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Career Reinvention: Working for Hope in the Global Village

If you are in life stage: Contemplating Reinvention Posted June 27th, 2013
By Kathryn Sollmann

In the tiny, quaint, affluent village of Southport, Connecticut, Barb Johnson sells an awe-inspiring collection of clothing and accessories to empower women to survive and thrive in remote villages around the world. A visit to her shop, Mama Jane’s Global Boutique, is an education in the museum-quality work of ancient artisans in South Africa, Kenya, India and the Philippines.

This is a new and quite different venture for a woman who once was a Gymboree franchisee.  After a 20-year venture in the educational play industry, Barb was not necessarily looking to run another business. Little did she know that a trip to Africa would start her down another entrepreneurial path.

Barb's daughter, Susannah, wearing the work of talented global artisans

Barb’s daughter, Susannah, wearing the work of talented global artisans

With only adventure on their minds, Barb and her family had a high-end, but standard issue trip to South Africa. Though they enjoyed the experience, they felt like they were seeing the country at arm’s length. They wanted to know what was beyond the perfectly orchestrated safari, and returned to Nairobi on a service trip through Toronto-based Free the Children.

For two weeks, in an area far from civilization, Barb’s family saw the true definition of work. Women walked a mile down the road each time they needed water—and on the return trip carried three filled, heavy jugs on their backs. Villagers were building a school without a powered saw or cement mixer. And poorly irrigated crops were tilled by hand.

The family spent mornings meeting with villagers and afternoons building a school. They witnessed the drive and desire the villagers had to improve their lives, and they wanted to find a way to help them reach big goals—like education–and smaller goals, like a Jersey cow for every home.

It was clear that the path to prosperity was in the hands of the artisans. But the big challenge is achieving fair trade. With so many villagers making similar products with similar materials, market prices are low. It was clear to Barb that the artisans needed more outlets to export their wares.

In Nairobi, which is now known as the Milan of Africa, an arm of Free the Children acts as a liaison between artisans and the global market. (This organization is called Me to We, and you can read the book by the same name.) With their guidance Barb decided to open her own store, where she can triple the amount of money women earn for their craft.

The fact that she is putting more money in the pockets of deserving women is only part of the reason Barb feels her work is making a difference. The We to Me model is rooted in empowerment: artisans are encouraged to use their income to meet daily living needs—and also reinvest a portion of their money to make their businesses grow.

As the African artisans reach a broader market, Barb also widens her own business horizons, locating and building relationships with artisans both in and outside the U.S. “I’m drawn to any artisan who is creating for their own fulfillment and the well-being of others.” That could be the young woman in the Philippines who spends a full week embroidering a single pair of shorts, or the Connecticut woman who makes bracelets to fund a spinal bifida non-profit.

All the artisans shape Barb’s business, but the main inspiration is Mama Jane. Barb calls her an inspirational force—a village-based leader in Kenya as bright and accomplished as any CEO. Mama Jane organizes women into collectives and arranges micro-financing for important projects. “She’s my store’s namesake in honor of all the Mamas, everywhere, seeking a brighter future for their kids.” —KAS

Anyone passing through Connecticut would enjoy a visit to Mama Jane’s Global Boutique at 363 Pequot Avenue in Southport village. 203-292-8788

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