How BFFs Lauren Conrad and Hannah Skvarla Built an Online Business That’s Changing Women’s Lives
Ladies First highlights women and girls who are making the world better for the rest of us.
Get ready to say buh-bye to buyer’s remorse and hello! to The Little Market. The online e-commerce platform is the inspired creation of entrepreneurs and BFFs Hannah Skvarla and Lauren Conrad (we’d say of The Hills fame, but, let’s face it, The Hills is of Lauren Conrad fame). The two met while studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA; a few years after becoming fast friends, they decided to launch a business together — but not just any business. Both women wanted to do more than just sell beautiful things. They wanted to make an impact.
They registered The Little Market as an independent nonprofit charitable organization, sought out ethically made products by female artisans in developing countries, and reinvested all of the proceeds directly back into the artisan groups that make each item. The company they’ve created supports women by providing a sustainable, long-term income. And there’s more:
“We seek out partnerships with artisan co-ops that work to improve the quality of life in their communities in a number of ways, including literacy workshops, business training, and health programs,” says Skvarla. “We often see women gain new respect and rights within their households and communities, which is absolutely incredible.”
The Little Market currently works with over 60 artisan groups in 28 countries (including refugees in the US), all dedicated to creating products in an environmentally friendly way, often using repurposed or recycled materials such as glass and cotton textiles or locally grown resources like reed grass.
“I make handmade candles with all-natural wax, and I love it because candles give light, and we can give light to each other,” says artisan Moo Kho. “Every month we make more candles for The Little Market, which helps me and the other artisans support our families. It has helped make it possible for me to purchase a home and car and to live a better life here in [America]. It makes me very proud, and I feel at home here.”
We chatted with Skvarla about the business model she co-created and the importance of supporting female immigrants and refugees both here in America and abroad.
B+C: Your business model is really cool and unique — can you describe how The Little Market came to be and how it works to support the makers and artisans whose products you sell on the site?
Hannah Skvarla: Before meeting Lauren, I was working with Human Rights Watch. I was always seeking out new ways to help others… When Lauren and I met in 2006 we quickly bonded over our shared love of design, wanderlust, and a desire to give back. Over the years, we traveled together to Bali, El Salvador, and a few other locations. During each trip, we would always immerse ourselves in the culture and traditions and would spend a majority of our time at the local markets. Along the way, we met some of the most inspiring, hard-working women, and it was these women who inspired The Little Market. Their unique designs and evident desire to lift their families out of poverty through working in their craft quickly made our mission clear. We knew we needed to find a way to connect the artisans and their cultural techniques with a broader audience of consumers.
B+C: The items for sale via The Little Market are so beautiful, but more importantly, they’re ethically made. What kinds of efforts go toward making sure of that? That’s something that even big companies with tons of resources have trouble doing — how hard is it for your company?
HS: We abide by all fair trade practices, which is an approach to international trade centered around equitable partnerships, transparency, and respect. We specifically focus on empowering women and have vowed to only seek out products from artisans groups and co-ops that provide safe and sustainable working conditions, fair pay, and the ability to rise up in entrepreneurship at an equal pace as their male counterparts.
We have an extensive artisan application to vet each group that we are hoping to partner with, which includes questions about the types of artisans they work with, the working conditions, materials included in the process, the product offering, and the group’s social impact and resources the artisans may have access to. It’s important for us to develop these personal, transparent relationships.
We offer to pay upfront for resources so that the artisan groups don’t have to take on the cost and we ensure they are paid in full for the products they hand-craft. We run as lean of an operation as possible so that as much of our proceeds as possible can be reinvested in opportunities for artisan groups and in purchases of ethically made goods. Every purchase truly has a meaningful impact — beautiful traditions are preserved, and we contribute to sustainable incomes.
B+C: Part of The Little Market project aims to support resettled Burmese, Bhutanese, and Syrian refugees in the United States by giving them an opportunity to become entrepreneurs and support themselves in their new homes. Is there a particular success story you can share with us?
HS: [We] measure success by how many lives are positively impacted through our work. The artisans are often able to participate in educational skill development programs and have safe and comfortable work environments while collaborating with one another. The first artisan group we worked within the United States is Prosperity Candle — the social enterprise employs female refugees to make the candles you see all across our website. Due to our orders of their candles they’ve hired more women to work on the product, which is amazing. Our partnership has resulted in more income and more job opportunities for these female artisans — and that’s always been the goal.
We were so happy to hear the news last year when Moo Kho, an artisan working with Prosperity Candle, officially became a US citizen. In 2008, she lived in a refugee camp outside of Burma with her family. They escaped an ethnic cleansing campaign and were in search of safety, leaving behind what they knew at home. And the refugee camp had limited opportunities for her growth and education. In 2009, she and her family came to the United States, and in 2010, she began working with Prosperity Candle… she was promoted to Production Manager and now trains other female refugees.
B+C: Obviously you have an awareness and an appreciation for what immigrants and refugees can bring to a new country. They’re contributing skills and there’s an economic element to that, but there’s also the idea of contributing to the multiculturalism of America that makes it such a vibrant place. Is it important to you that the US keeps its doors open to refugees?
HS: Absolutely. Our primary goal as a nonprofit organization is to raise awareness about fair trade principles and human rights — supporting this marginalized group falls under that description and is something we’re dedicated to championing. Many of the artisans we work with are refugees. They have faced economic disparities, are fleeing violence and poverty, and have been forced to relocate in search of safety and peace. We are proud to work with so many inspiring individuals and truly admire their stories. It’s part of our responsibility to welcome them and ensure they are given equal opportunities on their paths to security.
The UNHCR recently reported that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced — a heartbreaking and growing statistic, and more than half of them are children. It’s incredibly important to advocate for their human rights, and it is a core part of our mission to support refugees with job opportunities.
We have been actively seeking partnerships with nonprofits that work with immigrants and refugees. It can be very challenging for immigrants and refugees to find good jobs. Our team is constantly developing products that could be made by women in Los Angeles who are refugees, homeless, [or] immigrants.
B+C: We love the idea of women supporting and building up other women — something that’s become even more critical in the US in recent years. Are there ways that other companies can adopt this model, even if it’s just a one-off project or a small part of what they do overall?
HS: There’s a lot of work we need to do as a society to value and support women more. Companies can make it a priority to hire and promote more women. [They] can also invest in community-based projects that create meaningful opportunities for women in need and host mentorship programs for high school and college students.
Many of my friends are businesswomen and female entrepreneurs. As women in business, it’s important to connect with one another, share ideas, and give advice from our experiences. It’s important that we stand together and help each other through personal and professional growth.
If you don’t have a business or a company where you can adopt these type of practices, you can still get involved. It’s important to speak up for other women, join in on those campaigns, marches, and movements that you feel strongly about, and overall, to just advocate for gender parity. You can also get involved in your community directly by supporting organizations such as Dress for Success and volunteering your time. Shopping at companies that practice fair trade principles (like The Little Market) is a great way to support as well — your purchase really does have a major and meaningful impact on women’s lives across the world.
Do you try to seek out ethically made products when you shop? Let’s chat about it on Twitter.
(Images via Hannah Skrvala/Valorie Darling for The Little Market)