Tanja, your efforts are focused in Nepal, which is a border country to India where our work is focused so we are basically neighbors! Would you mind sharing with our readers how you came to fall in love with Nepal and concentrate your efforts there?
For most of my life, Nepal was a mysterious place on a spinning globe. It became real to me when I went with Sudara (then known as, International Princess™ Project) to India in 2005. We were visiting a group of IPP seamstresses outside of Mumbai where I met several women who had been rescued after being trafficked from Nepal. Prior to that, I had no idea that Nepal was a “feeder” country into the sex-industry in India. It was then that I learned of the huge crime rings that send pimps up to remote Himalayan villages to prey on uneducated women and girls. Having spent their lives in the mountains, away from society, they are innocent and, therefore, ignorant to these schemes and fall victim to men offering them “good jobs in far away places”. It’s the same story everywhere.
Fast forward five years, I quit my job as an art director for a fashion company and decided to take a self-given “sabbatical” to do intensive research on the pandemic of human trafficking in South/Southeast Asia. I spent two months in India and Bangladesh visiting organizations that were doing intervention and rehabilitation with victims and survivors of human trafficking. Those two months left my heart broken and my head spinning.
Nepal was next on my itinerary and all I can say is that when I landed in Nepal after those two months, it was like taking a giant breath of fresh air. Nepal, like India, is a full-assault on the senses, yet on a micro-scale or maybe everything seems micro in the shadows of the Himalayas. Nepal has far less economic infusion than its giant neighbors India and China, which makes it desperately poor, yet somehow the people seem less fraught with desperation. They say the Nepali people are “smiley”, maybe that was part of why I fell in love with the country. The people are friendly, with generous spirits even in the face of unthinkable hardship. They don’t feel sorry for themselves, they have an incredible love for their country and they are not afraid of hard work.
[pictured above, Tanja between two Nepali friends]
Sometimes I think Nepal picked me. I can’t explain it. But from day one, it was a place where meaningful relationships were built and organizations opened their doors to me to show me “hope” first hand.
I met so many people that were innovative when it came to prevention, rescue and restoration. Plus, Nepal like many Asian countries has a deep history in handicraft. I was smitten by the curious alleys full of trinkets and market-ware. As an artist myself, I couldn’t help but think of things to make with all the raw materials around me.
When we started this business in 2012, Nepal seemed like the logical place to start based on the relationships I’d formed. And, it also was a scale that seemed approachable. As we’ve broadened our work there, I am ever more committed to helping stabilize the economy in Nepal by creating dignified jobs. Employment and education are the most effective tools in preventing human trafficking. Full stop.
As artist and co-founder of the company, how do you find yourself divvying up responsibility in the day-to-day?
I currently wear all the hats. And, let me just say, that I don’t wear them all well. Because there is so much that I do not know, I either learn by asking, doing or failing. I’m a graphic designer by trade so I naturally focus on the creative aspects of this business—the product design, sourcing, and branding. The heart of this company is job creation and all the jobs we are creating are creative. But a lot of the day-to-day tasks here in the states—the selling, the fulfilling, the future-thinking, well it’s a whole lot of grit and even more grace. And really smart friends who are generous with their skills.
Your products have such a clean, crisp look to them. What does the design process look like for you and where do you draw your inspiration from when coming up with a new season or line of products?
I love that you noticed that because that’s how we want our pieces to be perceived. There are a lot of fair-trade companies that have a sort of “hippie” look to them, which is fine for some people, but you alienate a market of people who want to buy a modern-looking piece that’s fairly made. My personal style is a more modern, minimal take with a little “wink” thrown into the mix. I tend to buy things that I’ll like for years to come, so I approach design with that same vision for sustainability. I also want our things to be accessible for people, so if you keep it simple, chances are you’ll hit a larger market.
The second part of that answer is that I am inspired by my surroundings. My studio is based in Portland, Maine, which may not be as breathtaking as the Himalayas, but boy is it pretty and I am inspired by beauty. Our latest collection was a bit inspired by the woods and waters that are prevalent in Maine. It’s a place that celebrates the authentic, so I think our pieces have that same honest approach.
And naturally, I’m inspired by all that’s possible in Nepal. Anything is possible there, (but not everything should be). So, everything I design is made with the understanding that quality raw materials have limited availability in Nepal. And, consistent craftsmanship has to be worked hard to attain. It’s a constant challenge. Keeping our designs clean and simple definitely works in our favor.
When was your last trip to Nepal and how have your artisan partners been impacted since the most recent earthquake back in May?
I was there for the month of June. I was really anxious about that trip because the ground was and still is shaking. Everyone was affected. Many of the artisans lost their homes and were sleeping outside for fear of being crushed by already crumbling surroundings. The trauma is real and continues to be. It was interesting though, by the time we arrived, we could feel that people had grown weary of talking about the earthquake, they wanted to return to “normal” so they were very anxious to get back to work because it made them feel normal. One of my favorite moments was when we were working with our textile team, one of the artisans was quietly making small felt hearts. Through an interpreter, we asked her how she was doing. She said, “Even though the earthquake has shaken my heart, I still find happiness in making these small hearts.”
We are so excited about the bag you designed for Sudara because it marries two like-minded companies in such a beautiful way: Your design, our fabric/prints and Nepali craftsmanship! Can you explain a little more how your model works and how your artisans benefit from MULXIPLY products?
This collaboration is very meaningful for me. Your founder (and my bestie), Shannon Keith is the reason I even know about human trafficking. She invited me to go to India back in 2005 and it changed the course of my life. So because of that, ten crazy years later, MULXIPLY is creating jobs in Nepal to eliminate the exploitation of at-risk people that could end up trafficked to India—it’s full circle and incredibly redemptive. And it feels like such a victory for both Nepal and India. It may be small, but it’s mighty.
Part of our mission is to partner with artisans and indigenous organizations. They know the plight of their people far more than we ever will. And, they are committed to being catalysts of change. The problem is that without the infusion of outside projects, they are not sustainable, nor can they grow. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we simply want to increase its momentum. If we create more projects, they can employ more people. We currently work with 4 groups of artisans in Nepal and we are committed to increasing that number. Creating dignified jobs stabilizes economies and keeps communities together and thriving. It also keeps heritage handicraft alive which Nepalis are very proud of. But at the end of the day, for us, it’s about the people. We can’t change the whole world, but we can help make their lives better.
Do you have any additional thoughts surrounding this collaboration, the issue of forced sex-slavery or the need for job creation globally?
Something that came to light on this last trip to Nepal was the need to employ men as well. Our business started with the mission to employ women since they are most at risk for being trafficked into sexual slavery.
There is however another form of slavery that is happening in Nepal (and in many poor countries) that is undermining societies in extremely dangerous ways. In the last few years, over two million young Nepalese men have left the country to work for “man-power” companies in places like Saudi Arabia.
They are tricked or pressured into taking what appear to be “good construction jobs” but end up being indentured slaves. Many of these men are away from their families for months at a time, some of them return only in caskets. It’s devastating that entire cities are being built on the bones of these men. The damage is far-reaching. Back in Nepal, entire villages have seen the population dwindle to nothing but women, children and old men. Societies are undermined and suddenly women and children are far more at-risk than they were before.
Learning of this issue, spurred us to figure out ways to create projects that would employ men as well. Our entire jewelry collection is made by a group of metal-workers. All of them are young men.