UNLEASHED Women features inspiring female trailblazers through full Q&A interviews. These women are creating new own opportunities across industries, pursuing positive impact for their communities, and leading socially productive practices in life and work at large.
UNLEASHED had the pleasure of interviewing Living Threads Co. founder Amanda Zehner, an entrepreneurial pioneer for artisan women around the world. With a passion for artisanship, design, and creating opportunities for those often overlooked, Zehner matches our mission here at UNLEASHED — to support and celebrate women artisans and entrepreneurs around the world. Our conversation with Zehner follows.
What is your current career & role?
Founder & Owner of Living Threads Co.
Can you describe the mission of your company Living Threads Co., how it originated, and the inspiration behind creating the brand?
Our mission is to preserve traditional art and improve livelihoods, by connecting rural small scale artisans to markets. I was inspired to build Living Threads Co. after living and working in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras where I was doing international development work with several not for profit organizations with focuses on sustainable agriculture, health, and education. During this time, I personally became good friends with the women and families who now make up Living Threads Co. Living and working I was also able to see first hand the many challenges artisans in poor communities with little access to markets and resources faced — primarily access to markets, credit, training and support, and design. Together, we created Living Threads Co., a home décor brand that considers social and environmental impact as well as quality and design.
How did you become interested in craftwork and design — what experiences or individuals helped spark your interest in the industry?
The space I live in and the things I surround myself with have always been important to me; from one year of interior design school at the University of Cincinnati as a freshman in college to my mud hut in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer, which I spent days re-decorating with new paint, a new mud floor, and wall hangings of traditional West African mud cloth textiles. Continued travel and time living and working abroad only encouraged my love for textiles and artisan craft as well as the people and culture behind it all. While traveling around Morocco and Senegal, I gradually collected enough textiles to open my own storefront (although our first storefront didn’t actually come until 2015). Working in Guatemala and Nicaragua I learned more about the tradition and technique of weaving and become more passionate about the preservation of the tradition and art form, as well as an understanding of the importance of the creative economy and artisan income around the world in some of the poorest and most remote communities.
Who is your sheHERO (a woman that inspires & encourages you)?
Danelia, the grandmother of the family cooperative I work with in Nicaragua is a constant source of inspiration. After living through the conflict in Nicaragua in the late 70’s, as well as the death of her son because of lack of access to medical care, Danelia has fought to give her children and grandchildren a better life than the one she has had. She is reminder that with passion, hard work, and team work you can accomplish great things that will have a lasting impact on the people around you. Because of her work, she has a grown a small family weaving cooperative to include members of her community and her daughter has gone on to law school. And in partnership with Living Threads Co. we have tripled the income of the men and women she works with in Nicaragua.
Who would you like to give gratitude to that has made everything you’ve accomplished so far possible?
Predictably, without a doubt, my family. The world of ‘start-up’ is a hustle. The world of social enterprise artisan start-up, even more so! I could not have done it without the support of my family — from helping formulate our first collection’s colors, to free storage space for inventory, sewing on Living Threads Co. tags, and a whole lot of set-up and break down at markets and shows. I would not have been able to do it all without them!
What exciting projects are you working on (with Living Threads Co.)?
I am very excited about our new global artisan exchange and travel program! This program provides special access and curated art and culture exchanges with our partner artisans both here in the US as well as abroad. Our artisans are hosted by partner organizations, where we coordinate weaving demonstrations, workshops, and discussions on a variety of topics. Additionally, we design custom products and collections, hand crafted especially for these partners and created by the visiting artisan. Lastly, we coordinate and manage unique travel experiences through private and customizable trips for our partners’ members and customers. This program is exciting because it allows our customers to work directly with our artisans, getting to know them personally, seeing their home, community and art in person while also proving amazing professional and personal opportunities for our artisans.
We are currently working with the National Museum of Women in the Arts who will be hosting one of our partner artisans from Guatemala at the museum in Washington DC at the end of this year! You can get updates on her travel and presentation dates on our website and through our news letter.
What are some ways you believe personal brands are influencing corporate industries (beauty, entertainment)?
I believe that by creating unique high quality products and connecting customers to the story and impact behind each product we are creating more informed and mindful consumers. I believe that it is these mindful consumers that are influencing corporations and larger companies — requiring them to be more thoughtful about how, where and with whom they produce. More accountability and transparency at each link in the market chain helps drive real change in the way we produce and consume.
Do you have any thoughts or opinions on the future of the design and home product industry, or the future of socially productive and eco-conscious businesses?
Story telling and being able to connect the consumer directly to the maker is an important part of the success of any product and brand. I believe that we need to ensure that our business models are sustainable and profitable for all involved — meaning customers understand the value of, and pricing, of each product they purchase. As a community we need to invest more in fewer yet higher quality and longer lasting things.
What sources have significantly inspired your work (place, person, experience, worldview…)?
Collaboration and partnerships with other like minded small businesses helps to both inspire and improve our work. We can all learn from one another — helping us to all grow our impact and long term sustainability. Being a part of the larger creative economy through organizations like the Aspen Institute’s Artisan Alliance encourage me to thinking at a larger scale, challenging my own personal assumptions and helping me to think outside the box.
What are some quick pieces of advice you would give to a young professional about starting their own brand?
You don’t need to know exactly what you are doing or how to do it before you start. Just start doing. If you are passionate about it and believe in the people and a product or service, you will figure it out as you go.
What are some quick pieces of advice you would give to someone looking to start a business that values social impact?
As in the world of development, good intentions are important, but not enough. Be thoughtful, informed, understand the context in which you are working, and empower those you are working with to play decision making roles in your business. Having your partners invested in what you are building together will only help to strengthen your company and its impact.
What are some important life philosophies or values you encourage others to consider?
Thinking about how your actions impact others. Take yourself outside of your comfort zone.
What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?
Listen more carefully. Ask more questions.
Biggest pet peeve?
$2 t-shirts. A sink full of dirty dishes and an empty dishwasher.
Favorite thing that makes you happy? (small or large, in general)
Mountains and trees. Running. Running in the mountains among trees.
Traveling to new places. Meeting new people.
What are some other goals you have for the future or new things you’d like to try? What steps are you taking so far to get there?
I am excited for us to expand our product line beyond textiles to include other traditional artisan crafts around the globe. We have begun new product designing with a carpentry cooperative in Guatemala and leather work in Colorado! Our mission to preserve traditional artisan crafts and improve livelihoods for small scale artisans includes artisans from communities abroad as well as communities here locally.
Travel Design Exchange! We are super excited for a bigger focus on the people to people exchange and learning that will happen through our Global Artisan Exchange Program. Connecting people, changing perspectives, sharing culture and blurring borders all while collaboratively designing uniquely inspired products.
Why do you think empowering women and giving back is important?
Women are innovative and resourceful. Around the world, women and girls carry the majority of the burden of poverty yet they do more with less. They have the power to make real change that will last.
Plus, it’s a good business model. Giving back to and investing in men and women means building your capacity and ability to provide more of a better service to our customers.
And, because, women get shit done.