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Business Meets Values

Stephanie Odegard, CLA alumna and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Stephanie Odegard

Stephanie Odegard
Stephanie Odegard
The company:
Stephanie Odegard

The mission:
Importation and sale of
original, handmade,
sustainable carpets

In an open-air store in Fiji, the tables overflow with native crafts like baskets woven from leaves, and decorated bark cloths called masi.

Nearly 10,000 miles away, there’s another store, a high-end showroom in Manhattan’s New York Design Center that sells exquisite carpets imported from India, the kind that ends up in places like the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Miles apart in distance, ambiance, and clientele, these stores both owe their existence to Stephanie Odegard, a CLA humanities graduate who has managed to combine an entrepreneurial career with a deeply-held commitment to socially-conscious sustainability.

“The number one thing is that you
don't give up.”

Although she thrived on liberal arts courses like philosophy and religion in college, Odegard knew she wanted to run a business, and fortified both her ambition and her tuition pool by working—then managing—Al Johnson’s clothing store in Dinkytown. After she got a job and went through management training at the former Dayton-Hudson’s in Minneapolis, it seemed obvious she was bound for a successful business career. And then, she realized it wasn’t enough.

“At a certain point I knew this just wasn’t going to do it for me,” Odegard says. “I was traveling to New York a week out of every month and I liked it. But it wasn’t meaningful in a deep way.”

So, over the next decade, she set out to combine business with her values. She traveled across the world, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji, then to jobs in Jamaica and India, and finally to mid-town Manhattan. Through it all, she has been single-mindedly determined to find and build markets for the authentic arts and crafts of native people.

The Peace Corps assignment turned out to be in Fiji, where her job was to manage the marketing of Fijian products.

“What the people running the country had in mind was marketing what amounted to tourist trash,” she says. But when she actually met and lived with Fijian people as part of her training, she had an epiphany.

“The people were making all these fabulous things—baskets for prawns and marriage masks and bowls for special occasions—and I thought, ‘This is what needs to be sold.’ I wanted to make a steady business using only sustainable, handmade materials.”

It would take plenty of maneuvering—including earning the trust of Fijian villagers and winning over skeptical officials—to create such a market. But eventually, with additional funding support, she was selling handmade Fijian crafts to urban customers. When the Peace Corps assignment was done, she stayed on as a consultant for the U.N., a time during which she turned an old restaurant into that Fijian handicraft store that remains today.

By 1983 she was in Jamaica, renovating an old building into a store, hiring Jamaicans to help design colorful shawls and crafts, and naming it Things Jamaican. When the World Bank asked her to go to Nepal to take over a floundering wool-product export business, she was off again.

“I lived in a nice, big, very cold house,” she says. “I had all these rugs scattered everywhere to keep the house warm and I started thinking, ‘If I took that border off and I used this element and I changed the colors, I would like that.’”

So she found a weaver who could implement her designs with a unique technique called “hundred knots to the square inch.” And although she had never had a design class, Odegard began creating designs that the weaver turned into carpets. “I thought I could be in a business no one had ever seen before,” she says. “I wanted to find an importer and I’d continue design. All I wanted was to continue to work with craft workers.”

By 1987, she had moved to a one-bedroom apartment in New York—where she had never lived before—along with carpets, antique dhurrie rugs and a collection of other art pieces. “It was totally crazy,” she says. “I had all this great stuff and thought maybe somebody would buy it. I started calling people in the carpet business and thought, ‘They’re just going to drop dead when they see these carpets.’ “

It took a long time. She couldn’t get private financing. She sold rugs one-by-one to some interested antique dealers. Gradually, she built up a clientele, coming into her own when a friend offered her space in the New York Design Center.

Today, Stephanie’s Collection is the anchor of that building as she continues to design and import carpets and other fine furnishings. She will still use only sustainable materials and no products made with child labor. She has this advice for would-be entrepreneurs:

“The number one thing is that you don’t give up. I know that sounds sort of trite, but you have to keep going even when it doesn’t make sense. Maybe from a financial standpoint I should have given up, but…what else is there?”

What she says:

“I really thought I could change the world. If everybody’s working and everybody has enough money and people over there make what people over here need, than everybody’s happy and the world works.”

“My goal was never to make millions of dollars for myself. When I started my business in the early ‘90s, people were getting their pictures on the cover of Time magazine for laying off hundreds of thousands of people. That’s just not what I do. I try to train people and keep them.”