Preserving Traditions and Spreading Happiness: How Roberto Milk’s Marketplace Empowers Artisans and Values Love
2020 YPO Global Impact Award
Roberto Milk is the Pacific U.S. regional honoree for the 2020 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
In 1995, Roberto Milk, YPO member and CEO of the impact marketplace NOVICA, was in his senior year at Stanford University. Like many college students, Milk had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Until he met an alluring Brazilian woman named Mina Olivera at a party, and it all seemed quite clear — he had to learn Portuguese.
The following day, Milk registered for a Portuguese for Spanish Speakers class. It was there that he first heard about the struggles of Brazilian artisans from his professor, Karin van den Dool. She told the class that many artisans no longer could make a living practicing their craft and their beautiful traditions were slipping into obscurity.
Milk was instantly affected. His formative summers had been spent traveling through Mexico and South America in a VW bus with his younger brother, his schoolteacher mother and his father who worked in the Peace Corps. Their trips were part vacation/part education, enjoying the beauty of other countries and their cultures, but also witnessing a great deal of poverty and discussing ways they might help.
“My brother and I learned to not just observe poverty, but consider ways we could be of service,” recalls Milk. “We would also purchase as many handicrafts as we could, buying all the ceramics and sculptures and alpaca rugs we could fit in the van … and back then we definitely had questionable taste.”
So, when Milk’s professor spoke about the challenges of artisans in Brazil, it was truly a perfect storm of everything he was passionate about: empowering marginalized cultures, changing the economic prospects of those less fortunate and handcrafted goods.
With the core idea of connecting remote artisans with consumers they would otherwise never reach, Milk teamed up with his brother, NOVICA COO Andy Milk; their childhood best friend, NOVICA CTO and CMO Charles Hachtmann; Roberto’s Stanford roommate and NOVICA VP, Sales & Operations Jose Cervantes; Roberto’s wife, NOVICA Spokesperson Mina Olivera; and her mother, President of NOVICA Armenia Nercessian, and launched NOVICA in 1999.
From classroom to concept
Most artisans in the developing world lack access to global markets, limiting their potential to expand their businesses and increase their financial stability. Even when artisans’ products are sold in global markets, the involvement of multiple intermediaries lowers the amount of profit that goes directly to the artisans. NOVICA’s fully integrated e-commerce platform was designed to eliminate this downward negotiation by reducing the multiple layers of middlemen. NOVICA works directly with their artisans, doesn’t charge a fee to sell on their website and offers full autonomy — artisans decide what to sell and what prices to set. In exchange, NOVICA takes care of customs, global shipping and delivery. The only thing they require is compliance with their child labor and fair labor policies.
Far too often, artisans are forced to abandon a craft handed down for generations in favor of more secure income, or forced to degrade the quality of their work to cater to lower price points. By providing a platform for promoting the world’s finest artistic traditions and encouraging artisans to provide their highest quality work, NOVICA assists these communities in preserving their cultural heritage.
“We’ve met so many artists who were going to give up their craft because they couldn’t generate enough income, many of them working with age-old traditions handed down through the generations,” says Milk. “We never imagined, when we first started, that we’d be on the verge of providing almost USD100 million to artisans. Every day I’m filled with new energy because there are so many lives that have been impacted in such a positive way.”
From the very beginning, the idea was to create long-lasting impact for artisans; to build a network of makers who, able to make a sustainable living with their craft, were then able to hand down their traditions to the next generation. In order to help facilitate this growth and preservation, NOVICA founded regional offices in each of the countries in which they work — Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Indonesia, Thailand and India.
“When we start working with an artist, we are able to build a local relationship with them,” says Milk. “This allows us to work on a very personal, ongoing basis together, with artisans delivering products on their own terms and schedules and being involved in the supply chain if they desire.”
In addition to promoting their crafts, artisans are encouraged to highlight their personal stories alongside their products — where they’re from, who taught them their craft, what techniques they’re using and the meanings behind what they make. At NOVICA, storytelling is an indelible part of the process, a vital part of an ecosystem that helps build bonds across nations and forge greater cultural understanding and respect.
“When we meet artists, we tell them that what they’re doing is interesting to people all around the world,” says Milk. “In the very near future, we will become even more immersive by bringing artists’ stories into people’s homes, broadcasting live from their workshops and traveling through their communities to learn more about them. The broader the market becomes, the more money the artists will be able to make, and the more they can compete against big box stores.”
In a world where there are so many mass-produced products, with no record of who made them or under what conditions, NOVICA gives conscientious consumers the choice to own pieces with history and meaning. In so doing, these consumers become part of the fabric of NOVICA, helping to preserve and promote cultural identities, traditional skills and artistic legacies.
Partners in art
In addition to seeking out artisans in all corners of the world, NOVICA pursues partnerships that can expand their customer reach. An initiative with Kiva — a nonprofit organization that allows people to lend money through the internet to low-income entrepreneurs and students — augments NOVICA’s existing microcredit program by giving their artisans access to Kiva’s 1 million lenders. Through Kiva’s microfinance website, customers can purchase products and lend money directly to the artisans. In their first 12 months, they raised more than USD240,000, interest-free for artisans.
“In a climate where the world’s most challenged entrepreneurs are subjected to painfully high interest rates, we cut out all the financial middlemen and launched the first microfinance website where customers can purchase products and lend money directly to artisans,” says Milk.
Other partnerships include a proprietary infrastructure built for UNICEF, a customized version of their own e-commerce platform created for National Geographic and a shop with the environmental advocacy nonprofit organization, Heal the Bay. Each of these shines a light on the beauty and importance of fair trade and handmade crafts, helping thousands of artisans find new markets.
The value of love
Recently, Milk asked every one of his teams around the world to engage in an exercise in order to learn what mattered to them the most. What Milk discovered was that everyone’s lives were defined by the choices they made, that their values stemmed from choosing to be courageous rather than scared, or open-minded instead of closed. But the biggest learning of all, was that every single team included the same word on their list of things they valued the most: love.
“Our teams had different values, different things they felt were important to them, which were often based on their culture,” recalls Milk. “But no matter who was being represented, love was regarded as the most inspiring. Love was what united people and drove them.”
NOVICA crafted a top 10 core values list that represents the values they strive for. Love is the driver. A simple, beautiful edict that comes as no surprise. From day one, NOVICA was built on the foundation of love, a group of six friends and family members looking to make the world a better place. And all six of those starting principles are the very same people running NOVICA together today.
“We have been blessed that our founding group — my closest friends and family — are all still here,” says Milk. “That’s the true dream — to live and work beside the people you love and enjoy being with, helping the citizens of the world through sharing stories, honoring cultures and celebrating art.”