Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Living Jews: Rebecca Kousky, Founder of Nest

Over the weekend, several of us at The St. Lou Jew had a chance to sit down and conference call Rebecca Kousky, founder of Nest. We were all quite impressed with what Rebecca is doing, and we think you will be too.

Rebecca's story takes us back to North Carolina, where she attended University. After graduating early, she spent some time in India working with a Non-Governmental Organization, teaching to a class with a large percentage of students with disabilities. She names this experience in shaping her interest in international development.

Kousky says, "I saw international aid at its best and at its worst.  The best was helping people become productive, the worst is when it feeds culture of dependency.   Dependency to husbands, fathers, and aid organizations."

We were interested to understand how she decided on microloans and how Build A Nest is different from other non-profit microlenders or for-profit banks doing work in developing countries.

Kousky explained that microlending can be a lot more powerful than other types of aid because it encourages people to start supporting themselves.

Micro lending has huge problems in that most people in developing nations, particularly women aren't financially educated.

Banks are willing to help women with loans, but generally don't give education and financial training, and exists to make a profit, so if someone can't pay back their loan, they have to worry about the bank coming after them.  

What separates Nest is that they provide interest free loans (which is a must if you want to include Muslims) specifically for purchasing materials for making crafts, such as kilns or rental space to start businesses in the arts.

Additionally, Nest is more closely involved in microbartering (a term Rebecca coined), as the money goes directly to purchasing the materials, and is paid back in product, reducing the likelihood of money being mishandled.

We were curious as to why she decided to support women creating businesses in the arts, Rebecca replied, "women are often already making crafts, and don't realize that there is a larger market for these things, and also, I have a strong interest in art and the craft movement in general. I really wanted to develop the interest free aspect and that was a big part of it. The craft movement has been a very big part of indiginous communities."

She went further to explain that, "even the idea of entrepreneurship and development is foreign to these women. We want the product to sell, but we want it to sell in their communities.

Rebecca started Nest immediately after graduating from Washington University with a Masters in Social Work.

She was able to start the non-profit after winning $25,000 in seed funding from the Skandalaris Center of Entrepreneurship's annual start-up competition.

Nest now has advisory boards in 8 cities including St. Louis, DC, and New York.

We wanted to know a bit about some of the challenges she has faced (starting a business at 24 isn't exactly a cake walk) and Rebecca admitted, "it is a hard time to be a small business, sales are down across the board." But on the other hand, "people care more where their money is going."

There are also cultural barriers, and you have to tread carefully, explains Rebecca.
Women being independent is scary thing for men in certain cultures.  In places like Turkey, often men kill women and report it as a suicide.

While Rebecca's background in social work gave her a conceptual framework for how to think about these women in relation to their cultures, she wishes she had been given some business training.

I should have had an MBA, I wasn't interested in business, finance or accounting, I didn't know what a profit/loss statement was, or book keepin or inventory management, suddenly I'm importing and I didn't know know how to do all of that.

I mean, how do you ask a lawyer to be pro bono or file for 501(c)3?

Fortunately, my family helped a lot, I got a pro bono lawyer at Bryan Cave, and put together a board, who have been amazing.

Despite Rebecca's lack of business background, she has been very sure to measure and evaluate Nest's success.

"I'm a social worker, so I want to see how this is effective, we have thourough pre and post evaluations," which measure things like education of the women and their children and their visions for the future, and what their role is in community change.

She says these are some of the area in which things are definitely happening. "You see radical shifts in the way the women see the education of their daughters as a priority".

We were interested to know how the program has changed since inception and launch, to which Rebecca responded, "we didn't think about the education of children, now we have to build that in."

We are investing a lot more in product development to have a cohesive line so that we can take it to market to wholesale it aggressively so that we can buy more product and lend more.

In addition to this, Kousky and the Build A Nesters are writing a curriculum on financial education, product development and the green movement. The hope is to write it so that it has lesson plans and would be easy to implement. If anyone out there has some experience in this field, this is a worthy organization of your talents, as the need people with lesson plan writing experience.

Build A Nest also started a second business to do sourcing; pairing domestic designers with the producers to certify it fair trade. The domestic designers then donate %5 back to nest.

To cope with economic realities, Rebecca says they are, "aggressively working on grant writing and making sure we have consistent donor support."
But don't expect the economy to topple this Nest, "we have an awesome donor base, and we are already sustainable."

Being that this is the St. Lou Jew, after all, we wanted to know why Rebecca decided (as of November) to leave St. Louis for DC.
"We have a great advisory board in St. Louis and its sustainable, so I didn't need to be here as much," she explains.

Ok, well, what is one thing that you like better about St. Louis (one thing...anything)?
"You can get swallowed in DC and New York. In NYC, you can't sit on the board of an art museum or any interesting non profit. In STL you can."
..wait..I can sit on the board of an art museum? I gotta look into that...

Considering that this is an empowering organization, we just had to know, what is the most rewarding part of the work Rebecca does?

"I'm in happy social work, I get to see people who care passionately about making things happen.  Seeing the self confidence of the women [following their success] is the best part."

So...How can people like us get involved?
"We have this other half of the business where we partner with local designers where a percentage of sales are donated. The model is all about helping artists and mentoring. Anyone in the arts/crafts/design world can get involed. We are constantly doing events, fund raisers, etc." To get involved, email or check out the website and click get involved.

No comments: