How did you and Ubuntu first connect?
I first met Zane, founder of Ubuntu (formerly CTC International), about eight years ago at a Craigslist Foundation Nonprofit Boot Camp. Zazzle was a sponsor of the event, as we found that a lot of nonprofits were starting to use our platform to raise funds for their causes. I met many amazing, passionate people at the event, but Zane with his heartfelt charisma and unbridled belief in his organization’s mission really stood out from the crowd.
He told me the story of these moms in Kenya who all had children with various mental and physical disabilities. It was heartbreaking to hear that they were outcast from their communities due to spiritual tribal beliefs, and were struggling to survive and provide for their children. But perhaps more significantly, Zane told me that there was no charity involved. What these moms needed wasn’t money, handouts, or even pity.
What they really needed was opportunity, the chance to lift themselves out of poverty and become independent. So he and his small team at the time were teaching them how to sew, and creating simple but beautiful products that they could then sell to the Western world. In other words, they were becoming entrepreneurs and businesswomen, and even at these very earliest stages, they were beginning to transform their lives, their confidence and self-esteem, and their ability to provide for their children.
This resonated perfectly with our belief system at Zazzle. They are makers! And our vision has always been to empower makers, designers and creative individuals, all across the globe.
I didn’t know what we were going to do together at the time, and certainly didn’t anticipate that this serendipitous encounter would fundamentally alter the course of my life, and that of others at Zazzle. But I’m profoundly grateful to be a part of something so meaningful. Fast forward to the launch of “The Adventure Collection”, hopefully, what we’re doing can eventually serve as a model for a better way to do nonprofit work across the world – creating opportunity instead of giving handouts.
How was Zazzle Heart born?
Zazzle Heart was a purely organic, unplanned creation. We were just absolutely gung-ho to help Zane, the Kenyan moms, and their children. So we started out with some really basic projects that dovetailed into existing initiatives that Zane was spearheading at the time.
For one of the first initiatives, we shipped over a ton of art supplies so that the kids could create designs for an Ubuntu store on Zazzle! It was thrilling to see all of the different characters, animals and creative drawings. From African subject matter like wild animals and zebras, to wildly imaginative depictions of Santa, airplanes and ice cream sundaes, it was such a blast to provide this creative outlet for the kids and then showcase their artwork to a larger audience. It was a tiny start, but a small spark that helped build momentum.
One of the very first products that the moms learned how to sew was a coffee sleeve, made from locally sourced canvas material, and emblazoned with Ubuntu’s mission. We didn’t know what we were going to do with coffee sleeves, but we were compelled to place a large order. 30,000 coffee sleeves to be exact! That order, combined with one from Whole Foods, was enough for Ubuntu to double the number of moms that it could employ.
Eight additional moms, and their families! Repeat, EIGHT. Each benefiting from a real job, earning a consistent income, supporting their kids with the appropriate care they needed, and learning new skills that could generate more work to come. As soon as I heard that we had that kind of an impact – eight moms and their kids – I was sold, forever!
When boxes upon boxes of coffee sleeves arrived, we honestly didn’t know what to do with them, as they didn’t make a whole lot of sense with our online offering at the time. The way that I explained it internally was simply that “Sometimes we’re just going to do things from the heart”. Period. So we branded “Zazzle Heart” on all of the sleeves, and used them for promotional purposes at events, and eventually added them to the site as accessories.
Where did it go from there?
Zazzle Heart really lifted off after my first visit to Kenya in 2014. That was my first opportunity to connect in person with all of the moms, their children, and the passionate Ubuntu team on the ground in Kenya. The moms invited us into their homes, told us their personal stories of transformation from the worst imaginable conditions to empowered, joyous, powerful women. To say that I was inspired by these moms would be a dramatic understatement.
During the journey, we collaborated to launch an initial collection of products that included handmade aprons, scarves, tote bags, change purses and bracelets. We sourced local, traditional Kikoy materials and created our own custom pattern, that spanned the collection. It was a solid initial start and we learned a tremendous amount in order to inform our mega launch this year.
What inspired the second collaboration?
“The Adventure Collection” dwarfs every previous project with Ubuntu to date. About a year ago, Zane flew out to meet with our small Zazzle Heart team and proposed that we partner together exclusively to help them completely re-launch their brand, Ubuntu Made. This was a huge honor and we understood the magnitude of the challenge, as this first collection for Ubuntu Made would really set the tone for the brand, indefinitely.
Why was is so important that you the entire team go to Africa this time?
It was imperative that the core Zazzle Heart team could be inculcated with the same passion, which is only possible from making the in-person, human connection to everybody involved in Africa. My absolute top priority was getting my teammates on the ground in Maai Mahiu, Kenya to meet all the moms and their wonderful children, to hear their stories and connect directly with the purpose of our collaboration.
It was quite the adventure! There were nonstop, 14 hour days trekking across Ethiopia to Kenya to Maai Mahiu, and some of the most remote rural areas in Africa to meet with Maasai tribeswomen. We dove head first into the culture, the local foods, had our fair share of digestive trouble and even encountered a lion – up close and personal.
Not only did we all experience the thrill of such incredibly different places, people, and cultures, but we were inspired by all of the diverse constituents involved in the products that we were creating. And we really committed to incorporate and celebrate them in each and every product. This dramatically affected the physical and aesthetic outcome of the products themselves – from the millimetric specifications of every cut of leather, to the beads in the branded mark, which hail from the Maasai tribeswomen, who bead under acacia trees as a pastime. I’m certain this trip, alone, made the difference between launching a great collection and one so unique and amazing, that it could change everything for Ubuntu Made, and also for Zazzle
The hardest thing to articulate to anybody who hasn’t experienced this region of the world for themselves is the sheer awe all of the place. Seemingly so limitless in its size, so raw in its nature, and so much possibility for growth and improvement. And there are simply no more joyful, positive and ambitious people in the world than the moms of Ubuntu Made. Spending a day with them alone can change your life. It did mine.
What are your hopes for not this collection with Ubuntu, but Zazzle Heart?
My hope for Zazzle Heart is that everybody who receives one of these products feels that same inspiration and emotion, and can appreciate the connection they’ve made to these incredible souls in Africa, who crafted these products with love, by hand.
I also truly believe that these products are the best of what Zazzle can do for the world. They are not only incredibly high-quality, but they’re creating opportunity for makers on the other side of the globe, enabling artists and designers to emblazon them with unique artwork and content, and inviting customers to also make their personal mark with customization.
It’s a win–win–win. There’s really nothing like this that ever been created in the history of commerce. From handmade products in Africa + the latest customization technologies in Silicon Valley + all fully-customizable by designers and customers. C’mon…just, wow!
Back to your question, my short-term hopes are that customers are blown away and that we grow this collection astronomically. Longer-term, I hope the success of this collection can enable us to do even more projects with Ubuntu Made and continue to focus on creating opportunities in this region of the world. Long-long-term, I believe this model can be applicable to other areas the world, and other communities who also need a chance – an opportunity.
On a final note, for Zazzle Heart internally, I’ve been so incredibly inspired by everybody who has helped with this collection. There has been such a heightened level of care, commitment, and passion for this project. Because everybody knows this really, really matters to our friends in Africa. The core Zazzle Heart team have all gone above-and-beyond the call of duty, at all hours of the day, relentlessly doing their part to make this collection the very best it can be.
So…I hope Zazzle Heart can continue to be an organic initiative where those who are most inspired by what we’re doing – from any corner of the company – can get involved and be a part of the adventure.
Regardless of any business or financial outcome, the original tenant of Zazzle Heart remains true…
Sometimes we’re just going to do things from the heart.