Written by Amanda Maher
Long gone are the days of the entrepreneurial model that relies solely on investors, seed-capital and mega-millionaires to cultivate a new business or create a new product. The worldwide adoption of and obsession with e-commerce has given birth to a new kind of entrepreneur. These days, all you need to start selling your product or craft to a global marketplace is a good camera and Wi-Fi connection.
New York City has found a new way to help its residents tap into the $1.7+ trillion e-commerce industry. Through a partnership with Etsy, and through generous funding from Citi Community Development, the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) has developed the NYC Craft Entrepreneurship Program to help low-income, un- and under-employed, or otherwise disadvantaged residents turn their crafty skills into marketable goods.
Not all program graduates will become full-time entrepreneurs, and that’s okay. The goal is to teach talented residents how to tap into their skills to earn supplemental income.
“In New York City, 15.2 percent of people are underemployed – those who are willing and able to work, but have been unable to secure full time employment,” said Bob Annibale, Global Director of Citi Community Development and Microfinance at the time of the program’s full rollout in March 2014. “[The program provides] participants with the kinds of training – such as financial management and online marketing – that will enhance the way they use this technology to start a new business, gain access to new customers and secure a regular income to build assets.”
The free, five-course program is offered in each of NYC’s five boroughs on a quarterly basis, and is taught in a variety of languages. The program uses the curriculum that was originally co-developed between Etsy and the City of Rockford, Illinois – the first city to offer such a program, and the program on which SBS’s program (and now, 40 others) is modeled. The courses include: The basics of becoming an entrepreneur (including business and financial planning), branding and marketing, product photography, day-to-day business strategy and how to plan for future growth. It’s all taught by a successful Etsy seller, meaning the advice is practical and grounded in real-life experience.
When coupled with SBS expertise in helping small businesses start, operate and grow, it translates into a real-world learning lab that’s helping NYC residents build the confidence they need to dip their toes into entrepreneurial waters – residents like Erika Nazario, Ingrid Gonzalez, and Anna and Juan Donado.
Erika Nazario is a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur who moved from Puerto Rico in 2009. In 2013, she decided to quit her day job so she could stay home with her toddler son. She had a background in design and enjoyed making homemade dolls while she was home, but hadn’t figured out a way to monetize what was really, at the time, just a hobby. When she saw a sign advertising NYC’s Craft Entrepreneurship Program, she decided to jump on the opportunity.
“I wanted to have a way to sell what I was making,” Nazario says. “It was helpful to learn how to set up the store online – to get knowledge of photography, and how to write a description of the dolls I was selling.” Although she is bi-lingual, Nazario opted for the course taught in Spanish because she knew she’d feel more comfortable asking questions in her native language.
Since graduating from the program, Nazario has sold nearly 175 dolls in her Etsy online store, Mio Mucaro. But she doesn’t want to stop there. For Nazario, the sky is the limit—which is why she continues to go back to SBS to learn additional skills. “I’m looking to learn about copywriting and trademarking,” she says. “I also want to learn how to grow the business and how to manage it.”
Bronx resident Ingrid Gonzales, a 32-year-old employment counselor, has also turned her craft skills into income. Her smaller-scale operation has earned around $500 by selling hand-knit accessories in her Etsy store, which would not have been possible without the motivation she gained from the training program.
Starting a business “is something I had been thinking about for a long time,” she explains, but she wasn’t sure exactly where to begin. “[The NYC Craft Entrepreneurship Program] game me a timeline and took away the excuses.”
Anna and Juan Donado, are a husband and wife duo that have turned their Etsy shop into a full-fledged small business. Goose Grease was born out of Anna’s desire to create a few wooden toys for her little gosling at home. In 2008, Anna opened an Etsy store to try and sell the wood peg dolls and cake toppers online—but she struggled to gain traction. Since completing the NYC Craft Entrepreneurship Program, the Goose Grease store has achieved more than 6,000 sales with nearly 14,000 people listing the Etsy store as one of their “favorite shops.”
Goose Grease has also signed a fair trade agreement with a Columbian carpenter to manufacture the wooden dolls, and employs a number of artisans in Columbia to help paint the dolls sold in the online store. The company has evolved to offer a large variety of “undone” supplies for artists who want to build the wooden toys themselves.
Their stories might be different, but what Erika Nazario, Ingrid Gonzalez, Anna and Juan Donado, and the others have in common is that they represent how emerging entrepreneurs are redefining and scaling the term “success.” They, and the many others like them, serve as a reminder that, as the economy and technology progresses, new ways of thinking about and fostering entrepreneurship are essential.
The Craft Entrepreneurship Program is a novel approach that helps low- and disadvantaged populations learn the skills they need as they explore entrepreneurship. It allows them to earn supplemental income without having to take the full-fledged leap into entrepreneurship, a field with no guarantee of success. In terms of poverty alleviation strategies, it is a creative, scalable low-cost approach worthy of replication.