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Her Worldly Goods

Karin Taylor trades on hope.

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Bangladesh is a poor nation, and the people of a tiny village called Haziganj are even poorer than their countrymen. Most are tenant farmers, eking out a living from year to year on rented land.

Nine years ago, representatives of the fair trade organization Ten Thousand Villages taught the village's women how to make decorative baskets out of local river grasses. By the time Karin Taylor visited Haziganj three years ago, the women's co-op had become a thriving business. Members met weekly and held classes in health, nutrition and budgeting.

But more could be done. When Taylor returned to the Ten Thousand Villages store in Carytown, where she's the manager and executive director, she held a fundraiser to direct 10 percent of the store's sales for one week to the women of Haziganj. With that extra boost, they were able to purchase land and build a storage building and a pavilion for gatherings. A basket's not just a basket anymore; every time one is sold, Taylor thinks of the women she met.

At its most basic, fair trade describes an equitable, mutually beneficial trading partnership that improves the lives of artisans in developing nations. “It's trade, not aid,” Taylor says. Founded in 1946, Ten Thousand Villages is the oldest and largest fair trade organization in the United States. The nonprofit program of the Mennonite Central Committee maintains relationships with more than 130 artisan groups in 38 countries.

The Carytown store, founded in 1995 and a favorite of Richmonders shopping for unique gifts, consistently ranks among the 10 most profitable stores in the chain nationwide. Local best-sellers include colorful sarongs, a cut-metal tree of life wall sculpture from Haiti and a carved wooden nose from India that holds sunglasses with panache.

Taylor, who is 32, grew up in Staunton, where she worked as director of disaster relief for the American Red Cross. She moved to Richmond in 2002 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. There she got her master's degree in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit management. In 2003 she began volunteering at the Carytown store and a year later became executive director. “Yeah, it was pretty fast,” she says with a smile.

Taylor's job keeps her on her feet. She travels regularly to visit artisans and attend trade shows. As store manager she orders inventory, chats with customers about fair trade and sometimes runs the register. As executive director, Taylor serves as “the voice and face of the organization,” as office manager Daniela Gregory puts it. A creative manager who welcomes ideas both from staff and the 90 or so store volunteers, Gregory says, “she's more than just a supervisor, she's a friend to everyone in the store.”

It's easy to see she loves the work — and the things she sells. Taylor's personal favorites include engraved silver Tuareg jewelry from Niger, a carved wooden bowl from Kenya, an embroidered tree of life wall hanging from India and a nativity carved in the West Bank from olive wood prunings.

“This, to me,” she says, “is just a beautiful way of helping people.”

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