This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com - #StartingABusiness
Ali Hynek, founder and CEO of Nena and Co., outlines building a handbag business that values her products’ quality and her employees’ quality of life.
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
“It’s more than just a bag” is embedded into the culture of Nena & Co., a Utah-based company that pays a fair wage to highly skilled artisans who produce high-quality niche handbags and accessories. Nena works in partnership with master weavers and craftsmen in Guatemala, Ghana, Mexico and Morocco. Weaving fabric thread by thread, then stitching hand-cut leather pieces on traditional sewing machines, they create beautiful one-of-a-kind and limited-edition products that are innovative in design and produced sustainably and responsibly.
This approach–part of a growing “slow-fashion” movement that emphasizes quality and fairness for both producers and consumers–helps to set Nena apart and is a major factor in its growth and success over the past six years. “Each person in our company is important and very real to us,” says Ali Hynek, Nena & Co.’s founder and CEO.
A win-win handbag business plan
Hynek, who spent the early years of her career working in the corporate world, is an avid traveler and lover of fashion. While visiting her mother’s native country of Guatemala, she observed beautiful and meticulously made textiles that were woven by hand or by foot loom that took hours and sometimes days to make and were then paired with inferior handbag design and construction.
The concept of Nena & Co. started to take form. “What I knew at the beginning was that I wanted to do something with artists, and I wanted to do it in Guatemala,” she reflects. Hynek and her mother/business partner Cony Larsen began searching for freelance artisans from Guatemalan markets to assemble beautiful, high-quality sample handbags to test the North American market. After learning the interest was there, her business plan began to take shape.
Hynek saw an opportunity to develop a plan that remained true to her values. For her, only a for-profit company that treated its employees with respect and fairness was going to work. “What I kept hearing was that these talented Guatemalan seamstresses, craftsmen, and weavers wanted to work but didn’t have the outlet to sell what they could produce,” she says. “I saw an opportunity for Nena & Co. to become a reliable client that these artisans could count on to purchase their fabrics and by doing so, create a steady source of income for them.” She felt this could be a win-win. Nena & Co. could produce a beautiful and well-made bag with her vision, and at the same time, keep the integrity of the weavers’ designs and pay a living wage that empowers local artisans to run their own enterprise. Hynek wanted to know that every artisan working to create her product was being treated fairly and with respect.
Starting small, scaling up
Like most entrepreneurs, Hynek and her partners knew it made sense to start small but ultimately decided to go against the advice of many by choosing to set up manufacturing in Guatemala. She did not want her creations to be mass-produced in a factory not knowing the work environment and conditions.
She also knew that being a good employer involved more than paying a decent wage. In the early days of working with her Guatemalan weavers, Hynek learned that listening to their needs before her own paid off. She recalls placing a small order of fabric that her weavers submitted to her on time, but with inconsistent dimensions. These were master weavers in a freehand technique that is mastered over decades. After questioning the assortment of sizes, Hynek learned that each weaver used her own hands to measure length; a thumb was about an inch, and pinky finger to thumb was 6 inches. The simple step of investing in a measuring tape allowed these artisans to be more precise, made the clients happy with consistency, and helped generate repeat customers.
Growth and success
Since its beginning in 2013, Nena & Co. has experienced enviable growth and success. Although Guatemala is close to the heart of the brand’s origins, Nena & Co.’s true passion is with empowering women and men that have a desire to work and a love for their weaving heritage. New artisans and products were added from Morocco and Ghana, and the brand is excitedly preparing to launch their upcoming Mexico collection. Ali can recall placing an ad in the local paper in Antigua, Guatemala looking to make those initial first hires to now having over 150 leather craftsmen/women and over 200 weavers in Guatemala alone. “We’ve gone global in search of talented artisans who desire sustainable income at fair wage incomes,” says Hynek. “For example, we now partner with artisans in Ghana — where we are verified members of the Fair Trade Federation–and our newest partner weavers are Berber women from Morocco. Most of our weavers are women and are now the main income earners in their households and are very proud of it.”
Nena & Co.’s marketing, which leans heavily on social media and an expansive visual story-telling component to its website, taps into its customer’s growing interests in fair trade products. “Our objective to connect our consumer to our makers is very clear,” says Hynek. “We want our customers to know the faces that create their Nena & Co. products, read their stories and feel the humanity in the process of its construction.”
“Our dedication to paying fair wages does not deter from Nena. In fact, it’s quite the opposite,” she explains. “Our customers experience a beautiful and well-made bag that’s unique, and when they learn about how their bags are made, and how those workers are treated, it deepens their experience with our company. In marketing terms, we say it drives more passion into the brand. Everyone feels good when they buy a Nena bag. We quite literally believe in ‘weaving values’ starting with that first thread.”