The Company with a Social Mission
Heather and Katie O’Neill are sisters, best friends and the visionaries behind Mushmina, a fair trade accessories business that sells inspired, handmade products. But, Mushmina is much more than a merchant—it is a lifeline for artisans in Morocco, and a company built on the unwavering belief that, with hard work and dedication, two people can make a positive impact on the world.
The seed for Mushmina was planted back in 2003. Katie was close to earning her degree in Crafts from UArts, focusing on the history of traditional fiber and metal techniques. Heather, who had recently graduated with a design degree, was working as a materials consultant in New York City. Most people would call it a “dream job.”
“One day at work, I came across a potato-printed fabric made by a woman in Ghana, and that reignited a lifelong desire to join the Peace Corps,” explained Heather O’Neill, co-founder and production manager for Mushmina. “I had a design background and realized that I could use this experience to help women in developing countries.”
So, she quit her job, joined the Peace Corps, and was assigned to rural Morocco as a small business advisor for three years.
“It was a life-changing experience. The moment I got off of the plane, I thought, ‘This is what I was meant to do,” Heather said. “I lived in a rural village outside of Casablanca that was known as a weaving town, with women practicing their craft in their homes. They produced beautiful pieces, but made very little money.”
After graduating college, sister Katie began her own international adventure, studying cultural anthropology in Mali. When that program ended, she flew to Morocco to help Heather put on a product development workshop for the weavers in her village.
“We came up with the idea of taking their traditional carpet weaving on a smaller scale and transforming it into handbags. These bags would take less time and require less material cost to make, but still honor the art of traditional carpet weaving,” said Katie O’Neill, co-founder and creative director for Mushmina. “After that workshop, Heather and I knew that we were going to one day start a business. We saw all these talented artisans In Morocco, and women who could not find jobs, and were determined to connect their beautiful craft to customers who would appreciate their skill.”
Transforming the Vision into Reality
Of course, things didn’t happen overnight.
Heather’s stint with the Peace Corps ended, and she returned to graduate school at NYU. Katie worked in New York City as a window dresser for a large international retailer. Over the years, they kept talking about that business with a social mission, about the artisans and the opportunity. In 2008, they decided to make it happen.
“We quit our jobs, took part-time work, moved into our parent’s basement and started putting together a business plan,” Katie said. “We researched other companies with similar missions and contacted them for advice. We took advantage of SCORE (a non-profit agency providing volunteer business counselors and mentors), and worked with a business advisor, specializing in the fashion industry. But, we also realized that there wasn’t one right way to do what we wanted to do. We were going to have to pave our own way, and figure things out as we went along.”
In 2009, Mushmina, which is a nickname that means “little sister,” became an official business.
“When we came back to Morocco to start the business, my contacts at the Peace Corps helped us tremendously. They set up focus groups with artisans and introduced us to other skillful crafters, so we could create our own network of suppliers,” Heather said.
Heather and Katie traveled back and forth to Morocco, brought back products and material, and fashioned these into new products. Then, they packed everything in a suitcase and went calling on retailers—both to gage interest and to find out what people would be willing to pay for these artisan goods.
“We went door-to-door because we wanted to work with people who understood our social mission. We wanted to engage them by sharing the story of the products we sell and the artisans behind them,” Katie said.
In 2010, they applied to the NYNow Global Handmade tradeshow and got in, exposing the Mushmina story to retailers across the United States. That same year, they were accepted into a major New York Holiday market, and their wholesale business began to take off. Two years later, the sisters opened their own Mushmina retail store in Philadelphia and hired their first full-time employee to run it.
But, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of late is the opening of their Flying Camel Workshop in rural Morocco. One part is a workspace where many of the Mushmina products are made. Another part is a training center where women can learn to sew, cut patterns and gain the skills that enable them to earn a living in a place where opportunities for women are often hard to come by.
Heather now lives in Morocco to oversee this operation.
Getting Custom-made Accessories into the Hands of Consumers
As beautiful as these custom-made accessories are, creating them is only one part of the process. The sisters also have to get the finished product where it needs to go.
“We have been using FedEx for our U.S. shipments from the very beginning. I remember seeing the FedEx truck pull up to drop off and pick up our packages when we were working out of our parent’s basement in New Jersey--it was the highlight of our day,” Katie said. “FedEx has a great deal of respect for small businesses and start-ups, and provides the safe and reliable service we need to keep our wholesale and retail customers happy.”
One of Mushmina’s big goals for 2014 is increasing its e-commerce business, which means shipping becomes more important than ever.
“Our e-commerce business has tripled this year, and we hope to continue that trend,” Katie said. “We started using Shopify as our online e-commerce platform and it easily integrated with both our inventory management system and FedEx Ship Manager®.”
Heather also plans to work closely with FedEx on international shipping options as the company continues to grow.
Taking the Show on the Road—Moroccan Style
Thanks to winning first prize in the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, Mushmina will soon be bringing the Moroccan experience to people nationwide.
“We were thrilled to be in the top five,” Katie said. “We’re so thankful to FedEx for this opportunity, and to all the people who voted for us.”
They will use their grant money to create a new kind of “mobile” marketing channel: a Moroccan Caravan. This supped up VW bus will allow Mushmina to replicate the Moroccan selling experience across the U.S., carrying their wares from city-to-city and event-to-event, increasing brand recognition as they go.
“We want to share our adventures and the impact of fair trade purchasing with an even broader audience by bringing our stories and vibrant products to new customers in our Moroccan Caravan,” Katie said. “In Morocco, it’s not unusual to see weavers selling their carpets strapped on top of their cars, so the Caravan is very reflective of that nomadic lifestyle. We also think it will be a great way to test reaction to new products and to expose a whole new audience to who we are, and the importance of buying fair trade.”
Seeing the Business, and Its Social Mission, Succeed
When Heather O’Neill and Katie O’Neill created Mushmina, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But, they believed in their vision. Little by little, they’re seeing it come to life.
“Today, Mushmina collaborates with more than 85 artisans in five different regions of Morocco, and we’re the main source of income for many of these groups,” Heather said. “We have seen women open bank accounts this year, buy clothing for their children and start to think about their own dreams; driving, traveling and building a house. Seeing all of this come to life has been amazing.”
And the journey has just begun.