Thursday, May 01, 2003
Moms raise kids, improve the world By Mandy Burrell
Photo by Frank Pinc
Muriel Quinn, left, and Margaret Carsello own Pueblo Esperanza, a business that offers customers access to fair trade arts and crafts from across the world.
When two intelligent women put their heads together with plans to own their own business, there isn’t much that can stop them. Right?
If the women are mothers, they’re likely to face the typical problems confronting all working families who have too much to do in too little time and precious few reliable baby sitters. If they are trying to start a worldwide e-business with a focus on fair economic practice, there might be a few more snags along the way—language barriers, civil strife, overstock, understock, establishing trust with Peruvian villagers and, of course, unpredictable worldwide shipping.
Moms Margaret Carsello and Muriel Quinn have had to contend with all of the above since launching their business, Pueblo Esperanza, in 1999. Yet the women say that, despite the hassles and headaches, they’ve never looked back. Their tenacity is due in no small part to the fact the business has always been based on one mission: to promote economic development across the globe through the sale of fair trade arts and crafts that they purchase directly from the artists who created them. It’s even in the name, Pueblo Esperanza, which means “people of hope.”
“Fair trade is life-changing to the artisans and to consumers,” says Quinn, who lives in Oak Park with her husband Robert Pasin and their children, Helen, 7, and Henry, 3. “Fair trade doesn’t always cost more, but when it does, you realize that what you’re paying for is a living wage for someone else.
“We buy, for the most part, from the artists,” she says. “We make sure they get their money up front, and if we don’t sell the product, we’re stuck with it.”
Directly helping artists support themselves and their families is only one part of what Quinn and Carsello mean when they say their products are “fair trade.” By visiting the villages where the artists live and work, or by buying products through cooperatives regulated by the Fair Trade Federation—an association of fair trade wholesalers, retailers and producers whose committment to fair trade is tested by a detailed interview process and regular peer review—the women are sure everything they sell is produced in safe environments and without exploiting workers or the environment.
Little plans, big China Carsello and Quinn met through their husbands who were business associates. After striking up a friendship, the couples, both avid travelers, decided to travel together to China in May of 1999.
Carsello and Quinn had talked before about doing something involving fair trade, but it was the China trip, says Carsello, that made things “crystal clear.” The pair recalls being a bit uncomfortable at times, partly because the language barrier was far greater than they’d encountered in other countries. It was also the 10th anniversary of the United States’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo.
“I felt more foreign there than anywhere else we’ve been,” says Carsello. “We were really the only Americans.”
To make the experience easier, they hired a translator. It allowed them to experience the culture more fully than they would have if they had stuck to the English-friendly path. They saw things they never would have seen if they hadn’t been able to immerse themselves in the local culture.
“We were seeing artists who did not have Western outlets with products that Western consumers would be interested in,” says Quinn.
The idea clicked: They could be that outlet.
Thus was born a business that allows them to fulfill a social mission, earn money and still have a family life.
“We’re very small right now, and we did that purposely until we’re out of the toddler stage,” says Quinn. “We want to be able to do the fun stuff of parenting, too.”
In fact, despite the few weeks a year the women travel abroad on buying trips, having quality time with their kids led Quinn and Carsello to start their own business in the first place.
“I had my son while I was working on the policy staff at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless,” says Quinn. “I knew I wanted to transition out because of time committments.” By the time Quinn launched Pueblo Esperanza with Carsello in 1999, she was pregnant with her second child. She was ready for a more parent-friendly work situation.
“You can’t work at home unless you have child care, anyhow,” says Quinn. “But this way it’s not running, running, running all day and then storming into the house that’s already got it’s own thing going on. I can choose the times I’m at work within my own schedule. It’s nice to have that liberty.”
The moms also say that Pueblo Esperanza is a teaching tool that helps their children see their politics in practice every day. As Pueblo Esperanza—and its children—grow, the women say their kids will have even more opportunities to experience the world firsthand.
In fact, Quinn recently took her daughter along on a trip to Puerto Rico. The trip, she says, reinforced the Spanish her daughter learns at the Spanish language immersion school she attends in Oak Park.
“She and I took a day to go find art. She speaks Spanish, so she is involved in the conversation,” says Quinn. “She hears the words and understands.”
The pair also has been able to finangle some unique quality time with their husbands, treating parts of business trips as vacations.
“Our trips are so cool that our husbands are wanting to tag along now,” says Carsello with a laugh.
When their husbands do stay behind, they take care of the kids. While juggling schedules isn’t always easy, both women say the men in their lives are supportive.
“Sometimes, if it’s good with his schedule, he likes when I go because it gives him a really special time with the kids in a way that he wouldn’t have if I were around,” says Quinn.
Behind every good woman Both Carsello and Quinn were working mothers before they started their business. In fact, they say, they would been hard-pressed to find a more complimentary business partner.
For her part, Quinn has been working in social justice for years. She even served as a UN observer in 1998, when she traveled to Ecuador for the signing of a declaration of peace in a war-torn area. Quinn’s work had brought her into contact with creative, socially progressive people around the world, and she began to tap into these contacts in hopes of finding other creative, socially minded people who might be interested in selling their crafts.
Enter Carsello’s background is in art, and more specifically, in computer graphics. She’s worked as a project manager, as well as a freelance artist and illustration consultant for the past 17 years, with work published in the Chicago Tribune and Hearst Books International, among many other publications. Her expertise made setting up an attractive Web site a breeze, but more importantly, it meant meant that Pueblo Esperanza had a buyer with an artist’s eye.
Combined, the pair created the ultimate CEO: Quinn, the verbal partner with a network of contacts, and Carsello, visually gifted and technologically savvy.
Despite all of their previous know-how, running the business has been a nonstop learning process for the pair.
For the first year, Pueblo Esperanza—Quinn and Carsello—carefully packaged products into their cars and hauled the boxes to seven Chicagoland homes, setting up shop, a la candle and basket parties, for guests invited by the hosts. The shows did help to spread the word about their website, but they were far too labor-intensive to make good business sense. The next two years they stuck to selling items through their Web site, www.puebloesperanza.com. This way they can balance out their often high travel and shipping costs with an otherwise low overhead. Similarly, advertising costs are low.
“We get so much done by word of mouth,” says Quinn of their advertising strategy.
By the 2002 holiday season, the partners anticipated enough business to rent a storefront—just for heavy retail months—in Oak Park.
“It’s our best audience in the area,” says Quinn.
The storefront was a success, with much of their stock sold out by season’s end. But now it’s back to the Web site. Still, the partners constantly evaluate their business.
“We set goals every year that we try to meet,” says Carsello.
“Every year, we’ve learned,” adds Carsello.
Both women will admit that sometimes they’ve learned more than they ever cared to learn. For instance, shipping has been a logistical problem for the pair since day one. Much like a Federal Express number in the United States, a shipper in a foreign country often needs a DHL number to ship an item. It goes without saying that, sometimes, Quinn and Carsello come across the odd villager who has never heard of DHL, let alone knows their shipping number.
“A lot of times, we carry things back.” says Carsello.
“But to maintain the relationship, we need to ship,” adds Quinn. “So it’s hard.”
People of hope Running Pueblo Esperanza can be a challenge, but as the adage goes, anything worth doing takes work. For Carsello and Quinn, it’s not just about helping artists. It’s also about educating Western consumers about the power of their dollars.
“When people buy something from us, we always include a card with the story of the artist,” says Carsello. “It makes the person buying it aware that they’re buying this from a person. And it raises the cultural awareness about the craft.”
Making justice an issue in everyone’s daily lives takes time and tact. “We’re careful not to be shoving things down people’s throats,” says Carsello. But she and Quinn say they will continue to sell the idea of fair trade, one buyer at a time.
“People love the idea [of fair trade], but it’s still not really common,” says Quinn. “It’s one step at a time. This is our baby step.”