Portland-based Meridian Lee is not your typical product and fashion design business. Rachel Kinley, founder of Meridian Lee, made sure of that. In fact, Rachel and her partner, Anne Dorsey, have built a business designed to transform the lives of women in developing countries and to lift them out of poverty.
When I met Rachel Kinley a few weeks ago to chat about Meridian Lee, I had no idea I would be connecting with a woman with such a clear purpose to help others. Meridian Lee operates from a business model that seems a bit turned upside down from a typical business. Its main purpose is to empower the women artisans it works with. As it turns out, it is not only a viable but also a valuable business model.
The business model is pretty simple. Rachel connects and collaborates with women artisans mostly from developing countries. While meeting with each artisan, Rachel learns what they like to do and what talents they have. Then, Rachel designs useful products the artisan can create, such as tote bags and travel accessories, based on those skills and talents. Rachel points out that she collaborates with the artisans while creating the designs.
And that’s really the point I think – empowering women. Rachel believes these women are not looking for charity work, but for a means to support themselves. They want to build their own futures and revitalize their own communities. She is empowering these women by providing them with an economic opportunity to do what they love and know how to do.
Rachel explains that investment in women in developing countries brings a fantastic return on investment. In fact, women put about 80% of the funds right back into their families and own local economies. That is a great return on investment!
Finding her Purpose
Like many new businesses, Meridian Lee began after Rachel searched for a product that didn’t exist. About eight years ago, Rachel decided she wanted to shop from brands that created equitable opportunity for everyone in the supply chain. So, Rachel searched for ethically made Christmas gifts, but she couldn’t find what she was looking for. Most of what she found was too Bohemian for her friends and family. Instead, she wanted to find more useful items, like tote bags and laptop cases.
Rachel had already spent fifteen years working in the fashion industry. She had always loved designing since she was a child, but her years in the fashion industry exposed her to labor and manufacturing practices that created negative side effects. Now, Rachel was feeling like she was ready for a change. She wanted to help people in a more direct way.
After her fruitless search for Christmas gifts, Rachel realized should could design and make the products she wanted to buy. Not only did she have the design experience, but she also came from a family deeply invested in helping people in developing countries. For example, her father had helped provide micro-finance opportunities in Haiti. Rachel was accustomed to working with people in developing countries and making a huge impact on their lives.
An Idea Comes to Life
While looking for new opportunities for herself, Rachel’s friends helped her out. They let her know about a nonprofit that worked with artisans in developing economies that was looking for a product developer. Rachel jumped at the opportunity. For three years, Rachel traveled the world for this nonprofit, meeting artisans from developing countries around the globe and expanding the organization’s product line and reach to new developing countries.
After some other organizations asked Rachel to work with them to develop new products, Rachel asked the nonprofit for permission to continue working with the artisans while she started her own company. She founded Meridian Lee to provide work for the talented group of artisans she knew and to fill a gap in the market she saw for ethically made products with a more classic, yet modern style.
The Products of Meridian Lee
Meridian Lee makes and sells products like bags, home goods and jewelry, which are all crafted by artisan women from developing countries. Rachel and Anne both believe in paying the artisans they work with a living wage. They also believe you, the consumer, deserve to know who makes the products you buy.
I got to see a few of Meridian Lee’s products in person. Rachel arrived at our meeting using one of the tote bags. The bag was remarkable in its beautiful simplicity and usefulness. It’s just the right size to hold notebooks, and it also has straps so you can use the bag as a backpack .
Also, Rachel pulled out a brilliant simple little tablet or laptop cover made from canvas. The sewing was to perfection, and again the design’s simplicity made it shine. Additionally, Rachel told me about the duffel bag she designed. She researched the exact carry-on dimension requirements for every airline, and then she designed the bag to fit under the seat for each and every one of them. Wow!
The Promise of Meridian Lee
At one point, I asked about Rachel how she decided on the name, Meridian Lee. Her response was beautiful. Meridian, she explains, refers to a line of longitude on a map. Lee means being on the protected side of a rock, or protected from the wind. Lee is also Rachel’s middle name. I think the name is a perfect fit.
Towards the end of our chat, I asked Rachel what were some the most rewarding aspects of owning and operating Meridian Lee. But, I kind of already knew her answer just from talking with her. Rachel glowed as she told me she’s living the life she wants. She’s doing the design work she loves while also creating a better world. Under her guidance and leadership, Meridian Lee helps amazing artisans around the world very directly through its design and crafting of ethically made products.
Learn more about Meridian Lee.
Images Courtesy of Meridian Lee