Immediately after completing graduate school, Rebecca founded Nest, a non-profit that allows female artisans to take out micro-loans and then repay their loans in crafts they make, which are then incorporated into Nest’s own line of merchandise as directed by some of the country’s top designers and artisans. Rebecca’s unusual combination of social entrepreneurship, microfinance and the “feminine business mind” has made her stand out as a unique voice sought by audiences across business, educational, women’s and non-profit associations and institutions. Her work with Nest has been featured on CNN and Fox News, in Cosmopolitan and Martha Stewart’s Body & Soul.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: Nest was born of my desire to combine my passions: social activism, entrepreneurship and the female artistic tradition. I’ve always had an artistic sensibility and a love of fashion and design, but during development work in rural Mexico and India, I became interested in the lives of the women who live there. Upon returning, I received my Master’s Degree in Social Work from Washington University, where I concentrated on women’s issues, international social work and the use of microcredit to encourage female entrepreneurship.
I have had extensive experience working with women both internationally and in the U.S., but two experiences in particular shaped my vision for Nest. In 2002, I worked with Mayan Indian women in Chiapas, Mexico, on agricultural techniques to help them increase yields from small farms, thereby becoming more financially independent. In 2004, I traveled to Delhi, India, to volunteer at an NGO which provided education and training to children and adults afflicted with polio. Through these experiences and others, I was able to see firsthand the plight of women in developing countries who face hardships complicated by lower levels of education, lower social status, and talents and abilities that do not always translate into productive employment. I observed that when women are given the opportunity to create their own businesses and earn a steady income, families are strengthened and communities are stabilized. Returning from my travels, I made my entrée into social enterprise.
As I mentioned, social enterprise is a deliberate blurring of lines between business and social work, conservative and liberal ideals, self-sufficiency and meaningful altruism. But, within this tradition, Nest has found an unoccupied niche: comfortably at the intersection of what were once considered competing approaches. Nest believes in helping artisan businesses become truly self-reliant, thereby providing meaningful and long-lasting solutions to hard problems.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: I would tell them to not spend too much time looking at the distant mountains. It’s just as important to look directly in front of you as well. I tend to get caught up in the big picture; for example, where I want to be in ten years. But what is most important is the first step you take toward getting there. If you focus on each baby step you take, eventually you’ll reach those distant mountains anyway.
Q: What simple things in life today bring you joy?
A: I am a certified yoga instructor. In college, I taught yoga at an inner-city after school program for teenage girls to gain self-confidence and improved body image. I used yoga as a rehabilitation tool for disabled children when I worked in India and I taught yoga to elderly men and women, to help them retain both mobility and mindfulness. I still maintain a yoga practice; it helps me to stay calm, centered, and focused.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: I think it is essential to maintain both a passionate and a compassionate life. I want to be continually grateful for all that I have, enjoying each day for what it brings, but also to never forget about the millions of people who struggle each day just to get by. I guess I would say I try to live by that belief. I approach everything I do with energy and passion because ultimately, I want my decisions, choices, and livelihood to make a positive impact on people.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: One of our main setbacks has been the ability to balance all of the things that we have wanted to achieve through Nest. It always seems as if there is more that can be done. It is a challenge to provide loans, education, and training, while also supplying an aggressive sales channel. We have had to split up already limited resources and time so that we can address both essential pieces.
In order to address these setbacks, Nest has entered a partnership with Maiyet – an ethical fashion line launching this month. Maiyet is a modern, luxury fashion brand dedicated to identifying and providing market access to responsible heritage craftsmen, who are both profitable and have a positive social impact within their communities. Through our work with them, we are now able to focus entirely on bringing artisan groups to self-sufficiency through an expanded training program. Maiyet will help to provide the crucial market access needed. We were able to use our setbacks as a means of expanding our mission even further.
ON Letting go
Q: Can you share an example of how letting go enabled you to reach something new?
A: In order to reach our fullest potential, we have had to let go of many things that have grown familiar over the years. As a result of our new partnership with Maiyet, we have had to let go of our logo. When looking through old marketing materials and products that contain the old logo, it is hard to realize that it is now a part of Nest’s past. At the same time, it exciting to realize the opportunities now present due to our new partnership with Maiyet. People used to love our logo – it had a warm, crafty, and handmade feel. Our new one is certainly more professional and elegant – a symbol of our growth – but I don’t want to forgot where we came from either!
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure.” What do “you” know for sure?
A: Always pay attention to serendipity. In ways too numerous to delineate, Nest has been defined and refined by a series of remarkable coincidences that seem anything but: chance meetings that turn into valuable business relationships, hidden talents and interests of friends and acquaintances that turn out to be a perfect fit for Nest, e-mails on one topic that reveal other contacts and networks. I’m convinced that what seems to be accidental, coincidental, or unplanned, really isn’t.
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite destinations?
A: Moroccan coast, Northern India, Southern France
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite places to get lost?
A: Grand Bazaar, Istanbul; Prospect Park, Brooklyn; Driving around northern California
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite places to shop?
A: One simple answer: I shop with our artisans while I am traveling. I love pulling on embroidered tops from Mexico, long necklaces from Kenya or beaded sandals from India. I hate when they lose the scent they carry with them (though my fiancé probably loves it!)
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite restaurants?
A: Audrey Claire, Philadelphia; Prune, NYC; Earth Café, Fez
Q: In your opinion, what are the top values that make up a meaningful relationship?
A: A meaningful relationship is all about finding that perfect balance that works for both you and your partner. My fiancé is the Development Director at Nest so our personal and work lives are very much entwined. Because of that, we make sure that when sitting down to dinner, we put our work lives aside for a little while. We focus on honesty as well. Since we work together, it is necessary for us to be open about our communication and our needs so nothing festers! But, to be able to work hard for a mission that we both believe in and see changing lives – we think it is the perfect way to give back from the amazing blessings we have in our lives.
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: This is such a great question since I am currently writing a book! When I have the opportunity to travel, I always feel inspired by the stories of the local women. These women and their stories provide me with a constant motivation to do what I do each day. Most people do not have the ability to travel to remote countries and therefore never hear the stories of the local women. I would love to be able to share such inspirational stories and culture with others who can’t experience it firsthand.