In a nutshell, what does your organisation do and how did it start?
I started Artizan International on returning to Harrogate after 10 years of life and work in Tanzania, East Africa, where I set up a social enterprise that provides crafts training and employment for people with disabilities who would otherwise be street begging to earn a living. Having started with three deaf trainees when I began, on a start-up budget of just £400, by the time I left the centre was employing over 120 people with a huge range of disabilities, all of whom are now able to support themselves and their families with dignity and pride. I set up the registered charity Artizan International on returning home, (originally known as Craft Aid International) to pass on this model to other developing countries where people with disabilities are still living in poverty. I also found that differently-able people in the UK are often very socially isolated, something we’ve experienced first-hand as my youngest daughter has Downs Syndrome. Therefore, as an organisation we started by running free weekly therapeutic crafts sessions for adults with disabilities in the community in Harrogate and Leeds. We also work with long-term hospital inpatients at Harrogate and Ripon hospitals, and run after school clubs for children with special needs too.
What’s the most surprising thing about it?
People are often surprised how capable, talented and employable differently-able people are, when given the same opportunities as their peers. They’re also surprised by the high quality of the products our artisans produce.
What do you do?
I’m the Director, so I ‘steer the ship’ of our organisation. This includes overseeing and supporting all our overseas volunteers, doing hands-on design for some our overseas products, working closely with Liz Cluderay our amazing UK Programmes Officer and volunteer co-ordinator, writing grant applications, liaising with supporters, creating and managing the website, finding outlets for our products at home and overseas, running events …there’s always a lot to do!
How did you end up here?
I studied textiles as my degree. Having become a Christian in my late teens, I discovered this great source of love and that made me want to use my skills to serve others rather than just serving myself, so I volunteered in Uganda whilst still a student, setting up a social enterprise for people with learning disabilities. This led me on to my work with differently-able people (of all faiths and none), in Tanzania and now the UK, Ecuador and Peru.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
I’d be a jazz singer! I’m the vocalist with The Nightflyers jazz band.
What motivates you?
LOVE. The kind of love that puts others before self, that compels us to leave our comfort zones and reach out to people on the margins. I was born with a disability myself, having no left hip socket or head to the femur, so I had 22 operations by the time I was 19 years old. It’s hard to tell now, but I know what it’s like to be prevented from doing things, just because you’re different. This can be tough, but it also makes differently-able people incredibly resilient and great problem solvers. People say to me, “Why are you always smiling?!”, it’s not because my life has been easy, but it has been an adventure! My relentless positivity is an expression of my refusal to let my limitations get in the way of anything I want to achieve, or that I want to achieve on behalf of others.
What one thing do you wish you had known when you started out in social enterprise?
Get your work-life balance right early! Family and friendships are just as important as your work, in fact more so, and you’ll be better at your job if you’re not permanently shattered! We all need to be told that sometimes.
What excites you about business / social enterprise?
Unpacking the boxes of beautiful cards and jewellery as they arrive from Ecuador and Peru, handling each one and knowing the transformational story of the artisan who made it. Whether it’s a bracelet made by Vanessa who has muscular dystrophy and rarely used to leave the house, or a card made by Ramon who lost the use of his legs in motorbike accident and was without work for literally years before we trained and equipped him. Knowing the stories behind each product we produce, visiting the artisans when I go overseas and seeing their lives improving. That’s exciting and hugely rewarding.
What advice would you give to people just starting their careers?
Do what you love, work hard, pray hard, put your heart and soul into it, and don’t be afraid to fail. Make no small plans and don’t listen to the doubters. (But do listen to wise friends!)
Who in business do you most admire and why?
Randolph Lewis. He’s a former vice president of a Fortune 50 company in the U.S. and encourages businesses to integrate large numbers of people with disabilities as equals into their workforce.
What moments of your career so far stand out?
Receiving the Woman of the Year award and an MBE for my work in Tanzania (to my amazement!).
What sets you apart from the competition?
We’re motivated by love and service for people on the margins rather than profit. At the same time, we care passionately about producing great quality, well-designed products that customers will love. The back-story of lives transformed, is then a bonus.
What is the most difficult challenge your charity has faced?
Hard to choose between funding and the need for extra pairs of hands!
…and what challenges are you experiencing at the moment?
We’d love to have more volunteers join us.
Have you got a five-year goal for the charity?
Yes! We plan to start a community café and shop, run by differently-able people in Harrogate; and also hope to establish social enterprises in other developing countries.
Why is it good to do business in Harrogate and Wetherby?
It’s a vibrant community of people, many of whom care about the ethical provenance of the products they buy.