My Week With The Artisans

Wow after I got to the 1 week mark in Rio I officially started having my “holy s***” moment. I’ve got basically 3 weeks to devise my master strategy and I’m feeling the fire being lit!

My assignment with TIE was to help the artisans with their communication strategies and positioning. But I’m realizing as the assignment goes on that really what I want to do is help these women succeed and grow their sales while also empowering them to do it themselves. So I’m opening myself up to think more critically about the real challenge at hand and what I need to do solve it! I have another set of meetings with artisans this week and then we start developing the action plan.

If last week was taking in Rio, my new environment, learning as much about the culture and the Asta business, this week is about getting more grounded in the assignment and hitting the ground running with how I can help.

This past Monday I got to meet the really wonderful group Resurge Association. I loved their products – they stitch together scrap fabrics in a patch work technique cut to create the iconic designs symbols of Rio. Those designs are then applied to pillows and bags – a really popular product amongst retailers and Asta employees who have discovered them.

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Patchwork Beach Bag featuring the famous Christ Statue

What’s interesting about this groups is that they are part of an NGO (also called Resurge Association) that helps women and children collectively. It’s a great system  – they offer children classes to receive a better education (notoriously weak in Brazil) and while their children are cared for they allow the mothers and other women to train as artisans, product products and earn a living.

The team running the group was awesome. The artisan leader (blue shirt below) who designs the products AND teaches the groups how the make them AND manages sales AND production AND is the go to marketing manager…WOW that’s a lot of hats (here in my pic). And then there was the director of Resurge Association who is a psychologist by training and has been running the group for over 20 years. She told us that during the boom years in Brazil the NGO was thriving, with ample funding. But recently they have lost a lot of their investment and their in jeopardy of closing the group. It was a real wake up moment how dire the economic situation is in Brazil.

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Myself, Flavia and the Artisans’ Group Leader

But despite it all I was struck by the camaraderie, joy and pride of the people who worked there. The women you could tell were so proud of the things they create by hand. And the NGO employees were determined to keep fighting to survive. The group might be struggling, but they weren’t ready to give up and had begun to find alternative solutions to try and share their resources with other artisan groups to stay afloat. All with a smile on their face.Viva Brazil! It made me realize how minor the hardships are that we face compared to a group of people like this and what they’re struggling with.

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One of the artisans showing off her intricate stitching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And ironically enough, despite the crisis in Brazil and increasingly poor retail environment where shops are closing everywhere, the Resurge Association’s sales have so far remained strong and even grown – a real testament to how beautiful their product is and its enduring appeal with locals and tourists.  In fact sales for the Asta store where their products are sold increased 3X.

On the strategic front, I’m starting to realize a couple of things. The groups individually aren’t all that powerful but collectively they could have a lot of assets, contact and a big network to share. Something I think could be an an important part of what we end up doing.

Next Up…my visits to 2 other groups!

Getting To Know Rio

My third day in Rio was the National Holiday “Children’s Day” and Flavia, my coworker, took me all around the city. While most people in Brazil speak very little English, her English is close to fluent. What’s so impressive is that she’s barely spoken any English since she was 17 when she did an exchange for only 3 months in North Carolina. And since my arrival she’s picked it back up completely! She’s been so so helpful for translating with my other co-workers, but she’s also been an amazing tour guide.

Our day started at one end of Copacabana beach. Copacabana is an area of Rio where Flavia lives, a touristy neighbourhood that’s very close to the beach. Copacabana is just one of many incredibly beaches in Rio. What’s unique about the city is that all these beaches are integrated right into the city. Flavia said many Cariocas will hit the beach after work and always on the weekend. Every beach has a different “vibe” and Copacabana seems like one of the more energetic, buzzing, crowded beaches. It was packed full of teenagers and young people running around. One thing I’ll say is that Rio is just plain LOUD – everyone’s yelling, even shouting, it’s crowded, music is always playing (even on the public transit) – but that’s part of the charm.

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We walked the entire beach and then had some snacks and a coconut (one of my favs)! From there we headed over to Sugar Loaf, a set of beautiful mountains that’s a popular attraction for tourists and locals for its stunning views. We opt-ed to hike the the smaller of the two mountains and beat the gigantic lines to take the tram up. The trek was a nice bit of exercise, and the views as you climbed up were stunning. I finally got to see the full panorama of Rio and it made me appreciate the beauty of the city. What makes it so gorgeous is that the beaches and mountains are nestled within the city, so you have pockets of development and favelas which are built around all these natural features, giving the city a really distinct look.

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From there Flavia, my tireless tour guide, took me to one of Rio’s largest fairs – the feira de são cristóvão –  devoted to Brazil’s Northern culture. There’s been a large amount of migration from the North (which tends to be more rural and less developed) to the cities in the South/East. So this is where all those Northerns get a taste of home cooking and familiar music. The fair as you might imagine is massive and incredibly overwhelming. Not the kind of place I’d venture to on my own, but I was so glad Flavia took me as it was a unique cultural experience I otherwise wouldn’t have had. The fair is chock full of vendors selling northern food, nothern treats and even has a stage where northern artists perform the popular music Forro. It really was something incredible to see! Alice the director of Asta later told me she used to come to this fair as a teenager, where they’d party late into the evening and dance the night away.

I really enjoyed this fair because it felt like a glimpse into how “the people” live – not the fancy affluent Brazilians who love plastic surgery or American brands – but the regular folks who come here to relax, blow off steam and have fun. I’m learning that Brazilians are really good at having fun and living in the moment!

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We had a quick bite and then made our way over to karaoke at a bar within the fair where Flavia’s friend was having a birthday party. One of my favourite discoveries so far in Rio is that a lot of popular pop songs from North America are remade here using the original melody, but sung by Brazilian artists with different lyrics. The best example: Celine Dion’s Power of Love was a well known (albeit still very cheesy) song by a Brazilian artist. Flavia and her friends chose it for Karaoke and had no idea it was originally a Canadian tune. Of the course my Canadian tendency of urgently pointing out all other famous Canadians came out and I made sure they all knew where the song came from 🙂

I’m sure your wondering at this point, but what have you EATEN? Well the day was full of some authentic Brazilian food. At the top of Sugar Loaf we stopped to have a frozen Acai, made from simply the pure frozen Acai fruit blended into an almost smoothie like texture, very refreshing and not too sweet!

At the beach we had a traditional drink called Mate. Vendors come around the beach selling the home made Mate. You have the option to mix it with Lemonade which I’m going to try next time, but to start I just had the original. Flavia told me it’s made with some sort of herbal mixture, which gives it a distinct flavour. Along with the Mate we had a snack called Globo Biscoitos (in the green and yellow bag). I’ve heard them described as “puffed crisps” that you can get as salty or sweet. Naturally we tried both. Both are classic beach snacks!

For our main meal of the day we had a Northern dish called “Carne de Sol” which basically means meat of the sun. It’s salted beef that’s been dried or cured – sounds weird but it tasted great (the salt really bring out the flavor). Apparently the dish developed as all great food does, from poor populations who have to find a work-around to make great tasting food with limited resources. So without refrigeration to keep the meat fresh, they developed this curing technique. And like with every Brazilian dish it came with a side of rice and beans (a staple of their cuisine). A meal of meat, rice and potatoes is the kind of food Brazilians eat at every meal, lunch and dinner. Alice complained to me that when she went to America they didn’t eat “real” food, and I can totally see how you’d find how our chopped salads really sad if you’re used to eating rice and meat 🙂

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After fair we headed home to recover from a full day of touring and eating.

The rest of my week was devoted more to work and research – updates coming soon!

Meeting The Makers

My 2nd day in Rio and the Asta team has planned for me to go with Flavia, one of two artisan coordinators, on a site visit to meet with two of the groups. Rede Asta has developed a new initiative – The School of Artisans – which is essentially an 11 month business bootcamp for the artisans to train them about business development, product development, sales, and marketing. Alice the Rede Asta founder wants to empower the women to make their business more self-sufficient, because they currently rely on Asta and its retail network for 100% of their sales.  She doesn’t want them to have all their eggs in one basket! A big part of what I’ll be doing is developing short term and long term ideas to help them boost their sales and build their brand.

So, back to Flavia. Her role is to go out and train the groups on the various course curriculum – and as a result she works very closely with the women, something she loves.  The site visit took us almost 3 hours outside of Rio to a small, rural, poor suburb. We were meeting with two of the groups: Cestaria Botanica (who was our host) and the other group who came in from an hour away called Nos do Ponto Chique.

Both groups have great products! Because they were our host, I got to see the entire range and production of the Cestaria Botanica group’s products – beautiful woven housewares and purses. To make them, they use plants from the river and weave them into baskets, pot holders, coasters, and purses.

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One of the woven purses being completed
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Making the magic happen!

Most groups have a leader, and the leader of Cestaria is Geralda. She has the expertise in the indigenous Brazilian weaving technique and has recruited women from the community to work with her and make the products. This group is in a really interesting position – they have a great product, but they just recently lost their one and only buyer, a major grocery store in Brazil.

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Geralda the #girlboss and leader of Cestaria

So know they are essentially starting again to build up their sales. Their product is priced a little bit higher than others, but my instinct tells me it would be perfect for the tourism audience because it has such a great, authentic story. I was also really surprise and impressed that the group had a logo, tags and product pamphlets – something a lot of the other groups don’t even have. It sounds like a very basic thing , but many of these women have never been educated and the idea of having a brand isn’t intuitive. So we’re going to help them with that!  After seeing what they can make, I was feeling really optimistic about their potential. When you start with a great product, you’re in great shape.

I was able to ask the groups of women a ton of questions about their products, how they make it, the challenges they face and some more history about their previous sales successes. We got a lot of great insights and useful “nuggets” of information – the wheels in my mind are already turning. Flavia even told me she learned a lot from that discussion. It goes to show sometimes the best thing you can do is ask questions and keep an open mind! And it was also a reminder for me of how important field work is for my job back home. There’s nothing like going and seeing the products, meeting the people who make them, and having that real life experience. Too often at the agency I’m stuck behind my desk and I want to change that!

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Flavia on the left, me in the centre, and the artisans from Cestaria Botanica and Nos do Ponto Chique

Oh and of course I did some shopping myself – picking up a fruit basket and small box. And the women promised to make me a clutch as the one I had originally chosen wasn’t in production yet. When you’re shopping for change, more is always better!

Going to meet the women I could tell how important their business is to them. They told me how proud they feel when they see what they’re able to make, even though it takes hours of work and a lot of physical labour. For exampled, the Cestaria group has to pull the plants up from the river and once their products are made they have to lug all the baskets  into the city for 3 hours on public transit. Many women in the group are 50+ so I was really impressed by how hard they work.  It made me feel incredibly happy to have chosen Asta for my placement because I can tell how valuable it will be to help these women grow their businesses themselves and believe that they can do it. We’re helping them on an economic level by building their sales but just as importantly on a personal level by building their confidence.

My next post is about my day off exploring Brazil with Flavia. I couldn’t believe my good luck – scoring a national holiday day my third day on the job.

P.S I took the subway and train in Rio and it’s absolutely INSANE. People with mics, selling you literally anything you imagine. From snacks, to iphone accessories, to sponges. Compared to the absolutely silent Canadian subway this was really something to behold.

Baby’s First Bossanova

My first night in Rio wasn’t exactly the quiet night I had planned on. Angelica my coworker at Rede Asta already had the evening all planned for us. Within a couple of my arrival we were on our way out to see a theatre production that incorporated traditional Bossanova music. The music was fantastic – such a great way to start the trip. But the play itself was 100% Portuguese. Luckily I managed to follow along fairly well. Tale as old as time – man meets woman, dumps his fiancé so they can be together, but the woman’s abusive husband gets angry and seeks revenge, they break up but then get back together.

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Then Angelia, her boyfriend Antonio, her friend Ju and I all went out for a quick dinner. We tried for Brazilian food but most places were closed, so we went out for burgers and beers. And in fact at that moment the comforts of home were very much welcomed after such a long trip.

I have to say that so far the Brazilian people are so much fun! Super friendly and kind. Anjelica and Ju’s English is not bad, but definitely not fluent. But despite the language barrier we’ve managed to bond over our shared love of eating and Beyonce. I think we’re going to get a long quite well.

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Yesterday was my first day at the office. I met the entire Rede Asta team, including the director Alice (finally!) and the coordinators who work  directly with the artisans. It was so inspiring hearing about how passionate the team is about helping the artisans. Both Alice and Flavia left their jobs in the corporate world to work with Asta in the social sector, and you can tell they really love what they do. Flavia told me that after working at Asta she can’t go back to the “real world” – she wants to keep helping people and working for charitable causes.  It really made me stop and think about what I do day to day and how much I want to give back not just on this exchange but in others ways back home.

We had a great intro session with Philippa in the morning to level set on objectives of the assignment. Then we went out for lunch as a team – the Brazilians are so civilized, no one would dare eat lunch at their desk.

They just moved into a new office, a co-worked space dedicated to up and coming sustainable fashion brands in Rio. It’s an awesome space, with old shipping containers transformed into offices! It reminded me of Artscape in Toronto.

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The afternoon was spent learning about all the different collectives of artisans, small groups of women and men who produce the different sub-lines of products. I was surprised with just how talented they are and the intricate hand made techniques they use to produce their creations. I was also impressed with their resourcefulness. Because they can’t afford to buy materials, they typically work with sustainable and recycled assets – using things like things like plants they gather from rivers, the outer unused shells of vegetables, and even old, discarded billboards that normally would be thrown out. And through their creativity they craft something beautiful!

Today we’re going three hours outside of Rio to visit 2 artisan collectives and to meet the women in person! I’ll definitely be sharing that. And of course I’m planning to buy a few pieces as well!!

I Made It!

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16 hours later…and I’ve arrived in Rio! I’m feeling a bit of everything – a little jet lagged but mostly excited, nervous and curious to see what’s in store for me!

My flight took me from Toronto, to Atlanta, to Rio. Great fact, Brazil has the most generous allowances of luggage of any country. Every passenger gets 2 pieces of luggage to check! If I had known…my shoe selection would have been exponentially larger. But considering I brought a bag so big I can basically fit inside it, it’s probably for the best.

Anjelica and Marcos, two people who work with Rede Asta, were at the airport to pick me up! So great to see friendly faces to take me to my hotel where I’ll be staying.

I’ve had a nap and now I’m about to head to experience a real life Bossanova performance with the Rede Asta team. Can’t wait to meet everyone and get my first taste of Brazilian culture.

Stay tuned to hear more about the show!