Fifteen years ago, Cerapio Vallejo was making his living producing rugs and tapestries at his shantytown home in Ayacucho, Peru. With their brightly colored motifs and patterns, the hand-loomed coverings were both distinctive and desirable. The only places they were available, however, was at the markets frequented by tourists in this colonial city high in the Andes mountains.
Then one day, after years of generally predictable sales, Vallejo's textiles inexplicably started flying out of the local mercados. Seemingly overnight, large orders began to pour in from the middlemen who had taken his goods and sold them. The unexpected demand threatened to swamp Vallejo, his wife and the assorted relatives who turned out the rugs.
"Almost immediately there was a 100 percent production increase," Vallejo says through an interpreter from his home in Peru. "Before, I was making about $1,000 a month, but that figure quickly jumped to $3,000."
What Vallejo hadn't known was that the then recently launched website Novica.com had started selling his work. A team member had discovered his products in Ayacucho, purchased as many as he could and proceeded to offer them via the website to the world.
From the start, Novica's founders, headed by Stanford grad Roberto Milk, had a grand, altruistic vision for their online emporium. Their three-fold mission was to connect artisans to socially conscious customers far away, empower the workers to build a sustainable business from their handiwork and preserve ancient craft traditions.
Today more than 30,000 items -- each one made by hand -- are available from eight regions of the world, ranging from the Andes to West Africa to Asia. The categories include jewelry, fashion and home decor, where Vallejo's rugs and tapestries remain a top seller.
Shoppers can discover exotic wares such as a carved cedar coffee table from Mexico, repoussé copper mirrors from India or an original abstract cubist painting from Africa. What sets these apart from the typical Cost Plus or Pier One world furnishings is the quality.
"We accept about one in three artisans," says CEO Milk, who runs Novica out of Santa Monica. "They hear about us through word of mouth and come to our offices with their products. If they're not chosen, they'll be told why. Most of the time, it's because we want the highest quality merchandise, and the artisan might be used to cutting corners -- using silver plating instead of silver, for example.
"We explain that we want them to use the best materials and that they are able to set the price of their goods."
For many artisans, price-setting is a novel concept. In Vallejo's case, it took a month for Novica to discover that he was the creator of the beautiful rugs in the remote marketplace. Not surprisingly, the middlemen he dealt with had not wanted to divulge his name or whereabouts, fearing loss of a good source and the cut they took for marketing his goods.
That the artisans become the boss as well as the creator "surprises them," Milk says. "Typically, artisans go through a lot of intermediaries for their goods to end up at a place like a gift show. There are a lot of steps between artist and buyer. Our whole innovation was to cut out the middleman. We tell them, 'You're the driver of the price.' They love that."
Those prices are surprisingly attractive. A lavishly embellished, hand-tooled leather and cedar linen chest from the Rios family of Peru, for example, was recently listed on sale -- Novica has plenty of sales -- for $449.99. Even better, the estimated cost of shipping the chest, which weighs 29 ½ pounds and measures 15 by 32 ½ by 16 ¼ inches, all the way from South America was only $2.99!
The low fees are the result of deals Novica has made with shippers around the world. For efficiency as well as to contain costs, items from the various regional offices are packed together and shipped out once a week.
Currently, 2,000 artisan groups are on Novica.com, made up of 17,000 to 20,000 individual artisans. "Of that group, counting dependents and other family members, there are about 75,000 people working for us in some way," Milk says. "Our ultimate goal is 1 million, but we don't want to just reach that goal. We want to have a sustainable impact" -- meaning the artisans and their dependents have long-term benefits from the relationship.
It's this spirit of global generosity that early on attracted the National Geographic Society to Novica (a name purposely chosen because it was universally pronounceable).
"It was a match made in heaven, actually," Milk says. After celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1988, the society "decided to not just cover the world but to get involved with it, too," he continues. One of its new objectives was to help support the preservation of dying crafts and traditions, especially in economically depressed areas.
"We fit right into that," Milk says. Now National Geographic owns about 20 percent of Novica, giving its imprimatur to a business that claims it has sent more than $50 million to its artisans, about half of whom are women. Additional gloss comes from connections with luminaries such as Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-seller "Eat Pray Love" and Novica's featured curator. Gilbert got to know Milk's mother-in-law, Armenia Nercessian, a longtime United Nations human rights officer who is in the Gilbert book.
The people drawn to Novica.com include designers and decorators, "who like us because our products give a punch of life to a room," Milk says. "One of the interesting things that unites our customers is a propensity for travel. Fifty percent have done international travel at least once in the last five years, a really high number."
Novica's origins began with an epiphany Milk had while in a Portuguese language class at Stanford in 1995. The professor was speaking about the rich handicraft traditions of Brazil and how they were disappearing because of their unavailability outside of their communities. At that moment, Milk realized what he wanted to do with his life.
Milk's postgraduate years gave him the experience necessary to bring the idea for Novica to life. After graduating with honors with a major in international relations, Milk worked as an investment banker on Wall Street and became a chartered financial analyst, learning enough about the world of retail and e-commerce to launch a revolutionary import and development model in 1999.
"Stanford is a key part of this; Novica wouldn't have happened without it," he says. "Social entrepreneurship was in their DNA even before it was a term. The message they imparted was not just to build something, but to build something that matters."
Milk's own background had prepared him well for this journey. His father is a former Peace Corps volunteer and current professor emeritus of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Roberto's mom was born in Peru. The parents took their two sons -- Milk's brother Andy is a Novica co-founder -- on frequent world travels.
While at Stanford, Roberto met and married Mina Olivera, whose human rights activist mother, Nercessian, is another company co-founder and its president. Nercessian now travels extensively for Novica, checking in on the far-flung regional offices and making personal connections that are critical to the success of the operation.
Speaking of which, the extensive online biographies of Novica's artisans are one of the site's most popular features. The makers themselves are proud and happy to share their stories.
Cerapio Vallejo says, "It has been a tremendous joy to know my name is now known in lands all over the world. I am very happy my life has changed so much. My three children were able to attend universities, and my oldest son now has a degree in computer science. I never imagined it! I never thought I would be able to do that."
To contact Elaine Mar, email email@example.com.