Two billion people live on $2.50/day and make their living via selling handmade crafts, but are often exploited by wholesalers who purchase items cheaply and sell them at a huge profit. That’s a problem the grassroots organization Vendedy aims to stop. Vendedy connects street artisans directly with consumers via mobile technology.
Coming from a family with generations of street vendors, founder and CEO Christine Souffrant understands what it’s like to earn your keep selling crafts—and what it’s like to lose it all. “My mom street-vended in Columbus Circle, laying out her blanket. She’d sell out in a couple of hours.” Of course, this sometimes resulted in getting chased by police, but as Souffrant says, they came to admire her resilience. “They’d help her, saying, ‘There’s going to be a [police] check here, a check there,’” she laughs, but you can hear the respect and admiration in her voice. “She was really just doing her best to provide.”
Souffrant’s mom eventually relocated to Queens to start selling in a flea market, and after a decade of street selling, she managed to rent a space in the Jamaica Colosseum Mall. But it all started to unravel after the 2010 earthquake. “Millions of lives were lost. Millions were left without jobs, including us, ironically.” It’s not easy for Souffrant to talk about, but she remains composed as she explains that relying on the products of street artisans meant her mother’s business collapsed. Her mom and brother moved back to Haiti. “We were homeless in a matter of weeks.” Souffrant, at this point a junior at Dartmouth College, started selling items on eBay to get by.
Entrepreneurship in America is about opportunity. Entrepreneurship in Haiti is survival.
“I didn’t know I had the passion for street vendors until I was able to reflect in 2010 after the earthquake,” she reveals. “There was rubble and chaos happening in Haiti, but you still saw street sellers literally selling on top of that rubble. That’s when it hit me. Everywhere I went in the world, that’s all I cared about.”
Souffrant tries to put into words the Haitian pride she grew up around—stories told via oral tradition and through artwork—but it’s her words that are perhaps the best example. “Haiti has the strongest concentration of artwork in the world in terms of design,” she says. But though she knew there was an opportunity here, she was conflicted about entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship in America is about opportunity. Entrepreneurship in Haiti is survival,” she candidly explains. “There’s different reasons why people use it as an outlet. In many parts of the world, where jobs aren’t available, people turn to it because it’s a means of survival.”
It was during college and via traveling to dozens of countries around the world that Souffrant saw entrepreneurship through the opportunity lens. “I don’t believe that the government, charities, nonprofits of the world can sustainably address the challenges we have today,” she says with brutal honesty. “We can’t depend on them.”
Taking what she calls a “leap of faith,” Souffrant left a lucrative career in banking and moved to Dubai, where she’d noticed a community of social entrepreneurs planting roots. “The private sector needs to stand up. Our generation has an entrepreneurial spirit; we’re going to take place in the conversation. We can no longer see what’s happening on TV and just ignore it and watch it as a movie,” she says with a conviction that’s impossible to ignore. “Events are going to impact you even if it’s happening on the other side of the world.”
Vendedy was born of Souffrant’s belief that we all can—and need—to make a difference. What started as a blog is now increasing traction on social media, and was selected as 2014 Poverty Alleviation Commitment by the Clinton Global Initiative.
Souffrant has a personal investment in street artisans, and you can sense that she feels a tremendous obligation to make this endeavor work. “I’m tired of the solutions for poverty in third-world countries.” You can simultaneously sense her empathy for people in these countries, and frustrations with how we treat them. “They don’t have the same platforms we have. But they have raw talent—despite their circumstances,” she emphasizes. “These people don’t want pity. They’re smart. They’re talented. They just need a market.”
Vendedy is her way of giving them that market, that platform they need to support themselves in a sustainable way. Souffrant is busy pitching the concept to investors to raise capital to get their mobile app created. Street artisan will have the ability to upload photos of their work so that customers can bid on the designs. Artisans, once they ship their work, will receive payment via SMS. Currently, Vendedy has assembled a global network of street vendors from more than 150 countries that “create the best handcrafts that retain the culture of their region and beauty of their stories.”
For Souffrant, the artisans’ personal stories resonate with her own story and fuel her morale to make Vendedy huge. She talks about a press conference in Haiti where dozens of artisans showed up. “You have to figure this out,” they told her. “No one sees us.” It’s emotional for Souffrant to talk about, because she knows her endeavor is so much bigger than her. “If we fail, it’s not a lost business opportunity. It’s millions of lives impacted.”