Unreasonable Entrepreneur Brings Chinese Handicrafts to Mainstream

Unreasonable Entrepreneur Brings Chinese Handicrafts to Mainstream

Ellen Li is one of 46 people chosen to compete in Unreasonable Marketplace

Ellen Li first understood the challenge of selling traditional Chinese handicrafts when she was working for Oxfam’s Fair Trade program. The program shut down, but that didn’t stop Ellen.

She had already done the legwork in getting to know rural artisans in northern and southern China who were producing distinct embroidery work. The problem wasn’t their products, they were exceptional, more their usefulness. Ellen says embroidery pieces, cultivated over 5,000 years, often weren’t functional for modern life.

There also was no system to connect isolated artisans with product developers.

Seeing an opportunity to revitalize embroidery tradition and share the craft with China’s urban dwellers, Ellen founded Ja Bru Rigs. The company works with artisans to improve their skills, and connects them with designers to create fashionable products.

Ja Bru Rigs’ first product was a jewellery box featuring embroidery done by hand. New products include embroidered purses, laptop covers and notebooks.

Ja Bru Rigs' first product: jewellery boxes

The company has partnered with a famous apparel brand name Exception, and a Chinese retail chain selling the products in three cities. Several years ago Ja Bru Rigs received its first overseas order, selling its products to a store in the Netherlands.

Through this process, Ellen says she’s been able to employ 150 women, and pay them fair wages to produce their crafts, which has allowed them to stay in their villages instead of moving to larger towns and cities.

The company also dedicates five per cent of each purchase to a social development fund, which the craftsmen collectively decide how to spend. A small village called He Ba in Ma Jiang county, Guizhou province, was able to buy a loudspeaker to host community events, says Ellen. In addition to providing community goods, Ellen says the fund is introducing Chinese to democracy.

Ellen’s work has won her one of 46 spots in the Unreasonable Marketplace that can lead to an opportunity to become an Unreasonable Fellow and attend the Unreasonable Institute. The first 25 entrepreneurs to successfully crowdsource $10,000 for their venture will be accepted into the program and spend six weeks in Boulder, Colorado, where they will receive training and build relationships with 50 world-class mentors and investors in order to take their ventures to scale.

Ellen says her work, to many, seems unreasonable.

“When I started this project people would always say I was so crazy trying to find a solution by myself, and that it was impossible to find a solution for this,” she says. “In less than three years, we’ve been able to revitalize some (handicraft tradition). Now, it’s almost a model.”

To learn more about Ellen Li, or support her work, visit the Unreasonable Marketplace.

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Writer Bio

Camille Jensen's picture
Camille Jensen

Camille Jensen is an employee share ownership consultant with ESOP Builders, Canada’s largest provider of employee share ownership plans (ESOPs) for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Prior to joining ESOP Builders, Camille was a generative journalist and team member at Axiom News. She credits her time at Axiom as fundamental to her understanding that business is one of the best opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Camille is a B.C. Partner for Social Impact and volunteer with Okanagan Changemakers.

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