Entrepreneurers Who Inspire: Elizabeth de Vise of Artisanne
At the beginning of 2018, I conducted the first-ever Lois Avery survey. One of the questions I asked was what kind of content you all would like to see in the Lois Avery Journal. A huge number of responses said you were interested in hearing stories about other inspiring women and fellow entrepreneurs.
Serendipitously, that very same month, my lovely friend Natasha of Wear & Where introduced me to Elizabeth de Vise of Artisanne (on Instagram as @artisanne_home). I talked with Elizabeth for hours that day and was inspired by her beautiful, award-winning brand of Senegalese baskets, Artisanne, and her compassionate approach to life. We also seemed to have quite a bit in common as Elizabeth too, has three children and left her career in marketing to start Artisanne.
Elizabeth’s beautiful business supports 75 artisans in Senegal where she has also founded a charity, Journey to Learning. It supports education for young girls in the area where Artisanne baskets are woven.
The story of Artisanne is very humbling and Elizabeth is massively impressive, so I knew she and her business would be the perfect first interview for my new “Entrepreneurs Who Inspire” series. This series will shine a light on entrepreneurs doing amazing things and I’m very excited to share this first installment. Enjoy!
What brought you from a career in advertising to Artisanne?
I can remember a conversation when I was about 7 with my mother telling her that I wanted my own business and I never lost that desire. During the early part of my career, I was fortunate to gain a business background and to develop skills in brand and marketing whilst working in advertising. I was lucky to learn from two legends: Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty. Those were some of the best and most formative years. After my career in advertising, I felt ready to start my own business. I still had this burning desire to do so, going back my childhood dream.
Why Senegalese baskets?
The idea for Artisanne began when my sister, Emma, lived in Senegal for 6 years. She bought me some baskets and I loved them so much that I bought some for friends. They shared our enthusiasm for the baskets. Something got us curious and made us start asking questions - could we bring the work of the talented Senegalese women to homes in the UK/Europe? Was there an opportunity to blend the traditional Wolof weaving techniques with modern design? I loved the idea and the challenge. We knew we wanted to create a range of baskets that fulfilled a function but that were also beautiful.
What inspires the design behind your baskets?
We design baskets that we would like to have in our own homes (and we have many!) We tend to make several samples before ‘cracking’ it. We only make round or oval based shapes as this follows the traditional weaving style. So even though we get frequent requests for squares or rectangular baskets we don’t design them.
We determine the sizes, patterns and colours based on what we think will suit the UK and European market.
How did you find the women who weave your baskets and how do you maintain a positive working relationship with them when you live in the UK?
We knew that we wanted to do something that made a difference. From the beginning, it was important to us to work directly with the weavers without middlemen. So, Emma spent long days travelling down remote dirt tracks looking for weaving villages in the Thiès region of Senegal. She spent a lot of time looking at collections of baskets and sharing bowls of curdled milk (a local specialty!) with villagers as she explained the project. We identified groups of artisans interested in working with us. The hours that Emma spent talking in the shade of a neem tree involved a great deal of laughter and helped establish strong relationships and an understanding of the intricacies and challenges of their craft.
I also travel to Senegal several times a year.
What do you love most about Senegal?
Spending time in the villages with the weavers. It is humbling and inspiring. We have a close relationship and always share a great deal of laughter. We know their families and they have met ours.
The biggest challenge you’ve faced in switching careers?
We have faced lots of challenges, many of them unexpected. It has made me appreciate how exposed small businesses can be, often at the mercy of things that are completely out of their control. For example, 18 months ago my bank stopped dealing with Senegal. Overnight I had no means of sending money to weavers and my whole supply chain was in danger. The work that we were giving them was life changing and had huge implications on their lives. We had to find a solution. It took me 2 months to find a bank that would send money to Senegal.
Was your family supportive of your idea?
My husband initially dubbed me the ‘basket case’! After a year, we had designs that we were happy with, and I decided to sell some baskets at a local fair. It was then that my family and I realised we were on to something. We sold out of nearly all of the baskets and people were queuing to get to the front of the stall. My son had to keep popping home to get more stock and we took some pre-orders. After that everyone has been very supportive of Artisanne.
What success are you the most proud of?
The thing that I am most proud of is the impact on the weavers. We have gone from working with 3 to 75 artisans in 3 years.
I am also immensely proud of Journey to Learning, which we launched this year. When I was in Senegal in March, I discovered that children are walking 10 km round trip in up to 40C heat to get to school because the school transport is no longer running. Boys find it easier to get accommodation in the school village, so the girls are suffering most and some are attending school infrequently. We kickstarted Journey to Learning with a sample sale in which 100% of Artisanne proceeds from the sale went to. On an ongoing basis, Artisanne will donate 10% of profits to ensure continuous education for some of the children.
What’s your favourite part of running Artisanne?
Constantly taking myself out of my comfort zone and learning new things.
Being at sports day without feeling guilty! The annual accounts need to be finished off but they can wait until the evening.
How do you cope with balancing the demands of running a business and the demands of motherhood?
Running a small business with youngish children is hard but very rewarding. It gives me flexibility but I often end up working into the early hours. During the heatwave this summer, I couldn’t sleep and decided there was no point lying in bed with so much to do so I started work at 4 am. It was a long day but I am sure many working parents have done something similar!
What are your hopes and dreams for Artisanne?
My dream is to provide a regular, secure and fair income to even more weavers and to their families. We know this helps them provide more food and medication to their families but it also means they can support elderly relatives who can no longer work. I know that we are doing something worthwhile and that makes a difference. I would love to expand ‘Journey to Learning’ to enable more children to travel to school and to stay in education for longer.
Your advice for someone looking to start their own business?
You have to be really passionate about what you do and truly believe in it. There will be plenty of knocks but ultimately these beliefs are what get you through.
Try to compartmentalise areas and tackle one at a time.
Describe Artisanne in 3 words
Fairtrade. Handmade. Stylish.
Please share some fun facts about Elizabeth …
Somewhere hot by a beach with my family. French Polynesia would be heaven!
Best meal you’ve ever had
Mexican breakfast in a tiny town on the west coast of Mexico.
Your perfect lazy morning
Reading the papers in bed (something I have not done since the children were born).
Tell us something surprising about yourself
I learned to fly in the University Air Squadron. I wanted to be the first female fighter pilot! (That’s a long way from baskets!)
“If you think you are too small to make a difference you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.” African proverb
Images courtesy of Artisanne