Yswara bowls filled with spices, herbs and flowers
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Woven baskets made from sisal, a natural fibre from Kenya. Jewellery made from the agare plant in Colombia. The appeal of these products made by artisans is growing internationally and globally-minded business school students are getting in on the act. For two MBA alumni, plans to bring these types of craft products to a wider audience have had positive results.

Swaady Martin-Leke, an executive MBA graduate from Trium, the programme taught by NYU Stern, London School of Economics and HEC Paris, took the solo route. Trained in the corporate world, and having worked at General Electric for a decade, she wanted to try something different. “It seemed like I had GE in my DNA,” says Ms Martin-Leke. “GE is a very oiled machine, so if you are in the leadership pipeline, you are moulded into a GE leader. But I was still young, I wanted other exposures …I wanted to keep an edge and be pushed to think.”

Ms Martin-Leke was keen to create the missing link between Africa’s abundant raw materials, being used by local artisans, and the international market. “I wanted to preserve African craftsmanship - combining artisan with contemporary and timeless products,” she says. She believed the best way to do this would be through a luxury brand: “The luxury industry conveys culture and identity. It is a country’s or continent’s image presented to the world - what better way to make an impact and change [perceptions].”

Nine months after graduating from Trium in September 2012, she launched Yswara, a luxury retailer of African products, setting up an all-female workforce to give opportunities to local women.

One of the products sold by Yswara is gourmet African tea made with flowers, spices, herbs and fruits. “While Africa is the world’s largest exporter of tea and the third largest producer, only five to 10 per cent of the final packaged tea value is retained in Africa,” points out Ms Martin-Leke. Yswara intends to retain 90 per cent of the value in Africa, enabling local farmers to benefit from global markets. The company also has to educate customers on the qualities of African teas.

It was local artisans in Brazil that sparked Julie Verdugo’s interest in 2011, when she was studying for an MBA at Iese Business School. During her first year at the school in Spain, she took a summer module that included a trip to Brazil – learning how to do business there – and was impressed by the jewellery being made in the favelas and sold on the beach. “They were really beautiful, handmade pieces and so cheap,” she says. In spite of living in shanty towns, the artisans had high ambitions but lacked resources.

Arriving back in Spain for the second year of her MBA, Ms Verdugo decided to invent a business that would allow her to work with these artisans. “On an MBA course, it’s hard to say ‘let’s help the world for the sake of helping the world,’” she says.

After spending another summer in Brazil, this time running jewellery classes in the favelas with her twin sister Diana, an MBA graduate from neighbouring Esade Business School, she found that launching her own business would be difficult. Instead, she took the corporate route.

“I had a position at Adidas [after graduation], on an MBA rotational programme with placements in different countries. So, the day before my first day [in September 2012], I chatted to my boss and said I felt we could build a project together.”

With Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014, Ms Verdugo found the sports company was open to her proposal. “They’ve never had a social product before so they were happy to give it a try. I was ecstatic,” she says.

The result is a small collection of tote bags and trucker style caps with bold favela-inspired graphics, called Comunidade Arts Project. “I wanted them to be as bright as possible to show the positive side of the favelas,” says Ms Verdugo, explaining ‘Comunidade’ is the name that favela residents prefer to use to refer to their home. The products will go on sale in 2014, as part of Adidas’ spring/summer collection, and proceeds from the sales will be used to give art classes at Ginga Social, an after-school initiative in Brazil that gives additional support to children living in these underprivileged communities.

“It would have been good to run with the idea myself [creating a jewellery business] but I’m glad I didn’t and instead went to a company that could make more of a global impact,” says Ms Verdugo. “It may also have been a bit selfish to say I’ve done it on my own and reached, say, 10 people.”

Swaady Martin-Leke: "I wanted to be pushed to think"

Despite the contrast in their approaches, both women attribute their achievements to their time at business school. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better aid in switching from infrastructure building to building a luxury brand,” says Ms Martin-Leke. “The multi-site teaching and the permeability between the three schools broadened my perspective and taught me the skills required to address some of Africa’s critical issues, which are generally complex and cross-disciplinary.”

Finding consistent suppliers, for example, has at times been difficult for the luxury entrepreneur. “Our artisans are mostly not set-up to scale their activities and are often paralysed by the prospect of growing their activities beyond the ‘enough-to-live’ stage,” says Ms Martin-Leke.

Yet the company continues to grow. In June 2013, it partnered with Envouthé, a large community of tea lovers, to launch in France. As part of the launch, more than 2,000 Yswara collector boxes were sent to Envouthé’s 8,000 members. In September 2013 it will start selling new product lines at Maison&Objet in Paris and will open a concept store in Johannesburg, South Africa.

For Ms Verdugo, the entrepreneurship classes she took in her second year of business school proved invaluable. “You need to go in with an idea, build a team and then present to investors, it’s really helpful,” she says. It was the feedback she received from this that convinced her to return to Brazil for a second time: “They said I needed to know more about the favelas and I agreed I didn’t know them well enough to convince potential investors.”

Ms Martin-Leke is also a strong advocate of networking. “In this globalised world, it is critical to build networks which span various continents and are not limited to one region or industry …If you go to the right events and meet the right people, you can learn so much [and] create wonderful opportunities…For example, I have been a member of the African Leadership Network since its inception in 2010. ALN has played an integral role in my transition into a new industry.”


Shared values

Diana and Julie Verdugo in Brazil

Twins Diana and Julie Verdugo did everything together: same university, same engineering career, same online business selling jewellery – until it came to applying to business school. Having decided to do an MBA in order to expand their jewellery company, their paths diverged.

“We didn’t make a pact to separate but strategically it made sense for our business plan,” says Diana Verdugo. In particular, they were keen to take advantage of the wider network this would open to them. “We thought why not have two different experiences and then combine them as we already cross-pollinate friends all the time,” says Julie Verdugo.

With this decision taken, and Spain the country of choice for the US citizens, Julie Verdugo accepted a place at Iese Business School while Diana Verdugo opted for Esade Business School, both in Barcelona. Explaining the reasons for their choice, the twins describe Iese as more traditional and structured, focused on finance and consulting, which suited Julie, while the innovative spirit of Esade appealed to Diana’s creative side. “The school had just moved to a new campus where there were incubators for start-ups,” she says. “It seemed more collaborative.”

Ultimately, the twins feel their assumptions proved correct. “In the end we came out with similar skill sets but very different experiences,” says Julie Verdugo. Their business plan has since evolved to support the work of local artisans in Brazil. While Julie Verdugo is working with Adidas to launch a series of products inspired by the favelas in Brazil, Diana is setting up a communications network called Fashion is in the Favelas.

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