Earlier this month, Temple University student Bridgette Ivkovich contacted us….
So today Bridgette is our guest blogger!
Read Bridgette’s interview with Heather for ‘ah ha’ moments, challenges of the business, and advice for social entrepreneurs…
Bridgette: How did your travels to Morocco and Mali lead you to the idea of starting your business?
Heather: I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2003-05, and was assigned to Morocco to help develop the artisan small business sector, a dream come true! I had a background in design and had been working in product development in NYC but the Peace Corps always seemed to be calling me. From the minute I landed in Morocco I knew this was where I was supposed to be. They say, Morocco calls certain people….it is certainly not always an easy country to live in but now more than 12 years later I’m still here, working with artisans and doing what I love.
My sister is a brilliant designer and finished her degree in crafts (textiles and metals) at UArts in Philadelphia. That summer after graduation she spent a month in Mali studying cultural anthropology and textiles and then spent a month in Morocco with me helping with artisan trainings. We always say we had our ‘ah ha’ moment over tea in Fez. We thought with my interest in international and business development, and my sisters design skills we could start a business that could employ many artisans, connecting them to the western fashion market.
It took us from 2003-09 to start Mushmina. We did our homework! I went to graduate school, and worked for other artisan start-ups. My sister worked for other retailers until we finally launched Mushmina in the spring of 2009.
B: What would you say was the most important part of your studies in college and beyond that helped you build and grow Mushmina?
H: Our passion is the most important part of our business. Also our partnership. As sisters we are very similar but also he have different complimentary skill sets and like ying and yang we are therefore always in motion.
I studied graphic and 3D design at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I also had a minor in art therapy and I still feel like I use all those skills in working with artisans and organizing workshops. I went on to get a Masters in Global Affairs and business from NYU and that gave me the academic background and skills to hone my work in international development.
Katie is an amazing designer. She is really inspired by culture and traditional artisan craft and tries to incorporate and preserve these traditions through the design of her accessories. She is always studying and learning about cultures and ornament and is particularly influenced by the Berbers and Tuaregs of North Africa. Her UArts degree helped her tremendously and she has a strong network of colleagues in Philadelphia that is how we ended up with shops in the Philly area!
B: How did you come in contact with the artisans you work with?
H: The Peace Corps helped us tremendously. Not only the contacts I had from my volunteer work, but the network of other volunteers who connected us with artisans in 2009 when we went back to Morocco to start the business.
Our vision is to work in many other countries also. We did some work in Bali through a contact with a colleague’s artisan workshop. The ‘global handmade’ community of businesses like ours are very connected and helpful.
B: I have two sisters whom of which I am very close. What is it like working so closely with your sister?
H: Good question, people ask us that a lot! We are so blessed that have always gotten along. We were 4 years apart in school (were never in high school together) so we say that helped keep us close. Our interests and ideas as so similar, and people say we sound alike on the phone. Genetics!
Finding a partner you work well with is no easy task. There is trust in families so that is a huge advantage. Our parents are very supportive of our business as well. I would say a strong family or network of friends and supporters are essential in starting a business. Did you know our first office was in our parents’ basement in NJ? We both moved out of expensive Brooklyn apartments and lived at ‘home’ while we worked to get Mushmina off the ground.
While we live on different continents now, (She runs our retail shop in Wayne and I run our production in Morocco) my sister and I talk daily. Through Facetime and Whatsapp we are in contact all day long. The world is much smaller with all the advances in technology. We are so grateful. I can’t imagine living abroad without being able to communicate with all the people I love.
B: What is the most satisfying part of your career?
H: I love the freedom and creativity of being business owners. Every day we can decide what our schedule looks like, and what we are focusing on. We are both creatives so it really feeds our soul to have ideas and make them happen. Sometimes we say we creatively manifest things into our lives….like our VW mobile boutique. We had the idea and told people about our VW bus before we actually bought the bus. Then we even received a grant from FedEx to help finance the renovation. It’s now on the road and we are lining up fair trade ‘trunk’ shows. Let us know if you want us to make an appearance at Temple.
B: What is the most difficult part of your career?
H: The personal sacrifices you make a small business owner….extra hours working late at night and on weekends, you don’t take a paycheck unless everyone else is paid. That has been the most difficult part of me. You have to be resilient and flow with the ebbs and flows of business. Our new moto this season is ‘Move or be moved.’ We are happy in our new expansive shop in Wayne and now our next focus is improving our website http://www.mushmina.com for increased online sales. You have to always stay moving, improving, and working on your business.
B: Why Morocco and why Wayne?
H: Morocco is home to me now. My husband is Moroccan, and my 13month old daughter Hiba (whose name means ‘gift’ in Arabic) is ½ Moroccan ½ American. We are curious what language she will speak first.
I love the rich culture of Morocco, the artisans, the color, the food, the generosity of the people. It is one of the most interesting places I have ever been in terms of cultural influence, landscapes, and mix of people.
We have retail expansion in Mushmina’s future! We were looking for more space and made the difficult decision to move out of our first shop on South Street. We outgrew the space and needed somewhere to put our offices but we really loved the community we were part of on South Street. By some smart research and a stroke of luck Katie heard about our new space in Wayne. It’s larger, and has a basement for our office and space for a studio and a packing and shipping area. We are trying to set ourselves up for shipping more online orders. We also loved the community vibe in beautiful Wayne and how supportive our new community has been already. We look forward to growing here and then opening another Mushmina retail shop. Stay tuned!
B: Finally, what advice would you give to someone seeking a similar career path?
H: Go for it!
There is one important thing you must remember in any new entrepreneurial endeavor, there is not a ‘how to’ book. Every business is different. Get all the advice you can, but in the end you will learn through your own experiences.
More about Bridgette, future social entrepreneur:
“Since we were very young, my parents took my sisters and I along on their travels to places like Italy and Germany. Traveling is something my whole family enjoys. However, the most special place I’ve visited is Mexico. I have been to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico three times with my family, and every time I go my favorite part of my visit is meeting the local people. I chose to study communications at Temple University because I like working with people and I enjoy learning about different cultures and communities. Those individuals in Mexico have been some of the most open and friendly people I have ever met, and many of them are doing whatever they can to make a living for their families. Because of my travels, I have a strong desire to help the struggling people in Mexico and other developing communities. Aside from my education and travels, a large part of my personality is my love for fashion. Starting at age 12, I would draw sketches of dresses and watch Project Runway constantly. In high school, my favorite part of my retail job was getting to dress all of the mannequins in the store every new season. My dream would be to someday be able to incorporate my love for fashion with my desire to help those in developing countries and be able to use the two in my career. I look up to small businesses, such as Mushmina, that pay fair wages for their workers and bring the cultures of other countries to the US. This why I chose to interview them. ”