An Interview with Dr. Tamara Stenn (Part One)

Interview with Dr. Tamara Stenn trusted clothes

Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.

I grew up in NY and come from a long line of entrepreneurs. I am a bi-lingual (Spanish/English) social entrepreneur, sustainability trainer, Fair Trade business owner, Fulbright scholar, author, and academic.

I founded the sustainable luxury brand, KUSIKUY, which has been knitting together opportunities and elegance in the Bolivian Andes since 1996.  I teach sustainable, social enterprise development at both Mount Holyoke College and the SIT Graduate Institute – specializing in local-global entrepreneurship. I live in Vermont and mostly grow my own food.

What is the importance of ethical fashion?

We are a single species on a single finite planet.  Being mindful of how our decisions impact others and our planet is important. The garment industry is one of the most polluting and destructive industries in the world – of both the environment and people.

Thousands die in sweatshop accidents each year, millions more are affected with poor health, disease and contamination from textile chemicals and pesticides, farmers commit suicide over low fiber prices. More info: Ethical and sustainable fashion is an alternative to this cycle of devastation and destruction.

What is the importance of sustainable fashion?

It respects the earth’s resources and people’s talents in carefully making quality clothing that lasts.

What about fair trade?

There are good resources that define the standards through principles on this, but some include:

It creates opportunity, builds capabilities, grows relationships, connections and improves wellbeing for all.

What is KUSIKUY?

It’s a Quechua word – means “make yourself happy” and started as a post Peace Corps project for Grad School – 19 years later, still going strong!

What makes KUSIKUY unique?

I think the handmade nature of the product with knitting needles, and its Bolivian source of production. Its 100% alpaca yarn. It has been blessed with a ch’alla – ceremony and wishes. Finally, it is home based with independent production.

KUSIKUY products are for men and women. What is your favorite design?

Arm socks!

Interview with Dr. Tamara Stenn trusted clothes

You took a 7-year hiatus to earn a doctorate in economics, raise two children, and write a book about the experience, and become a university professor of sustainable development. What were the main lessons from these experiences?

The importance of leadership, family and patience – things all work out and there is time for it all.  Through their export work the knitters gained tremendous leadership, time management skills and confidence in themselves.

KUSIKUY has a Kickstarter campaign as well. There’s a wonderful and informative video for those without the appropriate background on the narrative of the company and the work that it accomplishes. The campaign web page states:

Building on the heritage of Andean art and our 18 years of experience working in Bolivia, we created the world’s finest glitten, a glove/mitten, hand stitched from the king’s alpaca, that custom forms to your hand and is guaranteed for 5 years.  Each glitten takes 12 hours and 2,000 stitches to make by hand with knitting needles, love and blessings. 

The aim is $10,000. If you could have, say, $20,000, what would be the expanded set of initiatives for KUSIKUY?

Yes – our goal with the re-launch is to gain an audience and recognition for our next stage – the launching of our hand knit sweater for Fall 2017.  Any extra earnings for the Kickstarter will be invested into the 2017 sweater development.

You’ve known the workers in Bolivia for 18 years. How does this positively impact the production cycle?

We have a long relationship with producers and are like family.  This history makes it easier for us to enjoy working together and celebrate our successes together.  It also makes for easy production and methods –we know how to work together.

What about providing a human sensibility to the company and its exported image to the public?

We work to build bridges between producers and users.  Bother are very curious about each other and would enjoy knowing who each other were – at least to say thank you.  We work on building that personal experience.

I noticed every Bolivian was a woman in the Kickstarter video. Same with yourself. Many discussions abound on the international stage with respect to women’s rights and the relationship of sustainable and ethical fashion to the millions of workers in these countries that produce the garments for countries such as Canada (I’m by Vancouver) and the United States (You’re in Vermont). More exist on the local platforms, too. What is the importance of sustainable and ethical fashion, and fair trade, for international women’s rights?

DR Tamara stenn interview trusted clothes fair trade

Women are the main workers in the textile industry and also the ones taking care of the family and of reproductive age.  It is important for future generations that women are safe, healthy and well cared for – so the home environment is positive for the children and the women themselves enjoy a quality of life they deserve.

With respect to the Kickstarter campaign, there are some nuances. 

With the Kickstarter, we are celebrating the heritage of the women we’ve been working with for 18 years. It is celebrating the work that the herdsmen have done in preserving the fibres that they’re working with, thousands of years ago the Incas, before them the Tiahuanacos. It took a long time to develop and build the absolute best Alpaca fibres in the world. Bolivia has preserved those herds.

In Peru, there were government programs that tried to differentiate colors. Things shifted in the herds and the fibre quality has gone down. Bolivia has maintained that tradition. What we wanted to do was recognize that, to give a shout out that this is something incredibly special, over the last 18 years of working with the people in Bolivia. I have seen more and more companies switch over to Alpaca mixed with acrylic.

Products that are knit on looms and losing that heritage tradition. I value the tradition so much with the knitting needle, the ‘click, click, click,’ and that Alpaca fibre that is not adulterated with acrylic, chemicals, or modified in different ways. That’s what we’re celebrating with our Kickstarter. We’re giving people access to this amazing heritage with one of the last companies in the world with handmade gloves and knitting needles.

This lets the women pay attention to what they’re doing. We realized this is taking 12 hours a glove. While they are making the gloves, they are thinking about who is going to be wearing them. Imagining that person’s life, knowing from television that it is someone that is busy and running around in this fast-paced world of skyscrapers and subways, they are in the countryside in a timeless place. It is winds and mountains.

Tremendous skies above the tree lines, it is a different world. For them to be in that world and to be knitting those thoughts into those gloves as we move into our busy life in the Western hemisphere, it is an amazing transition. I wanted to preserve that story. What I’ve observed is as people buy KUSIKUY products, they tend to save them and use them for years. That’s why we have the 5-year guarantee on the gloves. I find most people easily save their gloves for five years. They become favorite gloves.

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I wanted to build that connection with people. My doctoral research brought that up on both ends.  Consumers and producers want to know who each other are, that’s what our Kickstarter is about. It is an opportunity to connect with the knitters and support them. We are hoping this will lead to us developing more connections via smart phones. We want to do sweaters next year. It is bringing that thoughtfulness and care to the public. You can’t get that anywhere else.

Any advice for young entrepreneurs?

Sure! So, I teach entrepreneurship. Constantly, I am working with young entrepreneurs. They are the most innovative and fun folks to work with. My advice to them is don’t worry that someone is going to steal your great idea because chances are someone is thinking of something you’re thinking of and that’s an ally.

That’s going to be someone you can work together with. It will be a lot of work. Also, if you already have that idea, and someone else does it, they won’t know it as well as you do. That’s something my students ask me. They say, “If someone else has it, then someone else will do it, then they’ll take it.” Even patents, nowadays people aren’t even worried about patents and trademarks. They go out and do it.

Any advice for new mothers, or parents in general?

Find a way that it all works together. My kids have always been a part of my business. So, they’re right there with me in it. I have seen some parents keep their kids out of the business. I don’t think that’s good. I grew up in a long family of entrepreneurs.

We grew up talking business around the dinner table. That’s what made it so easy to be drawn into entrepreneurism myself. I think having it as part of the family culture is great. When there’s trips and trade shows, you can figure out a way to bring the kids along as well.

What are some of the things that can be done on the international stage to improve the lot of women? You noted some of the things in the Kickstarter campaign video. Some things that are concrete.

I think Bolivia has pulled ahead in that. They re-did their constitution in 2009. In the Spanish language, everything has a masculine and feminine with the adjective forms. Instead of saying, “All People,” like in the United States with equal opportunity. In Bolivia, they spelled it out, “Men and women are equal.” Men and women, by doing that, they created a tremendous amount of recognition of the woman’s role. Now, they look at both.

In the USA, we haven’t had that happen, yet. I have been around working with mentorship groups. You probably know the criticism of Silicon Valley is the amount of men that are out there as entrepreneurs right now.

I think it’s not so intentional. Guys saying, “We are going to have a club and not invite women.” It needs to be mindful of needing women there. The mentorship group that I have been working with, Valley Mentorship. It is on their radar, where they are intentionally looking for ways to be more attractive and accessible to women.

I think that’s what Bolivia has been doing already within their constitution by being mindful of gender on both levels. I think that’s something that can be done, but it is being mindful of where are the women in the room. Or, do we have the same amount of women as men in this conversation?

What is keeping the women away? We need a space for them because they can bring things into here. We don’t know.

In America, there’s a lag time between law changes and cultural changes. One of the most prominent is the Emancipation proclamation. It takes a century for the Civil Rights movement to follow this law in the culture. The inertia of history is a factor. Blacks, Native Americans, women, and white men without property didn’t have the right to vote for a long time. In a democratic system such as the American, that defines an individual, as a member of a collective (gender, ethnicity, and so on), as a non-citizen, or, more properly, a non-person. To your point about including men and women in the constitution of Bolivia, there seem to be lag times in America due to historical baggage in some ways. That might explain the “behind” part for America.

Yea, it is still 2-to-1 men to women with new enterprises coming forward. For every woman, there’s two men that have started that enterprise. That’s current data. There’s something that’s keeping us out of the entrepreneurship. Having that diversity, right? There’s the gender diversity, ethnic diversity.

With entrepreneurism, if you’re starting a new business, it’s easy to be thinking of yourself. I think looking for that diversity on the front sign is good at shaping a new business and bringing in creativity.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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