Economic Development with a Dash of Haute Couture

Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award winner Amanda Judge, F09, built a thriving company that benefits rural artisans in Ecuador and Vietnam
Amanda Judge
“I kept thinking, ‘I want to be doing something that has an impact. I want to do something that I feel proud of,’ ” says Amanda Judge.
February 12, 2015

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By any traditional accounting measure, Faire Collection, the New York–based artisanal jewelry company founded by Amanda Judge, F09, has seen major success. In the seven years since its founding, the company has grown from just $10,000 in startup capital to well over $1 million in annual sales.

Then there’s less traditional accounting: mattresses, for example.

In rural northern Ecuador, where Judge first conceived of the idea to combine fair trade jewelry and social development, the artisans she’s partnered with have seen their lives transformed. Cook stoves have replaced open fires. The artisans and their families eat meat instead of only potatoes, and use bathrooms instead of open fields. And for Olga—one of Judge’s first partners—mattresses have replaced straw mats.

“The mattresses were even more exciting than the car she bought with her earnings,” says Judge. “The work we’re doing is not on a massive scale, but it’s really profound in the circles that we’re dedicated to.”

All told, Judge and Faire Collection now work with more than 200 artisans. Seventy are in Vietnam and the rest in Ecuador.

Mattresses aside, the impact that Judge’s efforts have had in Ecuador are substantial. Faire Collection’s production company there offers various training sessions, including regular classes on issues like family planning and domestic violence, which are open to the artisans and community members.

In recognition of her innovation and her success in alleviating rural poverty, Judge is this year’s recipient of the annual Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award (FWLA). The award was established in 2014 by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the school’s executive leadership to honor outstanding women graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the world in the private, public and NGO sectors.

“Amanda demonstrates the qualities that are emblematic of Fletcher alumni. She has been passionate, persistent and creative in providing people with market-driven opportunities to use their skills and artistry to build businesses of their own,” says Leslie Puth, F11, chair of the FWLA committee.

Meaningful Work

For Judge, 34, artisanal jewelry and economic development in impoverished communities is a creative extension of the “rogue” jewelry shops that she and her friends used to set up in her parents’ garage when she was growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts.

After getting a degree in finance from Santa Clara University, in California, she worked in a series of private-sector finance jobs, mainly on the West Coast. She was uninspired by corporate work.

“I kept thinking, ‘I want to be doing something that has an impact. I want to do something that I feel proud of,’ ” she says.

Having grown up so close to Fletcher, she wanted to attend but knew no foreign languages, a graduation requirement. In 2006, while working for a Seattle financial services company, she volunteered to do data analysis for FINCA, a Washington, D.C.–based microfinance organization. When she won an internal competition, she requested a meeting with FINCA’s CEO, John Hatch, and went to D.C. to meet him in person. He advised her to travel abroad and learn Spanish and promised to write her a recommendation once she did.

Judge ended up in Peru, volunteering for FINCA, working with indigenous women to increase the profitability of their artisanal exports. That experience, in addition to improving her Spanish, opened the door to Fletcher.

“I’m not necessarily a very academic person,” she says. “But I loved the curriculum. I loved the flexibility to make it what you wanted.

“I didn’t like the idea of doing exercises for exercise’s sake. I always wanted it to have some relationship to what was going on in the world,” she says.

Judge took courses with Kim Wilson, a lecturer in international business and human security; Michael Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs; and Julie Schaffner, visiting associate professor of development economics. She also completed two internships, the second of which took her to northern Ecuador, doing a market research field survey, again for FINCA.

While she in Otavalo, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Quito, she researched “income flows” for some of the families. The men were typically doing small-scale farming, the women artisanal craft work or selling produce on the roadside. Judge started thinking about how the “flows” could be made higher and more sustainable by differentiating products, finding better prices for raw materials or exporting more.

Business Plan

“When that dawned on me, I called up Kim Wilson. I told her I didn’t want to do my thesis anymore,” she says. “What I wanted to do was create a business plan. I would come back to Fletcher after my internship, take my classes and start the company based on that business plan.”

Her remaining time at Fletcher was spent primarily getting Faire Collection off the ground, using some savings she had accumulated and startup capital in the form of a graduation gift from her mother. (“I hope that no one actually goes back and looks at my grades from then,” she says, laughing.)

Seven years later, the company has 10 employees based in Brooklyn, New York, and a satellite office in the Hudson Valley, and six at its Ecuadoran production operations. The designs, the models and the feel of its website, shopfaire.com, wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of Vogue or Cosmopolitan.

Judge says she hopes her company can help change American consumers’ perceptions, from helping the poor out of charity to buying artisans’ products because of their beauty and quality.

“It’s chic jewelry that the fashion industry has embraced but customers can also be proud of,” she says. “It’s a celebration of the artisans, their culture and their heritage.”

The Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award ceremony will be held on Friday, March 6, at 3 p.m. in ASEAN Auditorium.