WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Amber Chand knows something of what its like to be despondent. Last January, the company she helped found in 1999, Eziba Inc., a retailer of handcrafts made by artisans from all over the world that had raised $40 million in venture financing, ran out of funds and had to close down.
Company: Amber Chand Collection
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
A few months later, the co-founder of Eziba and Chand's brother in law, Dick Sabot, died suddenly of a massive heart attack.
"There were many nights of sheer devastation," said Chand, who is 55. "I sat by myself and asked, what do I do next?"
In her darkest moment, recounts Chand, she recalled a toothless, impoverished Bolivian woman, a weaver Chand had met in her travels to find products for Eziba. As Chand was leaving the 54-year old woman, she stopped her. "Please do not forget us," Chand said she was told. "The look of yearning in her eyes stayed with me. I kept seeing them."
Chand remembered all too well the horror-filled worlds in which many of the women she met, while searching the world for crafts to sell, lived and it was that knowledge that got her to get up and start again. Now, she is officially launching her latest venture, the Amber Chand Collection, an online catalog that promotes handmade objects made by women in regions of conflict and post-conflict.
"It was the call of women artisans from around the globe that got me to do this again," said Chand. "This is my personal commitment. I'm not hiding behind a company. This is my collection."
Chand's other vivid memory is that Eziba's most successful product was the Rwandan Peace Basket, a naturally-dyed, fiber-woven basket that was made by both Hutu and Tutsi women. After the Eziba catalog focused on women in a conflict area and included stories of many of the women artisans from Rwanda, the women's fashion magazine, Marie Claire, picked up on the story and published Chand's journals of her journey to Rwanda to meet these women. Within a year, the baskets were sold out — there had been 6,000 of them — at $55 each.
"The stories of the women were so compelling," said Chand.
Chand was so inspired by the success of the peace basket — and by the ability of her business to help these women — that her next stop was Israel where she conceived of the Jerusalem Candle of Hope. The product, a hurricane wax candle crafted by Israeli women living near Nazareth, which contains an embroidered bag stitched by Palestinian women living in Bethlehem, was launched in November 2004, but within two months Eziba was forced to shut its doors.
The candle will be the Chand's Collection's first product but this time, Chand is taking no chances. Eziba, she said, was an early spawn of the heady dot-com era, when connecting people from all over the globe was still a novel idea. At its height, the catalog had 200 products, 200,000 customers and $8 million in annual revenues. Amazon was one of its major investors and the company was eventually able to secure $40 million in financing, all of which, said Chand, it needed, especially because people were still using the more expensive print catalog to buy the products.
"The real success of Eziba was that it took handcrafts that had shoddy reputations from all over the world and it reframed and rebranded them to show that they were stylish and sophisticated and chic," said Chand.
But, according to Chand, the company grew too quickly and needed more funding to sustain its growth. To compound that, in 2004, she said that one of the company's lead investors transferred its credit line, which had been set up to enable the company to purchase products for the holiday season to equity in the company, translating into a $7 million loss of funds. The nail in the coffin was the Fall 2004 catalog which was mailed to the wrong mailing list.
By January 2005, the company had to close and that spring it was acquired by Overstock.com.
"I'm sowing the seeds now that were already sowed through Eziba," said Chand. "But the structure of Eziba couldn't sustain that mission."
For Chand that means that she is no longer focused on fast growth and high profits, what she calls the "testosterone" approach to business. "This is my life work," she said. "I'm using a business as a model but it's my mission, my calling." Still, Chand said she deliberately made the Collection a for-profit business. "The intent is to support the producers on the ground," she said. "In order to exist it needs to be sustainable."
Chand's initial funding for the venture is a modest $100,000 from a group of women investors. "I was looking for women who were supporting the company because they believe in the mission," she said.
Slow and careful growth are Chand's buzzwords now, along with a laser beam focus on her mission. The warehouse she found in Agawam, Mass., to house the products employs developmentally disabled adults. It felt right, she said, that "the Jerusalem candles would be packed by them."
For Chand perhaps the most significant part of the venture lies in the fact that for every candle sold — retailing at $32 each — 30 percent goes back to the women making the product with another five percent going to support The Parents Circle — Families Forum, an organization that supports Israeli and Palestinian families, who have all lost close relatives to the violence in the Middle East.
Chand prefers to put it another way. "Ten embroidered bags feed a Palestinian family of four for a day," she said.
Chand is aware of the volatile nature of the region's politics; she had initially conceived of a candle on a coaster but didn't want the Israeli product to be sitting on the Palestinian's. She deliberately called the candle one of hope and not of peace, reflecting the region's political reality. She also made sure to ask the women — both the Palestinian and the Israeli whether they were okay working with one another. They all were.
Chand anticipates selling 2,000 candles over the next two months. Marketing will involve e-mail broadcasts, public appearances and ads.
Eventually, Chand would like to see 12 products in her collection, all of which will be sold exclusively online. Currently, plans include products made by women in Darfur, in Indonesia and in New Orleans. As part of Chand's approach, which involves visiting with each group of women to discuss the project, Chand will write about her journeys and about the stories of the women artisans in the Internet catalog and on her own blog. "A woman in Omaha, Nebraska can connect with women in a Sudanese refugee camp," she said. "The goal is to support and empower women."
It is the women, said Chand, who educate the children and strengthen the communities. In addition to her travels, Chand's knowledge of the world was formed as someone born to Indian parents in Uganda who were forced to leave the country because of political turmoil in 1973. Her family went to England but Chand came to the United States to study anthropology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
In 1986, Chand was directing the museum shop at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. Thirteen years later, she felt she had enough connections with artisans around the world to go out on her own.
And now, she's ready all over again.
"This story is a story of hope when life comes and knocks you down — if your company closes or there is a hurricane," she said. "It's been a very humble journey [but] I'm grateful in the end that this happened.