After my presentation on a panel about the growth of fashion in Africa, Benjamin Stone approached me with a warm greeting. Judging by his All-American good looks and youthful energy, it was difficult to imagine him as interested in Africa, let alone old enough to contribute to it.
Five minutes and all doubt disappeared: Stone was as passionate about the people and prospects of the continent as any native -- myself included.
Along with his partner, Matt Mitro, Stone has put that passion into action via Indego Africa. Described on their site as "an innovative non-profit social enterprise -- built on core values of transparency and good governance" Indigo Africa has tasked itself with blotting out "systemic poverty by delivering access to export markets and job skills to African women."
It's a weighty mission that the organization has aggressively accomplished in style. Literally.
Indego Africa commissions accessories and home decor items from craftswomen in Africa, which are then sold at over forty high end stores in the country and online. They've expanded to collaborations, rolling out the first with iconic designer Nicole Miller late last year. Yet unlike labels such as Feed and Toms Shoes, which donate proceeds to charity, Indego Africa is more business partner than benefactor.
Their organization is a multi-faceted structure with executives in both Kigali, Rwanda and New York City. In Kigali, Indego Africa works hand in hand with cooperatives of craftswomen who create the merchandise. Many of them have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or have suffered traumatic experiences as a result of Rawanda's genocide in 1994. In New York City, the team -- led by Stone and supported by an extensive network of advisers and board members -- work to place items in stores like Ralph Lauren and Anthropology.
One hundred percent of profits are funneled back into the cooperatives in the form of training programs, financial literary classes, as well as a scholarship program.
The benefit of this structure is epitomized in the story of Emelienne Nyiramana, Treasurer and Master Seamstress of Indego Africa's partner Cooperative de Couture de Kicukiro ("Cocoki") in Rwanda. Through her partnership with Indego Africa, the mother of five (who was earning just 25 cents a day three years ago) now sells her custom wine bottle bags and coasters in Anthropolgie and was featured in Food & Wine Magazines "Best of wine" issue in April 2010. (A fund set up to help Nyiramana come to the U.S in October is online now.)
This trajectory of sacrifice then success experienced by Indego Africa's cooperative partners, mirrors that experienced by the founders. Stone and Miro, both 32, put their skyrocketing law careers on hold to further their vision for the organization.
Miro, who spent much of his childhood in Nigeria had a personal connection to the continent and a strong interest in its development. As co-founder of Indego Africa he was integral in creating the innovative organizational model which he has spoken on extensively.
For Stone, it wasn't time spent in Africa, but time spent representing Indego Africa pro-bono that fueled his passion. So taken was he by the organization's mission that he left his position as Managing Associate at the white-glove firm of Orrick, Herrington & Suttcliffe LLP (Orrick) to work on Indego Africa full-time. Along the way he crafted an unheard of "intrapreneurship" between his old employer and his new organization; Orrick essentially provided office space and a reduced salary for their former employee to work full-time on his new project.
While Miro, who is now Chairman of Indego Africa's Board, has since transitioned to Google, the weight of his and Stone's sacrifice has reaped a rich reward: creating a powerful new paradigm for brands seeking to help the people of Africa by giving them a hand up instead of a hand out.