How a Single Woman and a Piece of Jewelry Improved the Lives of Countless Indonesian Women: With Mandy Nagel

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“It’s amazing to see how the purchase of their jewelry creates immediate positive change, and has long-lasting effects that continue to ripple throughout their town.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mandy Nagel, founder of I Thought of You. Her social enterprise is built upon jewelry made from a very unique medium: orange peels, açaí berries, coffee beans, cinnamon, cantaloupe seeds, and nuts. The finished products are not only beautiful, but they have a beautiful story behind them.
What started as a partnership with a village of artisans in Indonesia has grown into a global network of providing opportunities in developing countries around the world. Each product is handmade from up-cycled or eco-friendly materials, and transforms lives by helping to provide food, water, education, shelter, dignity, and a better quality of life. Not only has this steady and rewarding work transformed the lives of Mandy’s artisan partners, but the prosperity has rippled throughout the artisans’ towns as they are now able to invest back into their community through this sustainable venture.
With the success of her flagship brand, Mandy has since launched a second brand to continue growing her vision of eco-friendly products. Spread Hope offers stylish sunglasses for men and women that are handmade from real woods like bamboo, zebrawood, and ebony wood. Spread Hope launched in mid-2017 and has been so well received that her brand will be doubling the number of styles they offer by early 2018.

It’s a pleasure to meet you Mandy. What is your backstory?

My venture into Fair Trade styles happened by chance. As an avid traveler, I enjoy immersing myself into new cultures and getting to know the people I meet along the way. On a trip to Indonesia, I happened to meet an artisan at a local market selling her jewelry and handicrafts. The intricacies of each piece immediately drew me in; the vibrant colors, the perfected beadwork, it was truly unlike anything I had ever seen.

After buying several pieces for myself and sharing them with friends back home in the U.S., I found that others became just as smitten with. I soon returned to Indonesia to find the artisan whose work I fell in love with and discussed starting a real partnership with her. Putting my design degree to purposeful use, we worked together to design styles and colors that would be well-received in the U.S. market. Today, this partnership has grown to include an entire team of artisans in Indonesia, and has since expanded to communities in several other countries as well.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

During a trip to Las Vegas I saw a woman in a crowd wearing a pair of I Thought of You earrings. It was my first “in the wild” sighting outside my immediate circle of friends. I ran up to her and complimented them—they really did look stunning on her.

The woman knew the backstory of what made these carved wood earrings so special, and quickly recited it to me. The design of these earrings and the story of the artisan who crafted them resonated with her so strongly that she felt the need to share the beauty of them with a complete stranger. It was then that I let her know who I was. I think she was just as taken aback as I was when I first saw her. She gave me the biggest hug and thanked me for the part I was playing in the Fair Trade world. Her name was Amber, and knowing her enthusiasm for what we do is a constant source of inspiration for me.

Can you tell me more about how you are using your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our entire business is centered around creating positive change in the world. Not only are we creating opportunities that ripple through the towns of the developing countries we work in, but consumers have a stylish and eco-friendly option (that’s easy on their wallet) for modern styles that are made using earth-friendly materials. I Thought of You jewelry features our made from fruit line, as well as styles handmade from real shell, bamboo, and cinnamon. Our Spread Hope sunglasses are handmade from sustainable woods, and are surprisingly lightweight and comfortable.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

An artisan in Colombia, South America has a special place in my heart. Her name is Elizabeth, and she and her team craft our jewelry made from fruit products. She is a single mother, and cares so deeply for her community and her team of women artisans. Her venture into becoming an entrepreneur through partnering with us has allowed her to mentor several young women in her town and teach them trade skills to further their careers.

In a country where jobs are hard to come by for women, these ladies are earning a solid paycheck and have a voice in their town. Some of the young women Elizabeth has mentored now work for her, while others have chosen to run their own small businesses. It’s amazing to see how the purchase of their jewelry creates immediate positive change, and has long-lasting effects that continue to ripple throughout their town.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find partners who have the same ideals as you. Just as we work to find artisan partners who are the right fit, finding business partners who are the right fit is of equal importance. Our first website was adequate, but we found out late in the process that we made a poor choice when we selected our web development partner. This resulted in a slow website that wasn’t user-friendly, and this was probably one of our biggest lessons we learned as a start-up. We’ve since made a great investment in a website that has been user-tested, is lightning fast on modern browsers, and only has the content our customers find valuable.
  2. Don’t be afraid to share the full story on social media. Who knew customers would be so intrigued by what goes on behind the scenes—both in our artisans’ workshops as well as the inner workings of our business here in the U.S.? We love to give our customers and fans a peek into the entire process that is needed to bring their favorite styles to life. I only wish we could have started sooner!
  3. A Fair Trade mission is important, but attractive products at great prices are what close the sale. Once when I was explaining the value of our mission to a customer, she bluntly told me, “I don’t care if it’s Fair Trade, I only care if I like it and would wear it.” Her honesty stuck with me and I appreciated the sentiment behind her statement. Our company mission is near and dear to my heart, but we mustn’t lose sight of the finished products we sell. Creating a piece that customers love, regardless of the care that goes into producing it, is crucial to our success. We work together with our artisans to ensure they are crafting products that are popular with current trends to make sure the styles they make are something ladies here will enjoy.
  4. Don’t forget about the guys! Nearly all of the items sold by our I Thought of You brand are designed for women, so we struggled to find a niche that men would also embrace. Now that we’re able to offer an eco-friendly choice for sunglasses, we’ve doubled our end-user base. Half of the purchases made from Spread Hope are by men.
  5. Explore every selling channel that makes sense for your brand and products. When an entrepreneur starts a business, I’m not sure it’s possible to do enough research—especially when it comes to finding the best channel for sales. For us, we discovered our niche through trial and error. I Thought of You started as a retail website selling straight to consumers, but we quickly found that our independent seller partners would be the key to our success. Not only are our sellers able to give personal interaction to customers, but they are better able to share our core building blocks on a more intimate level with their audience. It has also allowed us to create job opportunities here at home, and we’re overjoyed to hear the success stories resulting from this program. Women have been able to quit their day jobs to stay home with their children, earn a side income to fund a passion project (for example, starting a bakery or running a mentoring business), or even just to bring in extra cash to help their family reach a goal.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

For more information on I Thought of You, visit them on Facebook or Instagram.

For more information on Spread Hope, visit them on Facebook or Instagram.

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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.