You may remember that I was talking about meeting some pretty inspirational people during my journey into self-employment earlier this year- those who have answered the yearning in their hearts and followed the passion of doing what makes them happy. Back in March, I had Will Taylor the editor of the popular lifestyle blog Bright.Bazaar (you can read the interview here) which is still one of the most popular posts on my blog til now! Today, I’m honoured to welcome Janet onto the pages of this humble little blog. For those of you who are just catching us, earlier last month, I launched a series of personalised Christmas monogram cards in aid of the work of Via Design, of which Janet is the CEO.
The Christmas cards have been so well-received even in its pre-order stages, more so than I could’ve imagined- so let me just take this opportunity to thank you for your support in purchasing, and spreading the news of these cards! For those of you who haven’t seen them, feel free to go over here to read all them.
Last week, I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Janet for a drink amidst her busy schedule in order to glean more of an insight into what she does at Via Design, so that you could have a better understanding of what a great and wonderful cause you have helped contribute to this Christmas just by purchasing your personalised Christmas cards. Let’s jump into the interview!
Hi Janet! It’s so good to have you with us today, and I’m so happy to be partnering up with you with our personalised Christmas cards this year. We’ve had some great responses, with many people ordering their cards already! For those of us who are interested in knowing more, what is Via Design all about?
Via Design is a company that I set up 7 years ago in response to a need, that as a designer, I could see in the market. Fairly-traded products were available, but were not “commercial” enough..
I found the inspiration to start Via from women I met on my travels in India and Africa – women in whose lives something had often not gone not so well. I could see their potential and yet they had no opportunity. I felt there was something we could do to make a difference- Something we could do together, a kind of partnership, where people are given the opportunity to learn new skills that can be translated into marketable products.
Where does the name “Via Design” come from?
Literally, “via” means “the way”, and it encapsulates the ethos behind the company to empower people “via” design to make products that can be sold to generate income for the makers and their families.
Via Design acts a catalyst creating a link for people, who have potential, and customers, who choose to buy a beautiful product with meaning and heritage.
India is full of amazingly talented people – I believe we all have the ability to design, whether it’s in the way we put food on a plate, or arrange a room at home both also forms of expression and creativity. Some skills are traditionally passed down through families in India – but many of the ladies we work with have had no experience in working with craft or textiles as they are from agricultural communities.
Why do you think it is that art and craft are such great tools of empowerment?
I believe there is something inherently restorative about the creative process. When we select things to put in a room, or send a greeting card to a friend, we choose things that resonate with ourselves. When we create something for another person, whether it is a product or a greetings card, we use our sensitivity to identify what we know about that person. I think that’s part of the secret- that the creative process restores broken connections between people…
When a product is made, it’s not only about the process, but also about the person who will buy it. There has to be that connection, which is what brings people together – It is what makes the market-place thrive. We need to understand our market as if no one is going to buy the product and ends up sitting on a shelf, it’s sad and the business will not flourish. These factors are an important part of the equation. Fair trade has grown out of the recognition that there is a need to address and stop exploitation of workers in many countries around the world. VIA does this by working at “paddy-field” level – with the people who are actually in the business , rather than the middle men – so that the actual businesses are stake-holders. We are still a young company but our commitment is to share profit by reinvesting to training and supplier enabling with the people we work with, so that they are more like share-holders and have a sense of ownership.
The catalyst for starting VIA came when I went to India 10 years ago, after my post graduate studies at the Royal College of Art where I did a degree by project researching challenges faced by artisans in the majority world. I volunteered at a refuge at South India – a safe place for women who have been abused and through no fault of their own had ended up in a difficult situation. They are offered physical, emotional, practical and spiritual care at the refuge and are given an opportunity to learn a skill. VIA grew out of this experience and we have since partnered with the amazing lady who founded the refuge in South India just over 20 years ago –We got involved with setting up a training centre and production unit and the ladies can work if they choose after training and earn an income above the minimum wage with other benefits for themselves and their families.
Fabrics and merchandise produced by the workers trained by Via Design workshops in India.
What is the most rewarding moment in your time at Via?
I’m always really happy when I see a finished product that looks beautiful! That’s very exciting, especially if is a good interpretation of our original design concept. When it starts to sell, that’s really great, as it means there’s potential for more orders and jobs for more people!
Our business ethos is to work with the whole person including their health and well-being. So we focus on income generation through education and training. In answering your question, one of the most fulfilling moments for me is to see a smile on someone’s face when they realise that they can do something that they didn’t feel confident they could do at the beginning – its shows we have achieved another of our business and charitable objectives which is to give the people we work with a better understanding of their value as an individual. For Via Design our business is not only about the product. It’s also about investing in people and the social impact we can have in helping build a better world. An example of this is the project that we work with in South India – at Mahalir Aran Trust, we have also reinvested to the wider community by helping raise funds to build a medical clinic which is now benefitting people who live in the surrounding villages as well as those that live at the refuge and work at the product unit.
What are some of the ways for people to support Via Design?
You can support us by giving a one-off or regular donation to the work of Via Design, through our website, which will currently help us with supplier enabling and training workers in projects in India. Donations can also be Gift-aided.
You can also support by buying a product. We are working on a list of stockists right here in London. If you send an email through the contacts page, I will be able to send you some information.
Thank you Janet for sharing your journey with us, and such precious insight into the work that you guys do! And thank you for letting me be a part of it.
Be sure to stay tuned, as in the New Year, 10% of profits from all wedding packages booked will go towards the work of Via Design.