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The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. It actually makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, drying up water sources, polluting rivers, streams, and oceans. More than 85% of all textiles go into the dump each year. There are many incredible fashion brands that are tackling this issue head on by creating fashionable, sustainable, and zero waste products that are making a big impact. My guest this week is Paola Masperi, the founder of Mayamiko, an ethical, sustainable, and zero-waste fashion and lifestyle brand on a mission to champion a more responsible approach to shopping. Using slow and traditional craftsmanship techniques, Mayamiko works with global artisans from Malawi to Milan to create trans-seasonal women’s clothing, accessories, and homeware collections. With a zero-waste policy, the brand utilizes pre-consumer waste and reclaims materials where possible, including cotton deadstock from reclaimed silk alongside locally sourced artisanal fabric from Malawi, geo-TS certified organic cotton and linen. Paolo is also the founder of the Mayamiko Trust, which helps Mayamikan get up and running with training schemes and microfinance projects which provide funding and teach basic financial and business planning skills. The trust then connects the trainees to fantastic ethical and sustainable fashion brands and designers. This creates links to markets where they can trade their products as high-value items according to fair-trade principles. I loved this conversation with Paola and I learned so much from her!
Paola was born in Milan, Italy and grew up there in a big family with strong, independent women and men who supported them. She moved to England to finish her studies and early in her career, traveled to Germany and then a number of African countries for work in the early 2000s.
Through her work in Africa, the seeds of Mayamiko were planted and began to grow. Her worked in Africa focused on using digital innovation to support education across developing countries. Through that work, she became very passionate about the potential of the places and people she met, and the friendships she developed through her work.
Paola grew up seeing two sides of her family working day jobs while also working on social engagement projects. Her dad opened the first cinema in the town which became a safe place for the youth of the town who may have otherwise been affected by the growing drug problem in the community. It became a place to learn about culture and diversity while also creating a safe community gathering space.
Growing up with family who worked hard on both their careers and passions influenced Paola with confidence that she could work a day job while also pursuing passion projects and traveling the world.
In the late 80s and 90s, there was not a lot of diversity in Milan, but when Paola moved to London, she worked for an educational company working on software to teach language. Each year on the project, Paola wanted to do a little more to bring education to more places and more people. She made a suggestion to the company’s leadership to see if they could apply language solutions to a broader global context.
The company started working with governments across African countries to see if their technology could support bringing primary education to those countries as well. Paola spent the majority of her time working in Malawi and Uganda. It was a formative experience that taught her how much she had to learn from what was going on around her, even if just by listening. Whenever Paola lands in an African airport, it feels like home to her.
The heart of Mayamiko came from a friendship with a woman Paola worked with on one of her language projects. The two started thinking about what else they could do to help empower women. They understood more than anything else that women needed choices. They agreed access to choices came from access to education and finance.
In 2008, they started the Mayamiko Trust to provide those choices to women through vocational training and access to fair wages, both which would continue to open women to more and more opportunities and choices.
The Mayamiko Trust allows women to make their own choices about what skills they want and need, letting them make choices about what they are trained on and what to do with those skills after training. They can either stay with Mayamiko in an apprenticeship and go on to be employed by Mayamiko, or take out a microfinance grant to set up their own business.
Some of the women went out on their own and others set up group co-ops together. Mayamiko is now 12 years old, and nothing has changed in that approach to give women those choices. Mayamiko also wanted to offer sustainable income opportunities to women, so they started the Mayamiko label, setting up their own brand to create a long-lasting employment opportunity and to not be dependent on donations. Now they have a self-sustaining model that creates jobs.
The first few years Mayamiko experimented with accessories and bags to test the concepts. It was 2012, and there were not many conversations happening around ethical or sustainable fashion. It was still very niche. They realized direct to consumer resonated most, and customers loved knowing the stories behind their products and knowing that the artisans making them were being treated well and compensated fairly.
In 2015, Mayamiko launched a small women’s wear capsule and has been slowly broadening the quality of those projects and telling their stories to create products people love for a long time, both for their aesthetic quality, and the story behind them as well.
More often than not, the root of global poverty comes from lack of economic opportunity. Both charities and business have a role in tackling global poverty. Mayamiko would not be where they are today if they’d not started their charity first. Risk is inherent to business, and Paola was clear she did not want to risk any of the money meant for charity initiatives with the Mayamiko Trust. That was the motivation behind separating the charity and the business.
Mayamiko comes from the Chewa language spoken in Malawi used for both boys and girls that means “Praise” or “Thanksgiving.” Along with having a beautiful meaning, it is also the name of a child that Paola worked with and so it has a special personal meaning to her as well.
Covid-19 has affected people disproportionately, and statistically it’s reversing a lot of progress that had been made for people rising out of global poverty in all parts of the world. While we’re all experiencing it at the same time, our experiences with it are going to vary greatly.
For many artisans around the world, whether or not they are getting paid is a matter of life and death. Paola was acutely aware of Covid-19 a bit earlier because of her family in Italy. When the UK started to enter lockdown, the training academy in Mayamiko in Malawi had to shut down and people were sent home. For people in Malawi there started to be a question of whether to social distance or earn a living, and working from home looks very different in different places around the world.
Day to day life is conducted in big cities with bustling markets and crowded public transportation is needed to do business in the cities. It’s not possible to social distance in some places in the world. The responses to Covid-19 really need to be localized.
For Mayamiko, they knew prevention was the most important answer. The government did well closing borders, shutting down airports, and monitoring people who came into the country from other parts of the world. They also realized they could space out sewing machines within their facility and give everyone hand sanitizer and masks. But the reality is that to get to work, people had to use crowded public transportation options.
Mayamiko decided to come up with their own plan to allow employees to work from home. While they love making clothing, it was much more important to make masks for the community. Mayamiko employees work from home while wearing masks, and Mayamiko provides a system to bring supplies to artisans at home and collect them when they are finished.
Mayamiko has done their best to make the most of a difficult time. Luckily, they’ve worked hard and been able to keep everyone healthy and employed while also giving back to the community!
Find out what Paola’s favorite TV show was growing up, what her biggest guilty pleasures are, what she’s reading right now, and of course, what it means to Paola to run a business with purpose!
13:07 – “One of the things that I learned very quickly is that I knew nothing…very quickly I realized I could put all my past knowledge to one side and have a listening attitude to everything that was happening around me.”
16:39 – “We were very clear from the beginning that we were not going to make choices on behalf of women, we were just going to equip them with the skills that they told us they wanted and needed, and then it was entirely up to them what choices they made with those skills and those tools.”
23:43 – “At the time, the choice was the charity and the charity’s funds should be safeguarded to do charity work, the business should be allowed to take reasonable risk as a business would, and therefore it makes sense to separate the two. The two still have an agreement that any money that the business made, it goes back into the charity.”
About Paola Masperi:
Paola Masperi is the founder of pioneering women empowerment charity Mayamiko Trust and lifestyle brand Mayamiko The Label, which has sold to over 40 countries and counts Meghan Markle as a fan. With a background in International Development and Digital Innovation, Paola has a a passion for crafts, traditions and the stories they tell about the people behind the product, their relationship with each other and their natural environment, which she attributes to growing up in Italy surrounded by a strong culture of traditions, combined with a strong sense of curiosity about the future.
She started Mayamiko Trust after working on several projects with women across a number of African countries, and the Label followed a few years later as a way to create dignified, creative and sustainable employment for women. The label now works with women’s initiatives across different countries such as Malawi, where the main hub is located, SriLanka, Peru, Afghanistan and Italy.
An award winner for sustainability leadership, alongside Stella McCartney, Raeburn, Bottletops and others, Paola is always searching for collaborative ways to create responsibly, and ensure that her work has a positive impact along the entire supply chain by actively protecting the environment and creating safe, sustainable and creative jobs for women, as well as remaining leaders in innovation and sustainability. Paola is passionate about meaningful storytelling, and has a keen interest in the ‘future of work’, exploring opportunities and challenges posed by automation and the impact on human relationships with each other and our planetary environment.
Connect with Paola Masperi & Mayamiko:
Thank you to our partners of the show:
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