Meet Hannah Skvarla, Co-Founder of The Little Market
The stories of social entrepreneurs are so often inspired by immersion in far-flung cultures or foreign lands. In that distance we seem to find some common thread of humanity that ignites compassion and leads to action. Close friends Hannah Skvarla and Lauren Conrad stumbled on their inspiration in a Balinese marketplace. After rigorous research into nonprofit operations and international opportunity, they launched The Little Market to connect global artisans to conscious consumers. We spoke with Hannah about how she leveraged her background in human rights to create this thriving marketplace.
Travel is clearly woven into the DNA of your company. From El Salvador to Tanzania to Uganda, you two have seen the world together. Tell us about that first trip to Bali with co-founder Lauren Conrad. What inspired you to take the leap into social entrepreneurship?
Traveling to Bali was one of our most memorable trips because it was our first trip together. Visiting local markets is one of our favorite parts of our travels; we find a lot of inspiration in these markets. Meeting women artisans with incredible skills made us want to find a way to support them. To learn more about how to create a sustainable way to support women around the world, we traveled to Africa to meet with nonprofits that are working with women and children. We were determined to find a way to help that didn’t limit us geographically. We decided to create a larger marketplace that would allow these women to sell their handmade products at a fair price while taking care of their families. After talking to our colleagues in the human rights and international development spheres, we developed The Little Market.
What were you doing before founding The Little Market and how has that experience benefited this position?
Before Lauren and I founded The Little Market, I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and Chapman University. After graduation, I interned at Human Rights Watch and focused on event planning, fundraising, and raising awareness for human rights issues. Human Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental organization that is dedicated to defending human rights and protecting human rights around the world. At FIDM, Chapman, and Human Rights Watch, I learned about fashion trends, marketing, and the importance of ethical businesses.
You have clearly witnessed and been inspired by the struggle and beauty that co-exist in many low-income communities all over the world. How do you close that gap for your customers, many of whom have never seen the level of poverty from which your artisan partners are struggling to rise?
Without seeing extreme poverty firsthand, it’s impossible to imagine all of the challenges and hardships that come with it. Even with photos and stories, it’s really hard to communicate and capture the struggles that exist in impoverished and marginalized communities. For example, Peru just experienced the worst flooding in decades, which means people in Peru are facing a lack of clean and safe water, their homes are being destroyed, farm animals have died, and crops were killed. Living in the United States, it’s pretty hard to comprehend that, even if you have the money to buy food, it’s not even available to purchase. Unfortunately, these types of conditions and these natural disasters happen all too frequently and worsen the struggles people already face all over the world.
We just launched our blog so that we can share more of these stories. We work to ensure our customers know how their purchases and their support of our fair trade products directly benefit artisans around the world. Our artisan partners in Peru know that they can count on our purchases, so that at the very least, during this devastating time, they have a guaranteed and stable income that they can count on.
How do you decide who to work with?
Anyone who is interested in partnering with us can fill out an application on our website to apply to work with us, and our team checks every application to determine if the group meets our fair trade requirements. We have a fair trade expert on our team who reviews each application and does research in the communities to confirm that the artisans are earning a fair wage and working in safe and comfortable environments.
Talk about your level of partnership with the artisans. Are you collaborating to design the goods or are you sourcing from cooperatives and social enterprises who manage those relationships?
We work with social enterprises and cooperatives around the world, but we also work closely with our partners on product development. There are a few different ways we work with our artisan partners:
With some groups, we order their existing products without making any changes. For example, we order our glassware from Mexico this way. The artisan co-op based in San Miguel de Allende employs artisans with physical disabilities who may not be able to find work elsewhere. For simple orders, our production coordinator places these.
Products with Design Insight
With some groups, we give feedback on design, color, and sizing. We work to provide customized items, while preserving the long-standing stylistic traditions of the artisans. For example, for our Tenango pillows, we choose each of the colors offered. The imagery dates back to before the Spanish conquest of 1519, when it was widely known as Otomi, and Tenango was part of the tradition’s revival in the 1960s. We simply choose colors that we believe our customers would like. Our product development coordinator oversees these orders.
Completely Custom Products
We recently created an exclusive collection of sugar scrubs with Bright Endeavors, our partner that employs and empowers young mothers in Chicago. Our product development coordinator works closely with our artisan partners for months at a time to get these products right.
The Little Market is an independent nonprofit. Tell us about that decision. With the social impact sector now embracing for-profit social enterprises and nonprofit organizations, how did you decide which model better fit your business?
For The Little Market, being a nonprofit was a clear decision. We founded it so the artisans could profit, not us. We run as lean of an operation as possible to ensure that as much money as possible can be reinvested in artisan purchases. Our artisan partners benefit from the proceeds of every handmade product. With every purchase we make, we’re creating sustainable jobs and preserving cultural traditions.
We’re so grateful for your time and insight. Last but not least, if you had one piece of advice for how to leverage creativity for social change, what would it be?
Find a way to connect your creative skills with a way to give back. For example, if you have photography skills and you’re passionate about animals, volunteer for The Humane Society so that dogs can get adopted faster and placed in safe home environments. Or if you’re a nutritionist, you can offer to teach healthy meal-making to low-income families. Or as a cook, you can volunteer at a local homeless shelter as a way to give meals. Every passion can be tied to a way to give back.