by Saxon Henry
Stephanie Odegard knew early on that she wanted to create a business model championing socially responsible ideals. It was in 1980, after a 5-year Peace Corps assignment in Fiji, that she made the commitment to help talented artisans who were largely oppressed. “I was about to leave Fiji when I walked into a showroom built by our craftspeople,” she explains. “Everyone was there—sitting on grass mats, the men bare-chested with traditional dress and women in sarongs, and they had made a traditional feast in my honor with roasted chickens and suckling pigs and dishes wrapped in coconut leaves.”
Odegard was astonished, as this was a very important feast normally prepared only for very important people and almost always reserved for natives to the land. “It was incredibly moving to realize that they had prepared this traditional feast in my honor,” she says. “It was the first time I truly realized the impact their work could have on people’s lives.”
After Fiji, her desire to help others led her to Nepal and India where artisans worked in dire conditions and child labor was the norm. She helped Nepalese weavers design carpets that would be marketable in the west, and she founded Odegard, Inc., to offer the plush rugs to discerning interior designers. In India, she contracted with local stone carvers to produce accessories, ornately carved fireplace mantles and pavilions.
Since that time, the founding member of RugMark, which monitors manufacturers to help prevent child labor, has had great success in changing working conditions for the better. “There are now more people working, the standards of living have been raised, schools have been created within factories, and a great number of children have been educated through RugMark schools,” she remarks. “Our suppliers have created clean water standards in facilities and they have installed the only smoke free boiler in the industry in Nepal.”
Odegard has recently taken her activism a step further by switching her finances from a traditional banking arrangement to RSF Social Finance, an organization that divides interest monies between deserving companies doing good in the world. “It is important to me that we are dealing with socially responsible organizations in so far as possible in our interactions,” she says. “Knowing our interest money is going to socially responsible green and fair trade companies as well as non-profit organizations, rounds out my goals for becoming more and more the world citizen I wish to be.” Running a company that champions green ideals and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is incredibly challenging, especially where dealing with the financial arena is concerned. “The people working in these areas are usually less interested in corporate social responsibility and are more interested in the bottom line,” she says. “They tend to create covenants that are difficult to maintain, and to keep the focus on both social and fiscal responsibility is always a challenge.” Odegard’s goals for the future include continuing to defeat negative forces at work in the poor communities from which she gleans her wares. “We often have to work with self interested and political labor unions that use extortionist techniques, which prevent us from providing quality, appropriate working environments,” she explains. “Implementing certification strategies and inspection processes are sometimes difficult because local officials are often not interested in raising the standards of the poor. We are up against this all the time.”