Overseas Odyssey

by Stephanie Finnegan

Courtesy of Handmade Business

When many people reach the age of 50, they experience what pop culture calls a "midlife crisis." For these birthday celebrants, they seek out that shiny red Corvette they always desired, the built-for-speed Harley they always lusted after, or the Maori Warrior tattoo they always mused about but never dared to request.

For Marla Showfer, when she turned the big Five-Oh three years ago, she also decided to pursue a new path, a new direction. For this very bright and capable woman, her new journey wouldn't be atop a motorcycle or a sports car careening down the Pacific Coast Highway.

No, Showfer decided that the next phase of her life would be about "combining social responsibility, my passion for travel, and my experience in marketing and merchandising."

On July 4, 2011, she staked her own declaration of independence and created a company called the Winding Road.

After having worked for 20-plus years in corporate marketing for Levi Strauss and Co., as well as for several major advertising agencies, Showfer took her business aptitude and combined it with a global attitude of wanting to improve the world, one handcrafted item at a time.

"I think the idea of starting a business that would support artisans in developing countries came to me about five years ago. I was on a business trip to India, and starving women and children rushed to us, begging for food. Most people just went about their daily business, because they see that every day. It seems normal and they think there is nothing they can do to solve that huge problem," Showfer explains. "As I thought about launching a business relating to retail, import, and design, I thought that I could find groups of people--particularly women and artisans--who had skills to produce interesting goods from their countries. I could then import and sell these goods, while also helping some very needy people."

Blue Felt Pony

The colorful felt animals that are made by hand in Kathmandu, Nepal, are a source of pride for Showfer. Partnering with a small family-run workshop, which follows fair-trade practices, she knows that her efforts are helping to elevate the standard of living for low-income families. Most important, child labor is not used.

As a child, Showfer had traveled through developing nations, so she was always aware of people who lived in extreme poverty. Creating a company that would hopefully address this real-life crisis was Showfer's altruistic "midlife crisis."

Among the goods that she scouts for her business are scarves, bags, belts, and beautiful handcrafted, handmade felt toys. It is this latter item that emphasizes the joyful and educational mission of the Winding Road.

"I think there is a market for mass-produced toys and also a market for handmade fair-trade kids' playthings," she declares confidently. "There is a growing interest for fair-trade goods, even from major corporations like Starbucks and Whole Foods. These businesses really help to increase awareness around fair trade and bring that to their customers."

Most customers who buy a latte from the coffee giant or a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil from the specialty grocery store are adults--full-grown men and women. Showfer's ideal buyer for her felt toys bridges both the world of adulthood and childhood: "I see my ‘typical' customer as socially conscious, well-traveled, and aware of world issues. She is a mom and she is out searching in independently owned shops, small boutiques, and museum stores for unique finds. She is not looking for mass-produced plastic toys and does not want to buy goods made in sweatshops. If these goods help other people--support a cause and have a great story behind them--it will make her feel good about her purchase."

Woman Making Felt

The adorable felt animals are made from 100% wool, which was hand-formed into felt, using only mild soap and water. No harsh chemicals are used during production. The handiwork is eco-friendly and fair-trade sensitive.

Women Making Felt Animals

The artisans who craft these pieces are happy to have their work recognized and for sale in the United States. "I am always impressed that I can meet a small group of women in Nepal who are making these felt animals by hand, and I play a part in helping them support themselves and their families and gain economic independence," Showfer comments.

In Chicago, at Green Genes, a small, socially conscious shop, Showfer can come into contact with kids and their parents quite a lot. "I ask the kids if they know where Nepal or Kathmandu is. Usually, they don't know. However, they do know where India and China are, and they have heard of Mount Everest. That is a starting point for them."

Showfer takes this opportunity to instruct the young audience about the individuals who have made the felt toys and dolls by hand. Each creation has a unique and personal story behind its fabrication.

"I will show them a photo of one of the women making hand-felting and making the felt animals. Then I'll talk about how the government in Nepal does not provide free public schools and the illiteracy rate amongst adults is 55 percent. Among girls in rural villages, the illiteracy rate is as high as 90 percent. Buying these goods can help these families send their children to school and be economically empowered," she relates.

The reaction to Showfer's lesson is almost always one of consternation: "The kids are so surprised to find out that kids in other countries don't have a guaranteed education or an opportunity to learn to read and write. That is why we are sure to include instructive hangtags on all these products."

Currently, Showfer imports handmade goods from Nepal, India, and Morocco. They also sell handiwork from Thailand and Indonesia--with plans to visit other countries and discover more talented artisans and their lovely, captivating crafts.

"We are always on the lookout for long-term relationships with our small family-owned suppliers," Showfer recounts. "We work hard to find avenues of distribution in the United States, with a visible presence at major trade shows--such as NY Now and other events in Dallas, Chicago, and the West Coast."

As the Winding Road increases its relationship with retailers across the country, Showfer knows that translates into more orders--bigger requests--for the overseas workers.

"All of our creations are accompanied by store signage, with the story behind the people who have made these goods. This way, we have increased awareness of their village and their country, and the fair-trade, eco-friendly cause can get spread across the United States."
Marla Showfer Stands Beside a Trust Donkey Cart

Marla Showfer stands beside a trust donkey cart, used to ferry merchandise from one place to the next. “The roads in the old part of the Medina in Marrakech are too narrow for cars,” she shares. Her world travels have taught her to adapt and improvise.

Winding Road Assistant Packaging the Toys

The felt toys experience their own journey to retail outlets and museum shops across the United States. Here, a Winding Road assistant is packaging the toys for their trip to a major cultural institution.

Girls with Felt Animals

An assemblage of American girls who are delighted to own these hand-crafted Winding Road creations. "Buying one of these felt pieces fits with the idea of starting kids out early, knowing where their goods are coming from," Showfer states. "They understand who is making them, and appreciate it, especially if it is fair trade."

Like a determined, devoted pen pal, Showfer doesn't simply share her words and images with her American audience. A dedicated and top-notch photographer, she also sends photos of her customers and U.S. staff to the artisans overseas.

"I always think it's cool to send pictures back to the people who make the goods. This way, they can see where their handiwork had ended up. I always feel good when I can meet a group of women in Nepal and then get their creations into shops across America and into museum stores at landmark institutions. To me, it's amazing that these women are making beautiful felt animals across the world, and then those very toys are for sale at the most prestigious museum shops in the United States. It makes me so happy and proud to be a part of that," she asserts.

More than three years into her brand-new personal and professional journey, Marla Showfer is overjoyed that she can travel the world scouring for goods, while doing good. She would not trade her donkey cart, used to transport items from the Medina in Marrakech, for a spanking-new Maserati.

Her aptly named Winding Road company reflects her commitment to her professional purpose and her private sense of adventure and exploration: "For me, the Winding Road is taking the trip off the beaten path. It is going around the world to search for interesting handmade fair-trade goods and the talented people who make them. I have often started down a road and it has taken twists and turns. I have ended up someplace interesting and totally unanticipated. Life is that way. You never know where it will take you, but it is quite a journey!"