time, we don’t get any money or personal revenue from it. We feel that this is a way we can help people pull out of poverty through the economic opportunity. We pay the artisans for their goods upfront at the price they name. We then sell their goods on our website. Even though we are paying the artisans a very fair price, there is always a markup for their goods when sold in developed countries. We use the net profits from this markup to fund our humanitarian projects. We hope that the dual combination of the economic opportunity plus the humanitarian grants will really encourage people to work their way out of poverty.
It seems like a small thing to buy something from Elevita, but it’s a huge way to help. We’re talking about people who don’t have 3 meals a day, and you buy an ornament from them and it helps them feed their family. It makes a really big difference, and a hundred percent of the revenue goes back into the communities.
What is your background that gave you the confidence and skills to start something like this?
Good question! Honestly, my pioneer heritage taught me that I can do anything. We needed to do this. So I thought, Let’s do it! Also, I studied statistics in college with an emphasis in business management. My husband has a strong business background and already had relationships in these countries from his professional work. I also am an artist and have a good eye for quality and color. I come from a very entrepreneurial family; we always have some project going on. So putting all that together, I said, “I’m going to build a website and help people sell their stuff!” I had zero computer background. The extent of my computer knowledge was email. And yet I felt so driven and inspired to do this. Don’t ask me how. I hope I never have to do it again, but I built the site myself. That was definitely not something I thought I could do. All the pieces eventually came together. If you’re willing to follow inspiration, things will work out whether you think you can or not.
I’m curious about the logistics about this. Do you take sourcing trips to India yourself to buy the inventory?
Yes, we get our inventory from a lot of different places. Some of it is from direct travel, some comes through contacts and friends, some is from other non-profit groups that import things from developing countries and sell them wholesale. Recently, for instance, a missionary couple returned from the Phillipines and put us in touch with people there. We just moved to Singapore this summer for my husband’s job and already I’ve met people here with contacts in the countries we feature.
I’d like to work with any developing country. I’ve had friends who have traveled and thought of me in their travels. One friend called me when she got back from Ghana. She had met a community of handicapped people who make jewelry, so we ordered some jewelry from them to sell. I have a list of guidelines on the type of artisans we want to work with. I don’t just take anything from anywhere. I like to work with artisans who don’t have another outlet to market. We do like to help in disaster areas; for example, we recently added some ornaments from Haiti. And we like to help both women and men. There are organizations that like to help only women but I certainly don’t want to exclude men from economic opportunities.
Once we make a connection with a specific artisan, I usually get a sample from the artisan so I can see if it’s marketable and if there are any changes to be made. Sometimes I need to direct the artisan to know what kinds of patterns or fabrics would sell in a western market. There is one group in India that we work with – a group of women – who recently completed a sewing course. They’re excellent seamstresses now, but that’s all they know so far. So we brought them a bunch of patterns that we thought would sell in a western market – patterns for placemats and aprons and pillow covers. We helped them buy the fabric since they don’t have the capital to do that themselves. We gave them the exact patterns and showed them how to do it and then they send the finished products to us. So we get our products a lot of different ways.
We launched the site in November 2010, six months after I made my first trip to India. Since the launch a year ago, we’ve increased our inventory to about sixty products on the site now.
You say on the site that 100% of the proceeds go to funding humanitarian projects, especially in education. Would you tell me about the project you have in mind specifically?
Yes, the entire project is volunteer, so I wanted to reinvest our revenue into a worthy project. Right now we’re raising money for a girls’ hostel in India.
Girls in rural India live in such small villages that are so away from schools that it is impossible for them to attend. Plus, their culture doesn’t value education for girls. Third, it’s difficult for them to travel with safety along the route. Something could happen to a young girl on the road and then you run into honor killings and other awful things. So they don’t travel to and from school. If a girl from rural India wants a secondary education – meaning high school – she must stay at a hostel at a safe place near a school where she can live, attend school, and go home periodically for holidays with guided transportation. This has been a formula that has been very successful in enabling girls to get more education.
In the local community where the girls recently completed the sewing course I mentioned earlier, we became associated with an organization that had already built a hostel and was having tremendous success with it but was having a hard time raising funds to build a second. They invited us to contribute our funds towards building another one. That’s what we’re doing right now. It’s actually a perfect situation because the hostel will be built directly next to the craft center where these girls are sewing for us, so the girls will be watched over by the local women at the craft center but they’ll also be getting their education and gaining practical skills like sewing. When they leave they will have their secondary education, some sewing skills, and broader economic opportunities. It is a great place to put this hostel so we just need to raise the funds.
There’s been some opposition from the village to building a second hostel there because, again, traditional villages don’t like girls to be educated. But we’re working through that right now with the local organization we’re affiliated with.
Let’s turn to you personally. How do you stay motivated to tackle a project like this day after day? Where’s the drive coming from?
It’s got to be from the Spirit. When you decide to do something like this, you just get the energy you need. There’s really no other answer. I love what I do. Already, we can see how we’ve made a difference in individuals’ lives. That’s totally motivating. I love the crafts themselves. I get so excited when we get a new batch of tablecloths or ornaments or beading. I do all my own gift-giving from Elevita because I love these products so much. I benefit personally from having this store. The motivation really comes from the joy of helping other people. I’m a firm believer that because I have been given much I too must give. My husband has a great job; we’ve had all these opportunities to travel. I’ve always felt that the Lord wouldn’t give me all these opportunities just for fun. There’s got to be some reason behind it, some way to build the kingdom, to serve and to love.
You have five children, almost six. What impact has Elevita had on them?
Yes, I have four boys and a girl, from 14 to 3. And one due in April 2012. They have been very supportive.
We’ve explained to them about people living in poverty. People in America generally don’t understand what living in poverty really is, what it means for a family of our size to call a tarp a home, with a little cooking pot. We came home from India last year and explained to the kids that there was something we could do to help these people. And they became excited. They’ve always been supportive of the time I’ve spent on it, the trips I’ve had to take. I have total flexibility over what I give and when I give it, so it is something that has not at all been disruptive to my children. I’ve had to reprioritize some things but I can still be the mom I want to be. I do a lot of my work between the hours of 10pm and 2am.
My kids know we’ve invested a lot of our own money in this project with no financial return just because it’s something we believe in. My kids lead really privileged lives, so hopefully a project like this will help them realize long term that their lives are the exception and that there’s a lot they can do to influence and affect and help people outside their sphere. I also want them to realize that just because someone is on the other side of the globe doesn’t mean you can’t do something for them.
You said earlier you like to support the women and also the men, but most of the artisans on your site are women. What do you think it is about being a woman in these developing countries that causes them to look outside their sphere for opportunities to support their families?
I’ve learned that women in many developing countries, especially central Asia, have no status. None at all. They have no property rights. They are considered equal with animals. They’re often beaten, they typically are not allowed to keep money. They’re really just in servitude to their husbands as a cultural norm. Obviously from our gospel perspective, that’s not right. There is an expression: If you teach a woman, you can change a village. Give a woman an opportunity, you can turn a whole family around. Women are the ones who make choices about education, and food and hygine and nutrition. You put the money in the hands of a woman and they do amazing things with it.
When a woman is seen as being capable of making money or being able to provide, all of a sudden she earns respect from the men in her community. Her status changes. Historically, in India and Afghanistan and Nepal, people have said it’s not worthwhile to educate a woman. But that’s changing. Now people realize that an educated woman, even if she doesn’t go into the workforce, will have an impact on her children that will affect generations.
What has learning about the status of women in developing countries done for your vision of yourself as a modern Mormon woman?
It’s made me feel so much more blessed than ever. It’s unbelievable to think I was born in the time and the place and the culture that I was. There are so many women born with no hope. The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve been heartbroken and sick to my stomach. We learn in the gospel how valued each daughter is in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. Part of my mission is to share that vision with others. Take these women and show people what they’re capable of. Give them economic opportunities and education and help them feel valued.
I believe so much in a woman’s role in the home and I love my role in the home. So one of my hesitations in starting this project was that I didn’t want to go out and create a whole new generation of career women in developing countries. But once I visited these countries where a woman is considered as low as a dog, I realized that anything I could do for her is worthwhile. That confidence and social change will filter down to generations and they can choose what they want to do. The key word is “choose”. We are giving them choices and they can decide what they want to do. A lot of projects we support are things women can do at home. We take village girls and give them an education, but it’s not like they’re going to then abandon their families and villages. They can choose to go back to the village or go to the city whereas previously there was no choice.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married
Children: Five (14, 13, 10, 6, 3) — and one on the way, April 2011!
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Because I Have Been Given Much”
On The Web: www.elevita.com