This business is about renewing the relationship between artisans and their markets.
"In my classes at Calvin, I spent quite a bit of time studying capitalism and trade and their effects on developing nations. Through my studies, I came to believe that I could use capitalism and combine it with my faith and morals to guide my decisions. I’ve found I can choose to do business in a manner that is respectful of other people and their cultures, as well as the environment."
Jennie Nichols believes that markets work, and she wants to help them work for everyone. That’s why she founded Venture Imports, LLC: to provide employment for people in developing countries and provide them a link to U.S. markets.
A Calvin Interim trip to South Africa, combined with a faculty-student summer research fellowship, showed Jennie the need for grassroots work in developing countries and helped her arrive at the conclusion that “capitalism, when done correctly — with morals — is a good way of helping these people.”
Jennie founded Venture Imports shortly after she graduated from Calvin in 2001, leaving with a major in economics and a minor in Third World development. After researching countries, contacting missionaries and development workers, and analyzing her U.S. market, she settled on working with a group of several hundred Zimbabwean artists who were producing stone sculptures she had seen during one of her visits to the country.
Hand-carved out of stone, then sanded and wet-sanded, the sculptures are set in a fire and then coated with floor polish to produce a deep hue and shiny finish. The pieces, representing everything from mother and child to giraffes and rhinoceroses, are striking in their fluidity of form and appeal widely to U.S. consumers. Within the first four years of her business, Jennie purchased five 20-foot containers of the sculptures.
And her fair-trade business is thriving. In the past year, Jennie purchased another company that works with artists in Mexico, and started buying from artisans in Bolivia and Panama as well.
“At Calvin, no matter what I studied, I was challenged to think critically about it. My professors asked, ‘What is the good you can see here? What has gone wrong? And what can you do to help fix it?’
“For me, I try to be an agent of renewal in how I conduct my business, and in a very small way, by trying to help alleviate poverty. When you go into this kind of work, you go into it with a vision to do something more than just make money.”
Jennie L.H. Nichols '01
President, Venture Imports, LLC