Amanda Judge is the founder and CEO of Faire Collection, a fair trade accessories brand that brings economic stability to more than 200 rural artisans in Ecuador and Vietnam. In the seven years since its founding, Faire Collection has grown from just $10,000 in start-up capital to well over $1 million in sales revenue and is committed to providing its artisans with dignified wages and holistic social programs that provide a path out of poverty. She is the recipient of the 2015 Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award. Judge holds a MALD from the Fletcher School and a degree in finance from Santa Clara University.
The Fletcher Forum staff sat down with Amanda Judge to discuss Faire Collection, the challenges of creating a fair trade business, and opportunities for women’s empowerment.
FLETCHER FORUM: The idea for Faire Collection grew out of interviews you conducted with Ecuadorian women about poverty reduction strategies for your Fletcher thesis. What made you focus on women?
JUDGE: It was actually a bit accidental. The thesis wasn’t supposed to be about women specifically, but about what poverty reduction strategies would work in rural communities. The men were working in carpentry and other industries, while the women’s income stream was mainly from artisan work. Since I had been making jewelry from a young age, I felt this was an area in which I could provide advice, and what I found was striking. The artisans were actually losing money on some of the products they were making, and they didn’t realize it. So I thought—“ you need to do something about this”—and that’s why I ended up focusing on the women in the household.
FLETCHER FORUM: What kind of changes have you noticed beyond income with the female artisans you’ve worked with?
JUDGE: Many of the women have become more visible members of their communities. One woman has gone from being very shy and soft-spoken to being a leading member of her PTA. Her children’s schoolwork was something that she had never been involved in before, but she became an influential voice in the community. Another artisan has become the president of her local neighborhood committee. Two years after starting to work with us, these women have found the strength to move forward in their lives in different ways.
FLETCHER FORUM: How has Faire Collection affected power structures in the communities and within the families it works with? Has there been any pushback from husbands or other people in positions of power, and if so, how have you dealt with this?
JUDGE: There have been some pretty significant shifts in the power structures in the families of the women artisans, particularly for those who have worked with us from the beginning. The women become viewed as more important than they were before. The husbands see the good working relationship that my team members and I have with their wives, and they definitely recognize the value their wives are bringing in.
There are, however, cases where the women face pushback. We’ll have an employee who’s getting married, and her husband will say that she can’t work with us anymore because now she has a husband to take care of her. So the husband will often try to talk her out of going to work, and if she’s going to school, talk her out of going to school too. In that case, it’s been interesting to see how the lead artisans, who were the first core group of female artisans that I started working with, have served as mentors to these younger women. They’ll talk to them and say, “Listen, you don’t have to stop working just because you’re getting married. Your life doesn’t have to end, or even change dramatically. You can still continue your work and your studies.” We’ve even had one of the lead artisans say to another, “If you’re trying to get married just to get out of your house, come live with me.” These women have really helped each other.
FLETCHER FORUM: As a fair trade business with a social mission with a triple bottom line, what challenges have you experienced in balancing your three pillars as you’ve grown so quickly, and how have you managed to stick to your core values?
JUDGE: It’s important to set out which values trump the others. You can’t say that they’re all equal, because there are times when you’re forced to make the hard decisions. For us, the main goal on the social side has always been creating employment and poverty reduction. Secondarily, being a green company and operating sustainably.
Beyond that, profitability is necessary to keep the business alive. One of the guidelines that we have is that profitability needs to be a priority, but if you can do some kind of social good and it lowers your profitability, that doesn’t harm or endanger the financial health of the company, that’s something we consider doing. But if it’s a social good that will really endanger the financial health of your company, we don’t consider doing that. In practice, these principles become more flexible, but it’s good to have something to come back to.
FLETCHER FORUM: Given your success in building a social enterprise, what knowledge or advice would you share with students at Fletcher or young professionals who are aspiring entrepreneurs?
JUDGE: If people are interested in the world of social enterprise, there are a lot more resources available—networking groups, mentors—that weren’t around when I started the company, when the term ‘social enterprise’ was barely around. Maximizing those resources can be very helpful.
On the other side, make sure that this is a path that you really want to go down because it’s going to take a lot of energy on your part to make it happen. If it’s the right thing for you, then it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever done. There are easier career paths that you can go down, but if you’re meant to be an entrepreneur, none of those other ones are going to feel right. Make sure to put energy into that decision. Volunteer, do internships, work with a really small company to get that startup feel. Make sure that it’s something you’re really committed to, because if you’re going to commit to it, you need to commit 300% to make it work.