Starting from scratch: Rubina Design’s founder on building a social enterprise

Notes: I’ll be profiling this organization as it moves through the stages of product development, marketing, and expansion, over the next few months.

photo courtesy of Rubina DesignBringing an idea to life is a little like launching a rocket: the moment is fueled by many patient hours spent studying, researching, planning, searching for resources, building a team, and refining key details. But in entrepreneurship, unlike rocket science, you don’t need to know specific formulas in order for your idea to take off. It takes inspiration, careful consideration, and a willingness to learn on the job.

Kari Litzmann founded Rubina Design after studying a women’s sewing workshop in Pakistan where she saw the limits of the nonprofit charity model but also observed the potential benefits of supporting women entrepreneurs. While supporting herself through freelance design work, Litzmann is working on developing her first line of products, attractive print materials targeted at “working women who care about the world,” to be made by rural artisans in India.

RS: You say on your website that it was during your trip to Pakistan that you formed the idea for Rubina Design. What specifically influenced you?
Litzmann: I was doing my master’s at Pratt, focusing on how organizations can strategically use design to find creative solutions to problems. For my thesis, I did three case studies looking at the intersections of design and business. I went to Pakistan to do an in-depth examination of a women’s sewing workshop in Peshawar, a culturally conservative region. The workshop was run on a charity basis by a local church. There was one participant, named Rubina, who wanted to start her own business, since her husband didn’t work and they had two kids to raise. But there were huge obstacles: women couldn’t even be present at the male-dominated town market, and also the nonprofit environment was not conducive to entrepreneurship.

So what were the first steps to bringing your idea to life?
I design print materials as a freelancer, so I knew I could build on that skill, and support myself doing that while I developed my business plan. I knew how to write the plan because the program at Pratt was modeled after a MBA program so we focused on marketing, product development, and so on. Also, just telling people about my idea made it real, because it created accountability; people began asking how far along I was in my project.

How did you choose India as your producer base?
There’s such a vibrant artisan culture there, and the textiles are simply beautiful. I’ve established a relationship with an NGO in Gujarat by doing pro-bono work for them. It’s an amazing organization; they’ve started a design school and they help traditional textile artisans to access international markets.

Isn’t it hard to start a business when your producers are halfway across the world?
My main partner now is a large-scale retailer called FabIndia who for more than 50 years now has established a streamlined supply chain that incorporates more than 22,000 rural artisans. Despite their size, they have been able to stick to their mission of working with rural artisans. This plus their proven success producing for a large upper, middle-class Indian market will be key as we approach larger retailers in US with the first Rubina artisan line.

You were originally interested in supporting women, but will all of the artisans who produce for your line be women?
Many rural artisans in India are women, though not all. Ultimately I’d like to support women because, I learned while working for Women’s World Banking, women are more likely to save money and use it for their kids’ needs, like education. But women aren’t incorporated enough into income-generation because of cultural barriers.

You’re supporting yourself while you do this, and it will be a while before you’re making any profit. How do you see that process moving?
I’m phasing myself into being the full-time director of Rubina. In September, I’m going to be paired with volunteer, highly-skilled professionals through Catchafire. That should get the first year off to a good start. From there, I’d like to bring the business model back to my home, Texas. There are enormous immigrant communities there that are simply impoverished, lacking basic services, who could benefit from access to markets.

Do you have any role models or sources of inspiration?
The founder of Acumen Fund, Jacqueline Novogratz, said that the market serves as a ‘listening device,’ by providing feedback. This is why the market is such a powerful device for helping others; it allows them to help themselves. Rather than giving things away, we can create a model where everyone is giving and getting, both at once.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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