Ashley Pittman Empowers Entrepreneurs
By Nina Price
Ashley Pittman at a workshop in Kenya with some of the artisans who create her jewelry.
“I’m one of those people who always sampled a million things,” says LA-based philanthropic jewelry designer Ashley Pittman, who began her namesake line of made-in-Kenya recycled horn, bronze, and gemstone jewelry in late 2009. Pittman does indeed like to be discerning in her decisions. “Then I sort of got sick of my life,” says Pittman, who earned her J.D. from Northeastern University after working at a private-equity firm. So she went to Rwanda as a volunteer for the Clinton Health Access Initiative and fell in love with both the country and its people. “That’s when I got the idea that I wanted to start a business there.”
Soon Pittman founded Inshuti, LLC, along with a partner, and the duo partnered with Rwanda Knits, a nongovernmental organization that trains knitters in Rwanda. Together, the collaboration produced and exported a line of scarves.
But scarves were only part of Pittman’s dream of creating a line of fully sustainable, African-produced goods. “I was seeing horn in the marketplace and it was either [overpriced frames] or really cheaply made napkin rings with too much varnish. I thought that there had to be a middle ground,” Pittman recalls. Luckily for her, there wasn’t. So she set out to create a line of horn bangles, necklaces, rings, and earrings that were not only marketable both in the US and abroad, but gave local artisans the chance to earn a living wage through a sustainable business model.
Pittman lives by the “trade not aid” philosophy, and even though 10 percent of her profits directly fund a school and healthcare center in rural Kenya, she believes that trade and aid go hand in hand, and both are necessary for long-term poverty reduction. “Charity certainly has its place,” Pittman says. “But then you have to depend on donors. With a business, if it’s run right, people end up being rewarded with their skill and hard work. People need a steady source of income to pull themselves out of poverty.”
“When I started, I looked at this as more of a business opportunity rather than [a line I was designing],” says Pittman, who now hopes to evolve her company into a larger lifestyle brand in which all the products are handmade by artisans from all over the world. “There are so many places where people have incredible skill but they don’t have access to a market or Vogue magazine. They don’t have a way to connect the dots. That’s my bigger goal.”