McDonough School of Business
News Story

Changing the World, One Handbag at a Time

In a small village in Masoro, Rwanda, more than 150 women make handbags and jewelry that end up on the shelves of one of the biggest names in fashion, Kate Spade & Company. The bangles, inset with handwoven beading in vibrant colors, bear inscriptions: courage, dream, limitless, inspire.

The artisans in Masoro are employees of Abahizi Dushygikirane Corporation or ADC, the supplier of Kate Spade & Company’s on purpose label, which launched in May 2014. Professors Catherine Tinsley and Edward Soule at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business are studying this socially responsible business model and its impact on the employees and their community. They visited the village over the summer and will make another trip in February.

“The hook for me is when corporate leaders use their business to make long-lasting impacts in non-traditional ways,” Soule said. “We can play a role by using our academic perch, our position of informed objectivity, to say to the world, ‘Look, here’s what happened, here’s what worked, and here’s how it might work in marginalized communities around the world.’”

A Women-Owned Model

Tinsley, professor of management, and Soule, associate professor of ethics, together with Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, are researching the sustainability, scalability, and the feasibility of replicating the ADC business model. They will share their findings with Kate Spade & Company in June and will issue a research report later in the summer. This project, supported by the Georgetown University Fund for Complex Moral Problems Research and the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics, is similar to previous research conducted by Soule and Professor John Kline on Alta Gracia, a living wage garment operation in the Dominican Republic.

“From what Kate Spade & Company learns from this experience, we hope to come up with a model with these features that other companies could implement in the future,” Soule said.

Unlike other socially responsible ventures, the operation in Rwanda is a supplier for, rather than a subsidiary of, Kate Spade & Company. ADC is a worker-owned, for-profit social enterprise.

“It’s radical in the sense that the women in Masoro own this business,” Soule said. “Kate Spade & Company has supported this hopefully competitive supplier. Success is being measured by this company’s ability to get additional customers.”

“We have a fundamental belief that women are agents of change in their communities,” said Sydney Price, senior vice president, corporate social responsibility at Kate Spade & Company. “We think a fully integrated manufacturing partnership has the most long-term impact for women and their community.”

Empowering women is at the core of on purpose. If the initiative succeeds, it will serve as an important alternative to the standard global supply chain model.

“Kate Spade & Company isn’t just placing an order,” Tinsley said. “They are building the capacities of the company, everything from management expertise to production technology. The objective is to create a competitive supplier that can assume a place in the supply chains of many fashion brands.”  

Manhattan to Masoro

In addition to visiting Masoro, Tinsley and Soule have interviewed Kate Spade & Company employees in the United States – from the CEO in New York to a store manager in Georgetown. In addition to understanding the company’s goals and motivations, they want to document the effect this initiative is having on the company’s culture.

“We are finding enthusiastic support throughout the organization—from logistics and compliance to the sales floor,” Soule said. “People who don’t have an organizational reason to go out of their way for this project have made it a priority. They relish the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who haven’t caught many breaks in life. It’s rewarding work that changes the way they think about Kate Spade & Company.” 

“What makes our effort unique is our employees’ dedication to seeing our manufacturing partner succeed on its own,” added Price. “Our teams contribute expertise to train our partner and this approach engages our employee base, while helping the supplier on their path to independence.”

“The people in Rwanda take enormous pride in the beautiful products they are producing,” Soule said. “The people of Kate Spade & Company are rallying to their cause. They want to help them grow the business and operate independently.”

Courage. Inspire. Dream.

The majority of ADC employees are female, setting them apart within a patriarchal society that has few opportunities for women.

Kate Spade & Company has sponsored empowerment programs for women in Bosnia and Afghanistan and felt compelled to create sustainable impacts in Rwanda.

Tinsley, director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute, recounts the stories of women, previously without steady sources of income, whose salary from on purpose has impacted their lives— and those of the next generation— in tangible ways.

Before starting her job at ADC, one woman couldn’t afford her child’s school tuition.

“If you don’t have that money, your child gets sent home,” Tinsley said. “It’s beyond just the fact that the child isn’t educated. It’s a huge source of shame for the child and the mother. In a country where there are a lot of single women who are trying to educate their children, this is offering them a way to do that, to educate the next generation.”

Another woman used her new financial standing to take out a loan for a small plot of land. Within two years, she had paid back the initial loan and had earned enough to pay back a second loan for a home of her own.

In addition to the social and economic benefits of employment, ADC provides a suite of services, called the Life Skills Program, to all employees without charge

“ADC gives women access to good jobs, resources, and a support network,” Tinsley said. “It feeds the mission of GUWLI which is about gender equity and developing women.”

The Land of a Thousand Hills

Rwanda, a small Central East African country about the size of Maryland, is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills” for its lush mountain rainforests and deep valleys. The country is home to one-third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas and is becoming a sought-after tourist destination.

The beauty of the country contrasts sharply with the devastation of the 1994 genocide. As many as 1 million Rwandans – 15 percent of the population – perished and many more were displaced. Although in recent years the country has made tremendous strides, the trauma continues to affect the lives of Rwandans – especially women.

During a recent trip to Masoro – 45 minutes from the capital city of Kigali and miles up a dirt road – Tinsley visited a high school to meet with a group of advanced English students.

She asked them what they considered to be their favorite English word. One hand shot up immediately. When she called on him, he shouted, “Peace.”