One year ago today, Amanda North was stood just fifteen feet away from the first bomb that went off at the Boston Marathon. In the moments that followed the blast, she rushed to the aid of Ericka Brannock, a seriously injured young woman who would later call North her “angel” and credit her with saving her life.
North had been there that day to watch her daughter Lili compete in the race. The two were separated in the aftermath of the explosions, but were later reunited in the hospital, which is when Lili told her mother that their survival had been a miracle and that they needed to think about their life’s purpose.
North took her daughter’s words to heart and initiated a major life change: she walked away from her thirty year career in tech and embarked on a new journey as an entrepreneur committed to making a difference in the world. With her new business Artisan Connect, which launched just one week ago, North is realizing that goal. Her e-commerce enterprise is devoted to celebrating and empowering artisans from around the world by involving them in a for-profit business model that will enable them to preserve their way of life.
Here, North reflects upon the events that day in Boston, shares the doubts she’s experienced as she’s forged her new path, and reveals what it’s like to live “each day as a gift.”
It’s been a year since the bombing in Boston. How do you feel as you reflect upon that day now?
It’s been a year of recovery for me but in a different way than for many people who were so seriously injured physically from the marathon. For me, it hasn’t been so much about physical recovery but really about changing my direction in life and deciding that I want to live every moment with the full passion and purpose that I can.
So, for the past year, I’ve really been thinking ahead and thinking about growing my business and reflecting. Not too often on the marathon itself, although I have kept up with my friend Erika Brannock who I helped at the marathon. But really, it wasn’t until I arrived in Boston on Sunday that it really come back to me very clearly. Now it does seem very present to me. I walked to the finish line with my son yesterday and it all came back to me. It felt very near and present.
You were there that day to watch your daughter run the marathon. Can you talk about what is was like when you found each other?
She fortunately was not injured. She was thrown off her feet by the explosion; she was very close to the second bomb when it went off. That night, she found me in the hospital and for many hours we had not known what had happened to either of us, so it was a very emotional time when we reconnected.
She said that our lives had been changed forever, that we had been spared by a miracle and that we really needed to think about our passions and our purpose. It was those words that really galvanized me into action to go from a marketing executive in high tech to doing something which I hope will make a big difference in the world. But she’s doing well. She’s a very strong person, she’s a junior in college. She’s working hard and she’s running the marathon again next week. So, she’s putting her full focus and attention on moving forward.
She said that our lives had been changed forever, that we had been spared by a miracle and that we really needed to think about our passions and our purpose.
Up to that point, you had enjoyed a very stable and successful career. What would your advice be to someone who might be looking to make a similar leap?
I would say it’s never too late. I’m 57 years-old and a lot of people have commented that it’s a strange time in life to be beginning a career when many people I know are beginning to wind down. But I think that at any point in your life you can really think about what’s important to you and what you love to do. And that can really energize you, and chronology doesn’t matter at all.
It’s never too late. I’m 57 years-old and a lot of people have commented that it’s a strange time in life to be beginning a career when many people I know are beginning to wind down.
In some ways I think everything I’ve done in my life has really built up to this, all the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, that’s all really enabled me to start the business and to do it fairly quickly. We launched it last week and I feel really good about the response to it. But I would also say that hopefully it doesn’t need to be as cataclysmic an event as the marathon to provide that catalyst for people. I think it’s important to be reflective throughout your life because you never know what can happen.
What sets Artisan Connect apart from other businesses selling artisanal products sourced from around the world?
A couple of things. We’re set up as a social venture and what that means is that we’re not a non-profit, we are a for-profit but we are driving to have a significant return to our artisans as well as to our investors so that everybody thrives. We feel it’s important not to be a non-profit because we wanted to inform artisans that they have a business proposition that is enduring and it’s not at the whim of donations, but it’s a solid business they can count on for generations to come.
We wanted to inform artisans that they have a business proposition that is enduring and it’s not at the whim of donations, but it’s a solid business they can count on for generations to come.
We only sell online, we don’t sell through retail distribution or through catalogue, and the reason we do that is we think it’s a much more efficient, more cost effective way to do business so that our margins are better and we can return more of the profits to our artisans.
We’re also focusing on a particular sector. People who have wanted to help artisans in the past have done a good job but they’ve tended to cover a lot of different bases. So, you’re not really sure what you’re going to buy when you go to one of those destinations. We’re focusing exclusively on high quality home decor, so our site is a place where you can come and know you’ll find things that would be showcase items for your home, and they’re beautifully hand-crafted unique items from artisans in the developing world.
How is globalization affecting artisans around the world and why is it so important to preserve their cultural role?
That’s a great question. You know, globalization is a mixed blessing. In many ways we have created jobs which help keep people from abject starvation, and that’s what the artisans are seeing. There are beginning to be jobs available to them that often require that they leave their villages and leave their traditional ways of living. But then they don’t have their community support systems and they don’t have jobs that necessarily bring them dignity and honor. They may have something to keep them from starving, but it doesn’t necessarily sustain you as a person or make you feel celebrated.
As far as the importance of preserving their cultural role, it makes me think of “The Monuments Men,” which is a really good movie about how when we lose our cultural artifacts, what we’re really losing is a way of life. You know, globalization has given us incredible connection. Young artisans in developing countries know much more about the world around them, but at the same time they look at their artisanal skills and feel like they’re not modern, so they’re saying they don’t want to continue their family’s tradition.
What they don’t know is that our young people here in America really celebrate what they do and really appreciate their work. So part of what we’re doing with Artisan Connect is providing social media contact so that our young people can show their appreciation to the artisans and encourage them to stay in their traditional businesses. One of the things we do when a customer buys our products, is we send the artisan a picture of how that product looks in the homes in America. It’s something our artisans really get a kick out of.
And the artisans help us too. Their work in my home has always been a touchstone to a world beyond my doorstep. So, it’s really a reciprocal thing.
Have you had days when you’ve doubted this new path and if so how did you course correct?
Oh, very, very frequently. I often wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I mean, I walked away from a secure and successful career where I was highly regarded and really knew what I was doing. Now, I’m learning so many new things, things which I knew nothing about, such as how supply chains work and importing goods. I’m really drinking out of a fire hose. It’s hard and it’s scary. But then I remember that the same force that came upon me at the marathon, the same force that moved me to help Erika, it’s the same force that’s propelling me in what I’m doing today.
Would you be doing what you’re doing today without the events that day in Boston?
That’s an excellent question. I’m staying with a family in Boston right now whose daughter was gravely injured and they have been very private about their situation up until now. But the mother said to me, “I remember we had dinner the night before the bombing and you were saying you were feeling conflicted about your job in high tech, how you felt maybe it had taken you further and further away from the things you were really passionate about.” But the truth is, I would probably have continued for several more years before I made a change. I think I would have done so eventually but I certainly would have waited longer. So, the bombing certainly accelerated that for me.
The bottom line is that I look at each day as a gift and want to live it fully, which for me means doing something I’m passionate about that I hope will make a big difference in the world.
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