Candlemaker aims to help impoverished women
Moo Kho Paw fled the violence and oppression of Myanmar for a refugee camp in Thailand nearly a decade ago. Five years later, she, her husband, and their baby daughter resettled again, this time landing in Springfield.
As she adapted to her new home, Paw started looking for a job to help support her family, which was about to get even larger with the addition of twins. That’s when she learned about Prosperity Candle, the Easthampton company where she has now worked for three years.
“I love the job,” Paw said. “It helps me to pay the rent, to buy the baby diapers.”
That’s precisely what Ted Barber, 46, hoped for when he and partner Amber Chand founded Prosperity Candle in 2010. The company sells a line of handmade candles poured into colorful, recyclable containers. But sales are only part of its mission — the company say its real goal is to help women in and from developing countries by teaching them new skills and creating jobs.
“We are very much focused on families escaping poverty through women’s entrepreneurship,” Barber said.
Their efforts thus far have included training women in Iraq to make candles and run small businesses. A similar candlemaking program in Haiti is on the horizon.
In Easthampton, the company employs refugees such as Paw to make and package candles and fulfill orders. Currently, up to four refugees are working there at any given time, though Barber expects to hire more as the business expands.
Refugees “don’t always get the best opportunities,” he said, “so we like to counter that here.”
The company has been “an absolute blessing” for the refugee community in Western Massachusetts, particularly for those women who have never before worked outside the home, according to Jozefina Lantz, director of services for new Americans at Lutheran Social Services. The agency, which has an office in Springfield, helped connect refugees with jobs at Prosperity Candle.
The idea for an enterprise like Prosperity Candle first occurred to Barber when he was working in Africa, helping entrepreneurs build small businesses. Barber said that during a trip to Rwanda he had a sobering realization: There was little opportunity for the businesses he was helping to grow.
“Due to a lack of opportunity, if I came back in a year, they probably wouldn’t be much different,” he said. “That’s when I realized I wanted to do something different.”
The idea of using business enterprises to benefit poverty-stricken people in the developing world has become a mainstream concept, with the popularity of microlending sites such as Kiva and brands such as Toms shoes, an online retailer based in California that donates a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair it sells.
But Barber had something else in mind for Prosperity Candle. Rather than giving away money or supplies, the company would provide women with the resources, skills, and support they need to start a sustainable businesses.
After lengthy deliberation, the two founders decided to focus on candles. They wanted a product that could be made in a small space, so women in war-torn areas could work from their homes. At the same time, they needed an item that could be made in large quantities, so women could scale up their businesses if they chose. In addition, whatever they sold had to be consumable, so buyers would keep coming back.
Today, the company’s product line includes scented and unscented candles that come in metal tins, glass votives, and hand-painted stoneware. Prices range from $10 to $56.
“For us, the actual product is 100 percent chock full of social impact,” said Siiri Morley, 34, a partner in the company. “The production itself is what is creating the change.”
Prosperity Candle formed as a low-profit limited liability company, a structure that requires the business to put its social mission ahead of profits. It promotes, packages, and sells the candles, creating a market for the candlemakers’ wares.
“For this to be a sustainable opportunity for the women, the model . . . needed to be market-based, not subsidized by grants and donations,” Morley said.
The company launched in 2010 with a pilot program in Iraq. It initially provided start-up equipment to 44 women and trained them in candlemaking and the basics of running a small business. Once the training was complete, the women were free to run their businesses as they liked — by continuing to work with Prosperity Candle or striking out on their own. Today, the number of women trained in Iraq exceeds 100 and about two-thirds of them choose to export at least some of their candles through Prosperity Candle.
About 30 percent of the company’s revenue comes from online sales, Barber said. The remaining 70 percent is generated through sales of candles to corporate partners who give them out as favors at events or to clients and employees. In 2012, the second full year of operation, sales totaled $200,000.
Aziza Ansari, of Palo Alto, Calif., is typical of Prosperity Candle’s regular online customers — she is attracted to the products and the cause. Last week, she ordered a candle as a Mother’s Day present, in part because she knows her mother will appreciate what the company is doing.
This year, the company started Prosperity Catalyst, a nonprofit arm that is taking over the training and mentoring of new candlemakers. This group, headed by Morley, is starting up a candlemaking operation in Haiti modeled after the Iraq pilot program. The original for-profit business will continue to handle marketing and distribution of candles.
As the company continues to expand, Morley said, she is becoming increasingly optimistic about the chances of having an impact on impoverished communities worldwide.
“When women are empowered in any way, the ripple effect is tremendous,” she said.
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarahshemkus.com.