Students Win Award for Fair Trade Take on Fashion

NMI Martin Gray 05 2010 170x150Backpacking through Africa, international student Martin Gray could not shake the image of streets lined with women making handmade jewelry. The women worked at lightning speed, hoping to sell the pieces to passing tourists. Their designs were beautiful.

Back in the states, Martin noticed similar designs at high-end fashion boutiques in New York and Miami. He also noticed that the stores charged serious money for those pieces.

“Despite all the inspiration,” says Martin, “few designers give back to the people they borrowed the designs from.”

But Martin could not figure out how to break this pattern until he partnered with his fellow International Business and Business Management major Allison Weiss this year. Together, the pair created a business plan for This is Africa (TIA), which stands apart because, as Martin explains, “we cut out the middle man.”

TIA will pay Moroccan and Kenyan women to create jewelry, purses, and belts themselves. The company would sell the accessories at high-end fashion hubs like Bal Harbor and Palm Beach.

Martin and Allison also proposed that TIA reinvest 40 percent of the proceeds into education, health, and basic human needs programs in Africa.

JWU College of Business NMI Allison WeissIt’s a plan that stands out, Allison says, because it makes sense from a economic standpoint. “If both women and men are employed, there will be a higher cash flow coming into the family,” she explains. “This gives them the potential to have a better life.”

JWU professors agreed. Martin and Allison won second prize at JWU's Annual Entrepreneur's Business Challenge at the end of the spring semester.

Martin is home in Ireland for the summer, but he is confident he can get TIA off the ground. He points to other successful fashion-based social entrepreneurships, from Tom Shoes to SweetiePurse.

In the end, he and Allison believe backers want to help make a difference.

“If we can help just one village,” they say, “then we will consider the business to be a success.”