Opening Remarks at the Artisan Enterprise: The New Startup Economy

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
September 10, 2015

Good morning. It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to the Artisan Enterprise: The New Startup Economy Forum. I’d like to give a special welcome to the dignitaries and members of the Diplomatic Corps who have joined us here today. I’d also like to acknowledge the artisans who have traveled from around the world—Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bolivia, and beyond—to be here with us.

We have a tremendous program for you today. Before we get started, I have a few housekeeping notes for you.

First, today is the second and final day you can cast your vote in the Artisan Enterprise Multimedia Competition. More than 150 artisans and supporters from 42 countries submitted artwork to the competition. Somehow we’ve managed to narrow it down to 15 finalists, and their work is on display in the artisan exhibit here at the State Department. We encourage you to go to the exhibit during the lunch break, view the finalists, and cast your vote for the People’s Choice winner by 1 p.m. We’ll announce the winner later this afternoon. Along those same lines, the exhibit hall will also feature artisan goods from men and women nominated by our embassies around the world.

Second, we have Wi-Fi set up so you can go online and vote. It’s very easy to use. Turn on your phone’s Wi-fi, choose the network called Swap, and accept the terms and conditions on the next page. Finally, our hashtag for today—and for the global campaign we’re launching today—is #ChooseArtisan. Please feel free to use that hashtag when you’re posting about today’s event on social media.

We’re here today because for far too long, artisan enterprise has been labeled as the arts and crafts section of the economy. In other words, people view the sector as nice and pretty, but not something that should be taken seriously.

The numbers prove this is wrong. In 2002, world exports of artisan goods were worth $17.5 billion. By 2008, that number was $32 billion. That’s incredible growth. And yet, when you look at the artisan goods we have on display, that growth should not surprise us. Because these products are beautifully made. They represent not only the artisan sector, but also the traditions and cultures of the communities where they’re made. It’s no wonder that more and more consumers are willing to pay a little more for artisan goods.

Today you’re going to hear about the many ways the artisan sector can change our world for the better. Already it’s clear that when we support artisans, we support gender equality. When we support artisans, we support economic growth. And ultimately, we support sustainable development.

But you’re also going to hear about some of the challenges that get in the way of artisan enterprise. I see some of these challenges in my work on global women’s issues, from stereotypes about the women’s proper roles in society, to laws that single out women looking to access credit, to networks that seem more like old boys’ clubs. What it boils down to is this: artisans are more likely to lack the access to financing and the markets they need to expand their business. No matter what region I’m in, these are the stories I hear from women artisans and entrepreneurs.

But the good news is that we can tackle these challenges. In fact, that’s why we started the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. People kept talking about the barriers artisans face, and how easily they could be torn down if only groups, governments, and buyers from around the world could work together. So in 2012, the Alliance was formed.

Today, the Alliance has grown to be a global platform to promote artisan enterprises. More than 60 members— including artisan businesses, artisan support organizations, corporations, foundations, NGOs, international organizations, and governments—support the Alliance’s work elevating artisan enterprise.

Thanks in large part to many of these organizations, artisans are no longer viewed as doing simple handicrafts. They are rightfully seen as entrepreneurs and business leaders who make up an industry worth investing in.

The United States recognizes the worth and the potential of artisan enterprise. We’re proud of our work with the Aspen Institute to create the Alliance, and we’re also proud of the many programs, networks, and diplomatic efforts all over the world that empower and support women entrepreneurs, including artisans.

Today, we’re asking you to join us in supporting artisans. If you take just one idea home with you, remember that you can play a role in elevating the artisan sector. If you are a policymaker or a government official, you have the opportunity to work with the Alliance and elevate the artisan sector in your own country. If you are an investor or a donor, you can support innovative projects and incorporate artisan goods into your value chains.

And if you ever buy anything—furniture, holiday gifts, decorations, you name it—you can support the Alliance’s global campaign by following the advice of our hashtag: Choose Artisan.

It’s now my pleasure to introduce the Director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise and the Vice President of Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute, Peggy Clark. Peggy has spent more than 30 years working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. And as you can imagine with that kind of resume, she’s been a tremendous leader for the Alliance. Please join me in welcoming Peggy to the stage.