Magazine Feature / People

Alumna helps cash-strapped artisans become more profitable

One University of Denver alumna has found a way to put her education to work around the world.

Kathleen Campbell (MA ’99) is the first artisan development specialist for Ten Thousand Villages. Campbell has worked at the company’s headquarters in Akron, Pa., since March 2008. As the first person to hold the position, she’s in the process of defining just what her job is.

One thing she knows for sure: She’ll help artisan groups become more efficient and make their businesses more sustainable.

“When buyers are in conversation with artisan groups they learn of challenges or opportunities,” Campbell says, explaining that’s where she steps in and helps find solutions.

Helping small businesses isn’t new to her. Even before she earned her master’s in international studies at the University of Denver, Campbell had worked with a management company in the San Francisco area.

“That experience set me up to understand the business context and make small companies more successful,” she says.

But it was at DU that she learned to “think about the larger context.” Campbell explains that international trade, interest rates and monetary policies are all “part of the mix” of what even the smallest companies contend with.

“You always have to be looking for a myriad of factors,” she says, noting the importance of “international relations and trade policy implications.”

Associate Professor Frank Laird, who teaches in the Korbel School of International Studies, taught Planning and Management of Technology when Campbell was a student. The course was about the ways in which technology and public policy fit together. He describes Campbell as a mature, serious student.

“She came in and was very focused on the kinds of things that she wanted to do — environmental and social development.”

Campbell credits her DU education for helping her see how it all worked together. Courses on technology, economics, environment and policies weaved a multi-layered understanding of the complexities that small business owners must unravel to succeed.

“You can’t go assume the local context is the only context, especially in international trade” she says.

That lesson served her well during her service with the Peace Corps, from 2004–06, when she was business adviser to an environmental and coastal resource management organization. Campbell worked on an island in the Philippines where most of the locals were involved in the fishing industry. The organization established community-based marine sanctuaries, which meant they had to find other ways for fishermen to make money.

Initially, Campbell was disappointed in the assignment because she’d hoped to go to Latin America. But she jumped in, saying, “When you’re willing to put yourself in an entirely new situation, invariably something really marvelous will happen.”

For her, the marvelous thing that happened was getting to know a variety of community-based Filipino enterprises, including a bakery, an ecotourism outfit and crafters who made handbags out of coconuts.

“I mainly worked to help these small business become profitable,” she says.

That experience was a perfect segue to her current work, helping any of 133 artisan groups in 36 countries with whatever they might need to become better at what they do. In Zanzibar, Tanzania, a women’s group made soap by pouring it into a cake pan and cutting it into bars with wire after it had cooled. The end product wasn’t exactly square — or attractive.

The Ten Thousand Villages buyer thought improving the process could result in a more salable product. Campbell coordinated the effort to find resources. With the help of a traditional Tanzanian woodcarver and a synthetic mold maker, the group was furnished with molds to transform their soaps from plain, rough cut bars to unique molded products.

Her work fits well with the direction Laird expected her to go. He says she’s a “classic practical idealist” who does more than just talk about making the world a better place.

“She wants to do things in her career that have a real and substantial benefit on people’s lives, but she’s not just a person of good intentions. She has the skills and temperament to get things done,” Laird says.

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