We recently caught up with Kirsten Dickerson, the CEO and co-founder of Raven + Lily.  Through her passion for fashion and a commitment to ethical design she’s creating a truly ground-breaking company and we can’t wait for you to hear about her journey, in her own words!

The Chalkboard Mag: How was Raven + Lily born?
R + L: Raven + Lily was born out of a desire to combine our love of design with our hope to alleviate poverty among women around the world.  Sophia and I were able to collaborate with other designers in LA who shared the same passion.  We launched Raven + Lily in partnership with women I knew in Africa and India from years of travel and relationship.  I truly believe in the model of creating sustainable income opportunities for women, not just charity or hand-outs.  Each woman is valuable and needs to know that!  Raven + Lily provides opportunity to bring hope and dignity into the lives of woman who have suffered deeply.  The beauty of the products we sell is a reflection of the beautiful woman who made it and how her life is changing.

TCM: How did the idea come about to turn your artistic skill into a business that benefits others?
R+L: Four years ago, I went on a trip to India with some friends from Hollywood. Every development group we encountered was training marginalized women in design skills; we saw women from slum communities learning to sew and make jewelry. They were learning useful skills, but we wanted to help them turn their training into income.  Essentially, they needed help creating designs that appealed to the Western market, and then access to that market. After that experience, I became really excited about the idea of connecting these women in India with designers in LA. Our goal was to collaborate on designs that would reflect the beauty and culture of the women who made them.  In addition to creating sustainable jobs for the women in our partnership, we also return proceeds to fund education and healthcare in our partner communities.

TCM: Your jewelry is made of some interesting resources. Tell us more!
R+L: All of the beads in our collection are hand-made from melted bullet casings from past wars that took place on Ethiopian soil. I love the idea of taking something that was once meant for harm and repurposing it into something beautiful that now brings hope and life to HIV-positive women.

TCM: Can you walk us through the process one of your pieces might go through before being purchased?
R+L: The wonderful thing about the story of our pieces is that they have an impact on an entire community, not just the artisans we directly employ. First the bullets are gathered by farmers from their fields. They are then sold to local artisans in the villages who specialize in making the beads from the melted bullet casings. Hand making metal beads is a traditional Ethiopian skill that has been going on for generations. You can see incredible photos of this process on our website and blog.  The women from our artisan group purchase these beads, and then create the designs we have specified for them. The final step is for the jewelry to be shipped to our studio in Austin where our small team and lots of volunteers help us unpack and tag all the goods for our customers!

TCM: What is your favorite experience that’s come about from managing Raven + Lily?
R+L: My favorite experience has been seeing visible changes in the women we work with. Some of them go from being terribly shy and insecure to having so much liveliness and confidence. The specific moment that comes to mind was when Sophia and I were in Cambodia with our newest artisan group of women. We showed them on a map where all our other partnerships were and told the stories of the women we work with in each country. They were amazed to learn that other women around the world were HIV-positive and impoverished, and shared the same struggles. Seeing the photos of these other women whose lives had been transformed made them giddy with joy and so excited to be part of the work that Raven + Lily is doing around the world.

TCM: Tell us about your team.  How do the 3 of you work together?
R+L: There are actually four of us now! Sophia Lin and I are the founders; I take on the role as the big-picture visionary and Sophia focuses on the overall design aesthetic for our brand. We tend to do most of our decision making over the phone and through e-mails since I’m in Austin and she’s in LA, but we try to get together in person at least once per quarter. Our other team members are Lori Fox and Cameron Crake. As our lead designer, Lori works closely with our partnerships to train the women in new designs; she just got back from a trip that took her literally around the world, from the US to Ethiopia to India to Cambodia and back again! And Cameron recently relocated from Uganda, where she was working for a similar social business. Her role is in operations management and working out the daily details.  I love our little team.  Our personalities and talents really balance and compliment one another.  We also have a fantastic group of volunteers that come to the studio on a regular basis.  I’m so grateful for their support!

TCM: Raven + Lily also makes scarves, books and other goods. Tell us more about those items.
R+L: We are really excited to launch our new Ethiopian scarf line (coming available next week!).  These hand-loomed scarves are made by women who were former stick carriers, meaning that their job was literally to carry heavy loads of sticks into town every day. After receiving micro loans, they have been trained in weaving skills and have a new opportunity to make a living.  The process of hand-looming is amazing.  I am a big fan of supporting traditional artisan skills like this, and I love seeing it revived in Ethiopia!

Our recycled-cotton paper goods (journals, notecards and gift tags) are from North India, along with a line of organic soaps and lavender sachets. All of our designs share a color story and theme, regardless of where the collection is made. And we are looking forward to introducing our newest products from Cambodia this fall! We are launching a collection featuring hand-loomed bags, home goods and hand-printed t-shirts made of recycled jersey cotton.

TCM: What are other brands you admire?
R+L: There are so many brands that I draw inspiration from and truly admire, but I’ll just list a few! I really admire Andean Collection; they have beautiful jewelry paired with a program that empowers women in Ecuador. I am also a fan of Donna Karan’s line Urban Zen that works with artisans in Haiti. And I was recently introduced to a company called Maiyet; they are a high-end brand with a beautiful look that works with artisans all over the world.

For a limited time, TCM readers will receive a 20% discount on the entire Raven + Lily store!  Enter this exclusive code at checkout to receive the discount: women2012.  Offer expires 03/30/12.

To learn more about raven + lily visit their blog and website.

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