Rebecca Kousky is deeply committed to helping the plight of the poor women and children. While doing development and social work in various Third World countries, she saw first hand the difficult lives of these people. Upon graduation, she embarked on combining her passion for social activism with design, fashion and art. Nest http://www.buildanest.com was born.
Nest works with international non-profit organizations to provide micro-credit loans to women in developing nations to help them start art or craft-based businesses. The goal of Nest is to help these women become self-sufficient, and help improve their lives. These women pay back their loans by selling their goods on the Nest web site.
Learn the amazing story of Rebecca, and how she is striving to empower women around the world:
You came from a family of entrepreneurs. How did this early exposure shape your mindset and your decision to start a business two weeks after graduating from grad school?
Fully! My parents taught me both what it is to love your work and also that it is okay to take risks for things that you are passionate about. Their advice and support has been endless + without it, nest would not be what it is!
How did the available startup resources affected your decisions when you were just starting? Did you apply for a bank loan?
I never actually made it applying for a loan – I just knew that at 24, just out of graduate school, with no formal employment and no collateral, it would have been. My original idea was to have a bricks and mortar shop. Knowing how difficult it would have been to raise money for that, I turned Nest online and am thrilled I made that choice. An online space gives us the flexibility and broader reach that has contributed to our success.
What inspired you to start Nest? Why the name Nest?
Nest was born of my desire to combine my passions: social activism, entrepreneurship and the female artistic tradition. I’ve always had an artistic sensibility and a love of fashion and design, but during development work in rural Mexico and India, I became interested in the lives of the women there. Upon returning, I received my Master’s Degree in Social Work, where I concentrated on women’s issues, international social work and the use of microcredit to encourage female entrepreneurship.
I love the idea of the “nesting instinct:” that, universally, women have a compelling desire to create a sanctuary for themselves and their families, filled with objects of comfort and joy. Our eclectic line of merchandise reflects this: beautiful, affordable, one-of-a-kind specialty items for women and their homes. But more importantly, our loan program brings this promise to women worldwide.
How does Nest work? How do you identify the women that will be included in the program? Do you work with local non governmental and grassroots organizations?
We provide microfinance loans to women artisans in developing countries to start or expand art- or craft- based businesses. Each loan is provided for a specific purpose; for example, loan recipients can use the money for sewing machines, pottery kilns, rent for studio space, artistic materials, etc. Recipients are given the option to pay back the loan either by wiring money, or in-kind, by providing merchandise they have created, which we then sell on our website. This latter option allows these women artisans to access the western market and gives them flexibility in how the loans are repaid. Additionally, when we purchase an order, only a percentage of the order is used as repayment, so they have continual orders coming in.
Once loan recipients have been approved, we wire the money, but ask for accountability of its use. We want to make sure the funds are being used appropriately, but we also want to keep track of how the money has changed the lives of loan recipients and their families. Through their facilitators, we do follow-up evaluations for five years post-loan.
We find the women through NGOs and organizations like the Peace Corps. Right now, we are touching more then 500 women in 8 countries.
How do you select the products you sell in your store? Do you set standards of quality that the women beneficiaries need to follow?
We work hand in hand with our loan recipients to create items that both celebrate their artistic traditions and that we believe we can sell in the United States. We love this because it is a cultural exchange and brings both awareness of other countries to our customers and knowledge about the United States and western market to our women. It is the ultimate give and take that all philanthropy should be.
What was the biggest mistake you’ve done so far and what lessons did you learn from them?
Being too strict with myself. As any entrepreneur can attest, starting a business is an emotional roller coaster. I try to learn from my mistakes, but I also try to keep things in perspective, and above all, to see and appreciate each new learning experience. I am dedicated to my work to the point of obsession, but I also try to enjoy the journey. I think the bumps get easier because you gain confidence over time. Knowing that you have faced previous challenges – and survived – helps when new obstacles appear.
What is the best advice you have received?
Don’t spend too much time looking at the distant mountains; you have to look directly in front of you as well. I tend to get caught up in the big picture; for example, where I want to be in ten years, but what is most important is the first step you take toward getting there. Details and baby steps.
What are your biggest accomplishments thus far with regards to Nest? How has your business affected the lives of these women?
I know from my studies, training and travel the women in developing countries face hardships complicated by lower levels of education, lower social status and talents and abilities that do not always translate into productive employment. And when women are poor, families are also deprived, resulting in cycle of poverty that is difficult to break.
Since the inception of microcredit, loans of this type made to women have had remarkable success. Women are more likely to both repay their loans and devote their earnings to assisting the family. Furthermore, when women are given the opportunity to earn an income, their life improves, resulting in more stable families and communities.
Women have also been artists through the centuries, creating utilitarian household objects, clothes for the family or decorative objects for themselves. Therefore, by providing entrepreneurial loans to craftswomen and artisans, their life can become their livelihood and Nest’s contributing designers can act as mentors, creating a female artistic community worldwide.
Nest provides the three most important things that craftswomen need: the startup capital needed to get started, a market to sell their wares, and the business and design training necessary to be successful.
What lessons can you share to other women entrepreneurs?
Pay attention to serendipity. In ways too numerous to delineate, Nest has been defined and refined by a series of remarkable coincidences that seem anything but: chance meetings that turn into valuable business relationships, hidden talents and interests of friends and acquaintances that turn out to be a perfect fit for Nest, e-mails on one topic that reveal other contacts and networks. I’m convinced that what seems to be accidental, coincidental or unplanned, really isn’t.
How are you balancing your personal life with the demands of the business?
It is hard. I am a certified yoga instructor. In college, I taught yoga at an inner-city after school program for teenage girls to gain self-confidence and improved body image; I used yoga as a rehabilitation tool for disabled children when I worked in India and I taught yoga to elderly men and women, to help them retain both mobility and mindfulness. I still maintain a yoga practice; it helps me to stay calm, centered and focused.
My ultimate personal and professional goal is to maintain both a passionate and a compassionate life. I want to be continually grateful for all that I have, enjoying each day for what it brings, but also to never forget the millions who struggle each day just to get by.
How do you see Nest 5 years from now?
Helping more women. We want to work ourselves out of a job. The more women we can bring to self-sufficiency, the better!
To donate to Nest, volunteer, or simply check out what’s for sale, visit buildanest.com.