Joy McBrien is a phoenix.

Having faced personal tragedy while still a teenager, she transformed that pain into a journey out of which would rise an ethical business, the healing of herself, and the empowerment of women all over the world.

Joy's Story

When Joy was in her senior year of high school, she was raped. As she dealt with the trauma of her assault, she began to research domestic violence, and found that Peru had one of the highest rates worldwide, at nearly 70%. Wanting to learn more and make a positive difference, she volunteered in the city of Chimbote for three summers during college, building the city’s first battered women shelter. She was hosted by a woman named Anita, the local social worker who served women facing sexual and domestic violence. Anita was a transformative force both in the community, and in Joy’s life, and would become the namesake of Joy’s future company.

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Anita and Joy

Driven to more deeply understand the causes and possible solutions to domestic violence, next Joy traveled to 18 countries, interviewing women about their experiences with violence. She held hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conversations, bonding with the interviewees as she shared her story with them as well. “For someone who was just figuring out how to process her own rape, it was nothing short of powerful and life-changing.”

The Idea That Would Become Fair Anita

As her understanding of the complex issue increased, Joy began to come up with ideas for solutions. “I was interested in starting an organization that was more social work focused, but when talking to women, they thought it was a nice idea but they really just wanted a job.” In fact, Joy found that the top reason why women remain in abusive relationships was financial insecurity. They often had no other option to support themselves and their children than stay with their partner. In contrast, described Joy, when women have a fair income, “they can potentially leave an abusive partner, or they're seen as having more worth in their own homes, so abuse levels go down.”

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Joy McBrien

Many of the women she met with were artisans, crafting clothing, jewelry, and other items using traditional techniques that produced stunning goods. But they didn’t have access to larger markets to sell them at scale and make a living off of their trade. Joy began to think: What if there was another option? Perhaps there was an underutilized market that these artisans could reach?

The second lightbulb moment came when Joy was working at a fair trade store back home in the U.S. Though the store carried beautiful items, they weren’t quite the right fit for millennials her age. “Millennials care about where their things are made and the impact behind a product, but they're also sensitive to price and design.” And what Joy saw in existing fair trade stores was often above their price range and was designed for an older demographic.

These two components clicked together like a puzzle piece and the idea for Fair Anita was born. “I ended up reaching back out to these women that I had met all over the world, saying I was interested in selling their products, but with one caveat: I would work with them on design.” In January 2015, Fair Anita was incorporated in Minnesota, and Joy began coordinating with several artisans to create accessories that would fill the millennial gap in the market, and serve the women by providing dignified, well-paid work.

Flash forward two years later, and Fair Anita works with more than 8,000 female artisans in 16 countries to produce affordable, beautiful designs that have resonated well with the American millennial market. About 30-60% of purchase price goes to empowering women, though this amount varies slightly by product. Joy prioritizes paying fair wages to all artisans, at least 3x the local minimum wage.

The Global Impact of Female-Focused Fair Trade

Most of the women Fair Anita works with have been impacted by sexual or domestic violence, and some also face additional health or social barriers. For example, the crafters in Ethiopia are part of an artisan group that serves those who are HIV/AIDS positive and/or have fistula. As one woman stated, “It has been 10 years since I discovered I was HIV positive. At first, I wanted to take my life, but joining this artisan group has enabled me to have friends who understand me and a job to build self-esteem. I have also started dreaming for my future.”

Joy ensures that the product journey between artisan and consumer is one that is transparent and fair. “The women we work with are typically working on traditional crafts that have been passed down for centuries-- they should be empowered through the sales of their products, not exploited.”

In addition to the social justice mission, Joy pays special attention to the environmental impact of the products. Some are made from recycled materials, such as jewelry made from re-worked bullet casings in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia - bullet casings.jpgFair trade jewelry made in Ethiopia from recycled bullet casings 

As Fair Anita grows and employs more workers around the world, the impact on women’s financial security grows as well, potentially lowering the instances of domestic violence.  “A fair income and sustainable job has certainly provided dramatic impact for many of the women we work with.  Women who didn't have homes are now able to afford a comfortable place to live, women who couldn't send their children to school can now afford uniforms and school fees, and women generally have more control over their lives and choices because they have a little more financial freedom.”  

As Joy explained in a recent interview, “this steady form of income has allowed women a chance to feel powerful again, and capable, and human.”

However, she emphasizes that the true strength comes from the women themselves: “We cannot attribute all of their successes solely to the opportunities that Fair Anita has created…these women have many different things going on in their lives, and it was ultimately their will to better their own situations that led to their success and transformation.” Fair Anita is proud to be one avenue of support for these women, but at the end of the day the women are the ones lifting themselves up. This attitude was a central theme for Fair Anita from day one.

A Minnesota Grassroots Business

Joy lives her mission of women’s empowerment at the local Minnesota level as well. Often seen working out of Impact Hub Minneapolis - St. Paul, she’s led several workshops for female entrepreneurs.  “We're seeking to build a community where women invest in other women,” she explained. “This is accomplished by investing in women's economic opportunity and purchasing fair trade products, but it's also accomplished by celebrating the successes of women everywhere and sharing those stories on social media.”

Impact Hub was also a key piece of Joy accessing critical funding for her business. She was introduced to the Innové Competition by Colonial Church, which ended up being a main lender, partner, mentorship base, and source of supporters for Fair Anita.

Running a small business spanning several continents and working with artisans who speak dozens of different languages is not without its challenges, though. Joy has aimed to embed the values and mission of Fair Anita into every aspect of the company, which in some cases means experimenting with operational practices that differ from traditional business models.

DSC_0331 (1).jpgA female artisan crafting textiles for Fair Anita 

For example, typically when retailers purchase items from producers, they pay the bill 30-90 days after the item is produced. But this model doesn’t work well for an ethical business owner like Joy: “when you're working with artisans in some of the poorest communities in the world, they need to have the payment up front so they can purchase materials and care for themselves and their families while they create products over the upcoming months.”  But it can take up to nine months for the products to be created and delivered, so navigating cash flow can be tricky for Fair Anita. Joy and her team are working to create new financial models that accommodate for this--models that ensure both financial security for the business and fair and timely payment for the artisans.

Despite some of the challenges, creating Fair Anita has been vital for Joy’s own journey. “This business is so deeply intertwined with my personal story of violence, healing, and building a community to overcome. Because I know the women we work with personally and know their stories, struggles, and triumphs, there is not a choice but to keep going and keep growing.”

She, and perhaps some of the women who craft the beautiful pieces that are sold through Fair Anita, truly are phoenixes. From pain, rebirth. From tragedy, treasure.

“Now, my community sees me as an entrepreneur and a champion for women's rights, and having others see me as this when I've so long thought of myself as broken/a victim--it's just really, really, really amazing.”


Fair Anita’s work on creating dignified economic opportunities for marginalized women contributes toward Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5: Gender Equality, 8: Decent work and Economic Growth, and 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

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To purchase beautiful, fair trade accessories and jewlery from Fair Anita and support the work of female artisans around the world, visit www.fairanita.com


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Member Spotlight, startups minneapolis, Women On Top, Entrepreneur Story, sustainabe design

Martha Burwell

Martha Burwell

Martha Burwell is an independent gender equity consultant and writer. She specializes in design-based solutions to address root causes of inequities. An avid traveler, she’s visited over 30 countries and lived and volunteered in 4. She now calls Seattle her home, and blogs about intersectional gender equity at www.EqualiSea.org. See www.marthaburwell.com for more details.

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