There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. — Kofi Annan
Investing in women’s economic empowerment can radically shift global poverty. Caroline Gutman saw these possibilities first hand while on her Fulbright scholarship, as she researched and photographed Yi and Miao ethnic minority women artisans in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in China.
Her goal was to write a paper on the artisans’ impact on local economic development, however, Caroline’s passion for individual communities and her purpose in driving societal change led her to launch Nu Market.
We spoke with Caroline Gutman, co-founder of Nu Market, to discuss how she’s been able to scale her social enterprise through smart strategic decisions that she has learned from working both in Silicon Valley and as a global entrepreneur; all while empowering local women artisans who play an integral part in building Nu Market.
Listen to the podcast, or read an excerpt of our discussion below:
Kate: We’re here today with Caroline Gutman. She lives in San Francisco and has lots on her plate. She does many different things, from photojournalism to social enterprise to working on a start-up.
Just to kick it off, I’d love for Caroline to give a little bit of background about herself and especially about her social enterprise, Nu Market.
Caroline: I spent a couple of years living in China. I was doing research as part of a Fulbright grant on ethnic minority women artisans and their impact on local economic development. I got to know the artisans by photographing them and conducting interviews, and I discovered that they created really beautiful textiles, but had no place to sell them beyond their own villages.
I was originally supposed to write a paper about it, but instead I thought, ‘These could be sold in the U.S.. They are such exquisite, handmade textiles; how can I help expand their market access?’
That’s how Nu Market was born. Nu means woman in Chinese, and Nu Market is a social enterprise that’s committed to helping women artisans expand their market access. I was fortunate enough to get support from the U.S. State Department when I was living in China to really kick things off.
We create handbags and accessories that highlight their textiles. Twenty percent of our profits are reinvested into literacy education, business training, and other types of skill trainings for the women artisans we work with. It’s been a really fun journey so far.
Kate: I’d love to know what your smartest decision has been while working and creating Nu Market.
Caroline: Going into it, neither my business partner, Mark, nor I had a background in fashion, so we wanted to really take a very intentional and methodical approach to building the business, both in designing the bags and figuring out what our business plan was.
Prototyping the bags themselves took us over a year. We were really intentional about talking to our target audience, getting to know what our customers were interested in. We took our time figuring out how to make the best bags that we could—timeless, durable, built to last—because we wanted to make a product that people want to use and that ultimately will have an impact on the artisans we are working with.
I think the biggest lesson for me has been being intentional and going slower than often feels comfortable. Going slowly gives you the time to really figure out what works and what doesn’t, and helps you remain consistent and build the best possible product.
Kate: I’ve been talking to a lot of entrepreneurs within the series, and that’s been a common theme: slowing down and taking the time to really understand your target audience. It’s so opposite of what we in Silicon Valley hear all the time.
Did you look at that as risk-taking?
Caroline: Yes, absolutely. Going slowly can be risky, but we’ve made an intentional and conscientious decision to only create a small batch of product; another limiting factor of sorts.
We’re really optimistic, and have received positive feedback over the time that we’ve been developing. Now that we’re selling product, that risk has paid off. We’re confident we have a great product, and with a great product comes followers. It takes time and we’re willing to play the long game for that.
Kate: I know you’re not a tech start-up but I think we all like to hear about data and if there’s any data-driven decisions within your creations.
Caroline: We conducted our own surveys and interviews, both with our potential customers and with the women artisans we were working with. We really made a point of knowing the landscape inside and out. I think that’s really helped inform us as we grow.
It’s also instilled this ongoing curiosity and desire to keep getting better. We really want to make the best product that we can. I think data very much is a core of the work that we do. At the same time, as you highlighted, heart is also at the center of our business. We want to make sure that we’re continuing to incorporate designs that are beautiful, traditional, and have significance. We’re finding a way to couple both data and design, and the result is beautiful products that are impactful.
Kate: You’re doing a lot of data research, but going back to your heart, how do you take that heartfelt data and insight and then bring those stories to life? How do you tell people what Nu Market is about so they understand it to be more than just another line of bags?
Caroline: As a photojournalist, using photography and words to tell stories is at the center of what I do. I’m very adamant that we tell the stories of the women artisans we work with. We want to share their stories with as wide an audience as possible. We really rely on photography, videography, and interviews—whatever medium best conveys the experiences of the women artisans we work with, and also the significance of their textile traditions and how meaningful it is to expand their market access beyond their own villages. We’re probably a little more photo/video heavy than some other brands. That’s very much an intentional decision.
Kate: How have stakeholders—first and foremost the women artisans, and then the NGOs you partner with, your customers, and distributors—taken to that storytelling?
Caroline: We’ve been very fortunate to have tremendously positive feedback. When people see our bags, they’re very excited about them. When we tell them the stories behind the bags, we are essentially creating our own network of word-of-mouth referrals, just from talking to people about what it is we do and why we do it.
We’ve been lucky to build a strong group of supporters just through word of mouth. People will stop and ask our customers about their Nu Market bags, and because our customers know the backstory, they’re able to share it, which is really meaningful for us.
Kate: I feel like that’s the quintessential loop for marketing and sales to come together in such a heartfelt way. I keep going back to that because each time you talk about your decision-making, I can feel that it’s coming from a place of beautiful intentions. I feel like that comes across with anybody looking at Nu Market itself.
That goes back to the bottom line. Of course you’re an enterprise. Of course you want this to work out. You are still very young in the game, and working in different time zones and languages. Is there any advice you would give to other founders?
Caroline: I think first and foremost, I’m a big believer in doing your homework and learning about the field you want to enter into. Talk to and listen to people who are in that field. Do the same with your potential customers. Ultimately, take a leap of faith and trust your gut, using data to back your decisions. That last little hurdle requires you to believe in yourself and what it is you’re building. Then put it out there and see how it does.
That certainly comes from personal experience of entering into a new industry, but also I think from life experience of just taking that last little leap of faith when the time is right.
Kate: Definitely, and I feel like that is the energy everywhere within the entrepreneurial world. One last question: Is there anything that you feel that you’ve taken from your experience working with women in China?
Caroline: Yes, it’s being dedicated and committing yourself to something you believe in. As an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of ups and downs. There are moments of doubt. From spending time with the women artisans who are so talented and steadfast in their work, both in creating the textiles and also preserving their traditions. It’s absolutely inspiring to see people who have done something for so many years, who are experts at it and truly love it, and are also committed to being advocates for it.
I’ve learned to play the long game and think long-term. I understand there will be bumps in the road, but we really believe in what we’re doing, and that’s what counts. Figuring out where things go from here as a business has certainly been inspired by the women artisans.
Kate: That’s wonderful, so just to summarize from understanding your own journey, what I’m hearing is the three things that have been so helpful, obviously one, listening to your customers, taking the data insights, and understanding what they want. Two, taking those insights and working with your company to create a quality product and that is not only useful but also has meaning and heart.
Third is taking that entrepreneurial leap and having that gut instinct to make the right choices. Sure, some might be backed up by data, but some might just be from inspiration that is within you. Thank you so much, Caroline, for taking the time to talk today.
Are there places that you could let people know how to find you?