Artisan and Fox works to bridge artisans in developing nations that are unable to access the international market independently to socially conscious consumers worldwide! Their aim is to raise artisan incomes, reduce gender inequality in patriarchal communities, and preserve cultural heritage — all the while through ethically fashionable pieces that fit contemporary trends. We caught up with cofounder Jaron Soh, an LSE graduate learn about their social enterprise journey.
What were you up to before Artisan and Fox?
Before Artisan & Fox, I was a first year undergraduate at the LSE. Currently, I’m in my third year of university, and about to graduate in less than a month. I also spent 2 years in the Singapore military, and spent some time in Nepal with humanitarian organisations.
What problem are you trying to solve?
Artisans who run micro-enterprises in developing countries like Nepal, Kenya and Afghanistan often face numerous and varied challenges in accessing a global market, and are susceptible to extortion by unscrupulous middlemen, and exploitation in factories.
What are your key activities towards solving this problem?
We form partnerships with artisans and get their products ready for the global mindful consumer. To do this, we provide (1) targeted design advice to nudge their designs towards more contemporary trends, whilst also retaining the distinct cultural integrity of their craftsmanship’s heritage; (2) provide flexible terms and early payments to ensure artisans have sufficient liquidity to begin production; (3) implement consistency and quality benchmarking for artisans’ crafts to compete with large global brands. Artisans receive 50% of the profits made from each sale through our curated marketplace.
Would you recommend starting a company with a cofounder?
Yes. There is never enough work to be done, but more so than that, it is important to have a co-founder to bounce ideas off with. Disagreements and differing opinions are healthy, and helps refine both your commercial and social focus.
How did you onboard your first 5 customers?
We first ran a small pilot store in 2016 helping 20 Nepalese artisans go online, and for those 5 customers, it was mostly through word-of-mouth, and from friends and family.
Do you have any numbers on your impact? (e.g. if you run a company that helps survivors of human trafficking, how many survivors has your work supported?)
Brought 110 artisans from 5 countries online (Guatemala, Afghanistan, Nepal, Kenya and Mexico), with US$13,000 sent to artisans so far.
How did you find partners that believe in the same ethical standards as you?
Through research, referrals, and networks. We regularly research new groups working in the same space with artisans (e.g. UNHCR’s work with some artisans, British Council’s work with Afghani artisans). After being accepted into the Aspen Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise we were also able to tap into a global network of NGOs, co-operatives, and social enterprises that works with artisans globally.
What is your proudest moment?
When our first partner artisan Prem told us and sent us photos of his new and improved stall-front. Through working with us he has been able to upgrade his stall which had been damaged by the earthquake, and also move out of humanitarian tents into a proper home for himself, his wife and son.
Tell us a bit about your future plans and projects.
We’re looking to streamline our processes for working with artisans so we can scale our impact globally. This includes an artisan guidebook to onboard new artisans in new communities, and the development of a language-free back-end technology that will allow us to liaise with artisans and convey information regarding inventory, prices, remittances etc. to reduce the need for a local intermediary to provide translation and administrative support. In our social project pipeline, we’re in the midst of planning for a (1) zero-interest flexible micro-loan programme for women artisans, and (2) an ‘Artisan Sustainability Programme’, that looks into improving the sustainability of pre- and post-production methods of our artisan partners. This includes incentivising the use of organic materials, circular processes, and reducing waste amongst the artisans.
What’s the best advice you ever took?
First build a holistic understanding of the problem, before attempting to build a solution. I see many social entrepreneurs developing potential solutions for problems they do not understand.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs when facing adversity?
Always keep it about the work. Remember the problem you’re trying to solve and why you started in the first place.
Who inspires you?
I look up to my mentor and friend, May Samali, who pursues her personal and professional passions with vigor, for being an honest and empathetic friend, and always asking the right questions.
What’s a book you always recommend and why?
The Little Prince. It always provides a timely reminder of what is important, as over time, we get caught up over the ‘little’ things: money, getting from point A to point B. As the little fox shared, ‘Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’
What are your top three tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
First piece of advice: Apprentice with your problem before you build a soltion! You have to build up your understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. I’ve met zealous peers who want to ‘build an app for XYZ in Africa’. Building an app for Africans sounds cool and aspirational, but it is extremely silly if you have never been to Africa (which part of Africa?). You cannot build something for people you don’t know. With Artisan & Fox, we’ve began with an anthropological approach to problem. By living with the artisans we’re working with, having direct conversations and conducting needs assessments we have developed a better understanding of the problems they are facing.
Second piece of advice: Stop chasing shiny titles and seeing yourself as a social entrepreneur as your end-goal. Social entrepreneurship is a means to an end. The ‘end’ is solving an injustice you are trying to solve. Social ventures should be built because there is a problem to be solved – not because the founder(s) wanted to start an ethical company. We would’ve succeeded when there is no longer a need for us.
Third piece of advice: Actively seek people who share your passion for the problem you want to solve.
If you’ve used crowdfunding to raise capital, please describe your experience and what others can learn from your journey.
Yes, we’ve raised over US$26,000 via Indiegogo. The process took a lot of time and effort to plan. Understand that crowdfunding is not easy, and money does not come in freely: you have to delineate a strategy for hitting each milestone that you target.
If you would like to share any additional information about the purpose of your work, your journey so far etc please feel free to use this section.
Our vision is to inspire human connection between artisan and consumer. We believe the key to a kinder fashion industry is for people to discover the provenance of the things they wear and love.