An unconventional career in apparel design bolstered Richa Agarwal’s desire to do something disruptive. The founder of Shokunin, a company that connects international artisans to global consumers, Agarwal is a multitalented force in the design industry and a dedicated philanthropist and mentor to dozens of aspiring designers.

Agarwal chose to pursue fashion and apparel design despite her family’s more traditional views on what constitutes a fruitful career. “I’m an engineering school dropout,” Agarwal says, “and when it comes to fashion I felt that it was important for designers to understand how the clothes were actually made.”

She enrolled at Fashion Institute of Technology and took apparel design and production courses, landing a gig at Calvin Klein shortly after graduation as a technical apparel designer. “It was basically my job to make sure a sample is fit and cut for every size,” says Agarwal. “There’s a big difference between sampling and mass manufacturing.”

artisan products
These textiles are hand-woven by artisans in Guatemala.

Agarwal eventually moved on to work at Polo Ralph Lauren and Club Monaco, and later, Eileen Fisher, where she was the head of the product development department. “I was leading the product development team, working on sampling, product management, and bridging the gap between the design team and manufacturing team, making sure our products fit the whole gamut of the population,” she says.

But the most pivotal experience in her career was her role at BRAC USA. “BRAC runs a whole bunch of enterprises and employs about 60,000 women in Bangladesh,” says Agarwal. “I implemented a grant given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, brought new technology and helped the organization grow and serve more artisans. I worked there for over 2 years and really validated their manufacturing processes and wage surveys.”

The experience inspired Agarwal’s mission to work with artisans, and simultaneously give back to a growing class of social design entrepreneurs. Agarwal began teaching design management for global endeavors at the Pratt Institute soon after while ruminating on how she might be able to create a platform for artisans across the globe. During a workshop, she raised an idea she had been tinkering with for a while – and was overwhelmed by the response. “I posted this project that was essentially the inkling of Shokunin, and a bunch of people replied and asked can we join your project?” Agarwal recalls.

Shokunin, a Japanese term that expresses the careful craft of artisanship, helps women in developing countries produce and sell their artisan products online and on a global scale. Launched in 2016, Shokunin currently works with artisans across Africa, Central America, and New York, peddling an array of textile goods and adhering to the Shonkunin philosophy.

Artrepreneur sat down with Agarwal to discuss the motivation behind Shokunin, and why she focuses on giving back to her local and international communities.

Apparel Design Principles Have Driven Shokunin’s Philosophy

NM: In your opinion, what sets a designer apart?

RA: I think people need to understand how stuff is made. The best designers know how it’s made and understand what’s viable from a production perspective. I had an inkling I would en up on the commercial side of things because that’s also a lot of fun for me, my favorite part of designing is problem-solving – I like coming up with solutions and fixing things.

NM: Is problem-solving an innate skill for most artists and designers?

RA: I think creative people can thrive anywhere because they’re able to think about things creatively and don’t just follow the process and conventional approaches to problem-solving. I think they’re successful because they’re creative and look at the problem holistically, taking into account all the variables impacting the problem while being spontaneous and coming up with different approaches. I think that’s common with successful people, and I think creativity is the underlying factor.

artisan products
Sisal baskets are a staple in many Rwandan households.

NM: How does Shokunin work?

RA: We work in two ways: One is partnering with NGOs that already support artisans, and they have a network who make the product, and we work through them because they have very established supply chains.

The other way we work is with local artisans. We have a network in Queens [New York], of immigrant women who have wonderful skills but no formal job experience and can’t work outside their homes for cultural and language reasons. We work with them to design the product, they work out of their own homes, their work gets dropped off, and we try to organize some get-togethers where they can meet and network.

NM: What was the motivation behind starting Shokunin?

RA: I gravitate towards artisans and culture, but really the motivation is to help artisans break the cycle of poverty. I’ve met hundreds of artisans, and it’s heartbreaking that people who work on the artisan supply chain don’t see much profit because the profit is concentrated.

Ninety-eight percent of the profit ends up on the middlemen of the supply chain, and artisans only see two to three percent. And we’re talking about a $300 billion industry. It’s also the largest employment sector in the world, the artisan sector specifically. Most people don’t realize that poorer communities have a very diversified way of generating income, and most small farmers in the world happen to be artisans. There’s a huge network of rural artisans all over the world, and they’re very resourceful in sourcing local materials. The motivation is to help the artisan community. We believe talent is universal but opportunity is not.

NM: How do artisans find out about the platform?

RA: Right now we work with already established organizations and NGOs and this just involves leveraging a network of people, going to tradeshows, finding organizations, working with artisans directly and helping them pay their wages. And I’ve actually been able to find them on social media. There are quite a few out there. I wish there was a platform that could just be an aggregator and nobody has been able to do that successfully.

On a local level, I have a network of people I work with in Queens and Brooklyn and these are women entrepreneurs who are already working locally. Some of them are part of their own network at temple or mosque or church, so that’s just like connecting with people, who are the women working locally and have skills. I think it’s the power of the network.

apparel design
This stunning red placemat is handwoven in Africa.

Artisan Products Further Important Social and Environmental Concerns

NM: How do you engage consumers and convince them to buy artisanal products, versus mass-produced goods?

RA: Everybody is online these days, and instead of buying from big-box stores, do research and find brands that are supporting artisans. You just have to search for artisan brands, also smaller brands that sell artisan products. You can even get artisan boxes, there’s a subscription service called GlobeIn and there’s a number of them, these are people who are connecting directly with artisans and they’re trying to disrupt the supply chain and selling directly to consumers. If you can find organizations that are retailing directly, or working with organizations like ours, and taking just a small bulk of the profit margin, then you’re in good shape. It’s important to do your research as a consumer and understand how the organization supplies your business.

NM: Is there a future for social good in the arts?

RA: Oh absolutely! I mean there’s no limit. There’s so much collaboration between artists and creatives, and I think if more people did that we could shift the conversation. Rather than having supply chains, we should have more entrepreneurs creating customized and personalized goods. That’s really good for the consumer: They’re getting something that’s ethically made and with a lot of love. I think there’s a lot of opportunity.

NM: How is being an entrepreneur different from having a creative career?

RA: It’s really about risk and reward. You’re taking on a lot more risk, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. When I worked at fashion companies, I had a very defined role. I knew what I needed to do to fulfill my responsibility. Here, I have a very varied role and some days I’m head of advertising, others of procurement; the gamut of my responsibilities is much wider. It’s fulfilling knowing that this is something I can create; I have a lot of freedom as an entrepreneur and that’s the big difference. Knowing that at the end of the day I can help a lot of people is a huge motivator.

NM: Which do you think comes easier for most creatives and artists?

RA: I’m not sure I know the answer, it depends on the need of the moment. As an entrepreneur, its almost instinctual and its kind of like being creative, when you work on creative you work on instinct, you don’t plan how its going to work out, when your painting you go with the flow. And in being an entrepreneur, it’s similar, especially at the startup stage because you have an idea and rough plan, but things aren’t going to work out exactly as you plan you have to adapt and follow your instinct. So I think entrepreneurship and creativity are very similar.

shokunin
Elegant napkins made by artisans in Nicaragua.

NM: Most artists tend to struggle with financial management. What’s your take?

RA: You have to be creative and stretch out your dollars, learn to leverage resources, and maximize returns. I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed early on for a lot of cultural reasons, but I think math is not complicated, it’s nothing to be scared of. Right now we have so much technology at our fingertips, so many templates and resources people can leverage, and I think the biggest message is, don’t be afraid just trust your instincts and you’ll be able to manage it.

Visit Shokunin’s website to browse its artisan products.

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