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Immigrant hopes to do a World of Good

Entrepreneur Priya Haji is working to connect artisans making ethically-sourced, fair-trade products with U.S. consumers.
Priya Haji
Priya Haji is founder of World of Good Inc., a social enterprise that sells eco-friendly, sweatshop-free, and fair-trade goods like beaded jewelry, woven baskets, and silk scarves. World of Good Inc.
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

The oldest child in a Hindu-Muslim immigrant family with traditional values, Priya Haji could have easily succumbed to cultural pressures and become a doctor like both of her parents. But in 2004, she broke with convention and founded World of Good Inc., an Emeryville, Calif.-based social enterprise that sells eco-friendly, sweatshop-free, and fair-trade goods like beaded jewelry, woven baskets, and silk scarves.

Haji, at the time a newly minted M.B.A. from UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, already considered herself a fan of internationally sourced, hand-made accessories and clothing; she wore them frequently and knew many people at school who wanted to shop similarly. After a trip abroad in 2004, Haji came up with the idea of connecting the artisans she met — most of them women — with the U.S. market.

There is no shortage of companies selling handcrafted items made by local artisans in villages around the world, but World of Good is different. First, it’s the first online, fair-trade superstore, thanks to a deal Haji finalized in September with eBay that features items for sale at guaranteed, minimum fair prices to artisan-producers. Visitors to the site can chat online with like-minded shoppers or click on reports of human rights violations, see photos of producers, read about where the goods are from, and learn about their social impact.

"You're not only shopping for the physical attributes of the products, but also for the values embedded in that decision," says Robert Chatwani, eBay's general manager of the project.

Matching profit with nonprofit
Second, World of Good also is one of the first so-called “hybrid” for-profit/nonprofit social enterprises. Its for-profit retail business is called World of Good, Inc., and it is focused on getting ethically sourced, fair-trade products to larger markets, donating 10 percent of net profits from the sale of these items to its sister nonprofit, World of Good Development Organization. This nonprofit arm also publishes an interactive fair-wage guide, which is a data bank and pricing tool offering comparative information from nearly 100 countries. Buyers can calculate whether their payment is higher or lower than the local standard, and then get a suggested alternative price.

The company also works to help improve conditions in the artists' communities. For example, one of World of Good, Inc.’s top-selling items is a Kenyan soapstone paperweight named “kisii my heart” (Kisii is one of the six districts of the Nyanza Province in southwest Kenya). It’s priced at $5.95 and 10 percent of all net profits from the sale of these paperweights goes into the nonprofit’s coffers to help fund one-time grants of $500-$1,500 to artisans’ communities worldwide for health, clean water, and education improvement projects.

Two World of Good staffers administer the program along with field research interns. Haji and her team review grant applications quarterly. So far, Haji says, World of Good, Inc. has helped fund more than 20 projects in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Grantees include the Mitra Bali artisan collective in Indonesia, which received funds last year to build a water pump to benefit local villagers, and Gone Rural, a literacy project in Malkern, Swaziland. Gone Rural used its grant to build classrooms and buy books and supplies.

That Haji founded such an innovative approach to social enterprise was no accident. Haji’s grandmother had been active in Gandhi’s movement for social justice for the poor, and Haji’s father, Karim, a general surgeon, and his sister — Haji’s Aunt Farida, who managed the Cattlemen’s Hotel in Bryan — ran Health for All, a free medical clinic in Bryan, Texas, which they ran out of the hotel. At 16, Priya helped them to incorporate the clinic as a charitable organization, and today, the clinic serves about 3,000 patients a year with help from almost 40 local volunteer doctors.

Changing career path
But it wasn’t until Priya’s years as a pre-med student at Stanford University that she decided to consider taking a different career path. While at Stanford, Haji volunteered for a number of charities and then, troubled by the high levels of crime and drug addiction among residents of neighboring East Palo Alto, near the Stanford campus, she founded a rehab center there after graduation.

East Palo Alto had been named the murder capital of the United States in 1992 by the FBI and recorded high incidents of gang violence and high numbers of residents with HIV/AIDS. “East Palo Alto had no high school, no treatment programs [for addicts] … no mobile health clinics, nothing,” recalls Haji.

Around that time, Haji broke the news about medical school to her parents. “I remember saying that, as a doctor, you can help one person at a time, but if I could build a great institution … to deal with drug addiction or create [a company] to alleviate poverty through [fair] trade, that would have the potential to help thousands of people — there aren’t that many people who can do that.” Haji’s parents weren’t thrilled at first, she said, but it didn’t stop her.

While pursuing her M.B.A. at Berkeley, Haji remembers becoming immediately drawn to such topics as fair pricing, globalization, fair labor conditions, and community development programs. She traveled abroad to observe artisans at work, meeting jewelry-makers in India and Thailand and textile producers in Mexico and Nepal. “Many of these groups are the artisan partners that we now work with to source our products,” Haji says.

In 2003, Haji and Haas classmates Siddharth Sanghvi and David Guendelman wrote a business plan for World of Good and entered it into the UC Berkeley’s 2003 Business Plan Competition, one of the nation’s top funding contests for social entrepreneurs. They won, and it helped the trio to woo their first round of equity partners.

Their second round of funding came from the fabled Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm run by Pierre Omidyar, the founder and chairman of eBay.

Teaming with eBay
Earlier this fall, in a September profile by Fast Company magazine, Haji acknowledged criticism of, the site that constitutes her company’s recent partnership with eBay.

International Fair Trade Association President Paul Myers, who founded Ten Thousand Villages, told the magazine that he is one of Haji’s fans but says he’s not sure about World of Good’s linking up with such a large company as eBay while leaving its monitoring on pricing to third parties. “One of the concerns some people have about the World of Good/eBay relationship,” he told Fast Company, “is that it’s going to give eBay an opportunity to unintentionally put the fair-trade label on things that aren’t fair trade.”

But Haji says she is thinking big, seeing the eBay relationship as a way to provide a new opportunity for thousands of sellers to link with millions of shoppers, all interested in items that are eco-friendly, fairly traded, and sweatshop-free. She told Fast Company that if fair trade is going to pull a lot of people out of poverty, it must reach beyond the elite, affluent shopper and go mainstream.

World of Good can’t grow, she was quoted as saying, “if we don’t let in Joe American, who does shop at Wal-Mart, who has never traveled internationally but who is a thoughtful, kind person and would like to think about the things he/she buys differently.”