With Meyelo, Carmen Myers empowers Kenya’s artisans—despite not having all the answers
Meyelo’s founder, Carmen Myers laughs when I ask about the significance of her company’s name. “So,” she says. “This is a kind of hard one to explain.”
Her reaction is unexpected. Until this point, our discussion has been an earnest one, marked by Myers’ self-possession and eloquence; she covers every aspect of her business with ease and animation. Meyelo is a years-in-the-making expression of Myers’s mission to facilitate economic opportunities for artisan workers in Kenya. Moreover, it’s a for-profit, sister enterprise to her non-profit organization, A Voice is Heard, which provides education, healthcare, and safe drinking water to communities across the country. (Twenty percent of Meyelo’s proceeds go to A Voice is Heard.) Not exactly laughing material.
“When working in Kenya, our biggest barrier really is the inability to communicate,” Myers says. “There’s always a bit of back and forth: ‘What are you saying to me?’ We noticed the Masaai women would often respond to my questions with the same expression: ‘Meyelo!’ Finally we figured out what it means. It literally translates to, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s become one of the biggest jokes in our company because this expression really encapsulates what it can be like working with the artisans: ‘I don’t know.’”
Of course, Myers isn’t often fumbling—for words or otherwise. Her familiarity with the region—and the cultural nuances of working there—illustrates just how “in the know” she really is. Her company—under a year old—already employs roughly 80 artisans skilled in trades native to the country, such as Masaai beadwork, brass design, and leather production. Meyelo’s designs merge tradition with modernity to impressive effect: Think lush, nubuck leather totes with simple brass accents. “We want to create simple, traditional designs that an everyday woman, anywhere in the world, would want to own, but [also] showcases the work of our artisans,” she says.
So far, the strategy works. “Meyelo really skyrocketed this year,” Myers says. “We’ve promoted these artisans’ work so effectively that they are almost overwhelmed.” Meyelo now plows back portions of profits to some of the most productive artisans, helping sustain and grow their enterprises. “We’re doing business evaluation, really looking at solutions which will help sustain their growth,” Myers says. For example, Meyelo profits paid for the renovation of a brass maker’s workspace, so he can expand his own artisan stable and production output—a savvy, thoughtful application of the funds.
Myers credits her business acumen to her role as president and founder of A Voice is Heard. “Meyelo wouldn’t be here without A Voice is Heard,” she says. “I wouldn’t know how to effectively create change and opportunity without all that work I’d done along the way. Above all else, I learned a handout is truly, absolutely not the way: education and practical training—whether for a man, woman, or child—is the only way.”
It’s not a novel concept, but it’s one that Myers executes with rigor. “It’s not just teaching them why good practices are important, it’s being totally transparent on everything we are doing from a business perspective,” Myers says. “Our artisans know exactly how much something is sold for in the United States. They know the cost of shipping, they know production costs, and they understand our wholesale market and our retail market. This helps them evaluate and grow their own businesses independent of Meyelo.”
She cites the example of a Masaai bead worker. “I’ll ask her how long it takes to make a certain necklace. She might say it takes two weeks, but I know it really doesn’t take that long. So, we will sit down and figure out the actual amount of time she puts into it. Then she’ll understand the true value of her time—and the true value of being paid.”
The lessons, of course, go both ways. A former model, Myers spent her twenties and early thirties traveling the globe. Her 2009 visit to Kenya was a turning point. “Kenya really made me realize that we have no idea how thankful we should be for what we have,” Myers says. “Here, women dance in the face of adversity—adversity we will never experience. I’m inspired and humbled every single day.”