Christine Souffrant is a Dubai-based businesswoman with a degree from an Ivy League University. But her Haitian mother, grandmother and great-grandmother are among the 2.5 billion people around the world who eke out a living from selling goods on the streets. Now, the 25-year-old has set up Vended International to empower street vendors globally by giving them access to the digital market.
When her parents came to New York from Haiti in the early 1990s just before Christine was born, it was the suitcases of Haitian artwork her mother brought from her homeland that sustained the family’s income for the next 20 years. Ms Souffrant’s mother sold her wares on the streets of Queens and her early childhood memories are of hustling with her mother after school, helping to lug the heavy bags.
When Ms Souffrant was nine, her mother moved into a store space, and for the next 12 years life was easier. Ms Souffrant later went to Dartmouth College to study English with a public policy minor, as a Gates Millennium scholar. She spent a term at sea, visiting 11 countries.
“Everywhere I went I would track down street vendors and study them. Because that’s where I came from,” she says.
One vendor made a deep impression; a 19-year-old Ghanian orphaned boy called Kenok, who supported his six siblings by carving pictures out of wood with ink and a knife.
“He was so passionate about creating his story through his artwork. He told me: ‘The graveyards and cemeteries of the world – they’re full of people who died without following their dreams. I don’t want to die having wasted my talent’. I was inspired by his story to help others like him.”
During Ms Souffrant’s junior year of college, the earthquakes of 2010 hit Haiti, changing her family life forever. “The Haitian vendors my mum traded with were all missing, presumed dead, and she couldn’t run her business any more. My dad had lupus and was unable to work, and they were evicted from their home. So at a time when everyone in Haiti was trying to leave, my parents and my five-year-old brother had to go back.”
Miss Souffrant became the family breadwinner, working 11 jobs while continuing to study. Fortunately by 2011, her family were able to move back to New York and the social entrepreneur secured a job at Baker Hill Finance.
Last year, Miss Souffrant came to Dubai to study a masters in international business and social entrepreneurship at Hult International Business School. And it was here she launched her company in March.
“I wanted a platform for street vendors across the world to sell handicrafts using the digital economy,” she says. “So we select an elite network of highly skilled vendors and give them a phone, on to which they upload their stories via voice record, and take pictures of their items.
“IBM love the idea, so we’re talking to them about building the app. We approve the prices from our end, then market the products on our website. It’s like eBay for street vendors. The profit margins are vast, because vendors use the cheapest of materials to make these items and sell them for 14 times that.”
Ms Souffrant says her company will use the micro-collection model to collect the items.
“Women in the villages will collect items on a weekly basis and ship them out from a nearby city,” she explains. “The vendors get 40 per cent of the price. About 20 per cent goes to shipping it out, paying the micro-collectors a commission, and a regional director who will be on hand in that community. The other 20-40 per cent will be our profits to operate as a company.”
To fund her venture, Miss Souffrant received support from the Clinton Global Initiative. She also reached out to her professional business network in an email, asking investors to come forward. Within two weeks, she raised $7,000.
On Tuesday Miss Souffrant flew to Rio, at a time when the world is watching the country that is hosting the World Cup, football’s biggest event.
“We’ll fly two highly skilled vendors and their handicrafts from Bahia to Rio to meet people and talk about their items. We’re aiming to hold four events there. Then we’re in London, showcasing the company to investors, then we’ll be in Haiti and around the Latin American sub-continent looking for talented street vendors.
“When I told my mum I was doing this, she thought I was ashamed of her story, without knowing it was the reason I fought so hard,” she adds. “Many think it would be more profitable just to buy from the vendors and sell the products online. But if my mother and my grandmother had had a platform, they would have felt more empowered and life wouldn’t have been such a struggle for them.”
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