Like many creative endeavors, Prosperity Candle began as a simple idea that evolved over time with a lots of bumps along the way - some funny, others painful, all part of an unfolding journey.
A guy named Steve once said "the journey is the reward." We’ve found this so profoundly true that we’ve put it up on the wall of our studio, alongside Audrey Hepburn's "the best thing to hold onto in life is each other," Zainab Salbi's "strong women lead to strong nations," and Pete Seeger's "being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.”
So here it is, the full story.
In 2004 Ted was working on poverty alleviation projects funded by aid organizations, focused on helping people in developing countries access global markets. It was interesting and challenging, but there was a troubling reality – few of these projects seemed to have tangible success. Skills and knowledge were gained, but evidence of improving the ability of families to put food on the table, pay for medicines, and send kids to school was hard to come by.
The more he traveled, the more he wondered how many people were able to escape poverty as a result of these well-meaning projects. Everyone wanted the same outcome, yet it felt like the focus was on building capacity rather than helping to create real opportunities for people to earn a living. Colleagues also noted that as much as handcrafted products are incredibly valuable and beautiful, it's rare that artisans in developing countries can earn enough to afford the basics, let alone thrive.
That’s when a meeting of minds (and souls) happened. Amber had been working for years with artisans around the world, most recently with Rwandan and Sudanese women to make unique handmade products that helped them earn an income. It was an extraordinary initiative with tangible impact. Amber was combining a unique sense of design with a love for all things handmade to pursue her life’s purpose... to help others - a calling born out of the trauma of being thrown out of Uganda at a young age by dictator Idi Amin.
Together we were inspired to start a social enterprise with a mission to create opportunities for families to escape poverty through entrepreneurship.
First and foremost we agreed that if you really want to support entrepreneurship as a way to make things better in the world, focus on women. Dollar for dollar, they are a better investment. Personal experiences in places like Uganda (where Amber grew up) and Ghana (where Ted volunteered) reinforced this belief. We also decided to focus on regions of conflict and natural disaster – places where the need was greatest, and few others were able or willing to go.
This led to a daunting question: what kind of entrepreneurial opportunities could a small, mission-driven start-up in western Massachusetts create in a war zone? And could we really have an impact?
At one point this was the concept . . . weapons of war turned into instruments of peace. It seemed a powerful idea based on delicate bells we had seen made from landmines in Cambodia. We spent a fair bit of time working on this before concluding that encouraging people to collect field shrapnel was a terrible idea. But this early nonstarter did help crystalize what our criteria should be.
The product needed local materials and markets, as well as global demand. It had to be consumable so happy customers would return. And most importantly, making the product should create an opportunity to escape poverty. It had to be a business that could start in the safety of a home, but grow well beyond once a conflict had ended. Unlike most handcrafted products, we wanted it to be scalable with the potential to not only earn a living wage, but the opportunity for women in the most challenging circumstance to prosper. To truly thrive.
We were in La Fiorentina Pastry Shop in Northampton, Massachusetts sharing a cannoli – Amber with her tea, Ted with his espresso – when we asked one another, “what about candles?”
It was one of those classic lightbulb moments. By then we had been meeting regularly for several years, worked independently on other projects, and gotten sidetracked by the bombs-to-chimes idea. But we maintained our vision of a social enterprise designed to create entrepreneurial opportunities for women.
We started talking through our criteria and realized that candles and candle-making fit every one. We were so excited we ordered a kit from Amazon then and there, and several days later emerged from the kitchen with the first Prosperity Candle - a little blue pillar.
It took an hour to make that pillar by hand, and it was clear that with more molds and wax, candle-making could scale up to dozens, even hundreds of candles a day. It felt like a riddle finally solved… local and global markets, local supplies, consumable, extraordinarily scalable . A woman in Afghanistan could go from poverty to prospering in a matter of months as long as she had markets for her products.
Of all the places we wanted to test our idea, Iraq was not on the list. Not even close, actually. We were thinking Rwanda, maybe Kosovo – places that were safe, accessible and where one of us had previously worked. But Prosperity Candle’s ideal field partner, Women for Women International, had an opening in Iraq with their vocational training programs. So Baghdad it was.
Following months of preparation, we flew to Turkey to train the Iraqi staff in candle-making and in May 2009 the pilot program launched. Fifty "business-in-a-box" sets – commercial grade and much more comprehensive than that beginner’s kit purchased online – were assembled in Ted's dining room, his 2-year old and 4-year old daughters pitching in to make sure each had everything the women candle-makers would need. A week later the kits left for Iraq.
Soon after colleague and soulmate Siiri joined us. She brought an MBA, years of experience working in developing countries with the Peace Corps and international development projects, and a deep commitment to supporting women’s entrepreneurship. Siiri had spent 2 years in Lesotho working with women weavers, helping them to build their enterprises and access new markets.
Now we had the ideal team, and what followed was extraordinary… training, shipping samples, quality tests, equipment changes, and more training – once by live video Skype from Ted's kitchen with the apprentice entrepreneurs all gathered in a room in Baghdad. Picture 40 Iraqi women in traditional attire, most in mourning and wearing black, looking at a large screen of an American guy wearing an apron in his kitchen, surrounded by wax, wicks and candle molds. They had a lot of questions.
Eleven months after the trip to Turkey, the first candles began to arrive – handmade by widows of war. It was an intensely emotional moment for all of us. Bombs were a near daily occurrence in Baghdad, yet beautiful candles were being made and shipped, and the women were earning an income – for some, the first time ever.
Each of our dining rooms were transformed into candle finishing centers with family and friends pitching in, and by Mother’s Day 2010 Prosperity Candle was selling online and to a handful of local stores. The pillars burned perfectly, and each included the name of the woman who had made it. Customers sent words of encouragement, which were then forwarded to Iraq as letters to the women (with emails and personal information removed for privacy).
This strong response to connecting directly to the woman artisans led to including their stories with every candle. To this day, the messages sent by customers are heartwarming and inspiring, offering words of compassion, support and admiration that are deeply appreciated.
We had funded the pilot project entirely out of pocket and believed we had shown the idea could work. On the production side, the women were earning above a living wage during the pilot program, selling their candles locally and exporting to the U.S. One woman, Nazahat, earned over 3 times the minimum wage in Iraq, exceeding everyone’s expectations – including hers.
On the market side, retailers expressed interest. But the cost of shipping from Baghdad was extraordinary, quantities had not yet reached projections for volume discounts, and freight companies were unwilling to offer concessions. Despite our mission and nonprofit/for-profit hybrid model, Prosperity Candle was not eligible for pricing given to humanitarian organizations.
As a result, wholesaling meant a loss with every candle sold. So the only option was to focus on building an online community and sell directly. No easy task.
At the time, we essentially had one product (a pillar in 2 colors, 2 sizes) and a problematic marketing campaign that included the words "Iraq" and "Baghdad". This was 2010, a time when anything related to Iraq triggered strong emotions for many people. We worked like crazy to tell the story of the women but struggled to raise interest in the media.
Sales grew, but not fast enough, so plans for the next phase had to put on hold as we scrambled to raise money and address our marketing challenges. The women in Baghdad focused on local markets, but it would not be enough – they needed the export opportunity as well.
Working without an income out of our homes and a tiny rented mill space, we put together a proposal and reached out to potential investors. Traditional sources of capital were not interested – too much risk in a saturated market, plus we were clearly more focused on doing good than being a financial success.
That was entirely true. But we believed in what we were doing, tightened belts, and dug in. Then a group of remarkable, wonderful family members, friends, and friends of friends stepped in with loans. Enough to pay rent, purchase more candles from Baghdad, and improve the company website. It was a miracle.
Still, it was clear that Iraq alone with only a few pillars would not work. Yet Prosperity Candle did not have the resources to expand to a second country and broaden its offering as planned. Then a comment by a longtime supporter caught us by surprise: "A lot of people would like to see local impact as well." Local impact, here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts? How? Our mission was to support women’s entrepreneurship in regions of conflict. Our next destinations were to be Afghanistan and Sudan.
Then we learned about refugee populations in nearby Springfield. From Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and a dozen other countries. Many had fled conflict, and all struggled to find work and earn a living. After meeting with several social services, we decided to start with Burmese and Bhutanese women who had recently been resettled in the U.S. after great loss and years living in refugee camps.
Our mission expanded to women in and from regions of conflict , and we started having a local impact as well. It would turn out to be a momentous decision.
Our first new product, a soy wax candle in a beautiful glass vessel, made locally by women refugees, was an immediate success. Everyone loved it and we were SO excited… that is until the temperature dropped. Then the wax became brittle and cracked during shipping, arriving functional but messy on customers’ doorsteps. We couldn’t figure out why, and neither could our wax supplier in Tennessee.
But our customers noticed, and they were not happy. Worse, we had spent a significant sum on the custom glass and gift box, which were now unsellable for the holidays. We refunded all the faulty candles, calling every customer with our apology. And once people understood what had happened, most were sympathetic. Still, it was a big misstep for a young start-up.
We learned from that mistake and started the new year with determination to solve the mystery and expand our collection. We also began making custom designed gifts for businesses and events, including eBay Corporate, Amnesty International and TEDx. Fortunately, we had help. Amazing volunteers and interns stepped in to lend a hand, and by the end of 2011 – our first full year of operation – we had enough traction to quiet the detractors. Not enough to live by, but sufficient to say to one another "we can make this work."
And that year Moo Kho, one of the first Burmese women to join Prosperity Candle, became our chief candle-maker. More than anything else, we attribute our steady growth to her. Moo Kho studied candle-making, conducted endless tests, and soon became an expert – making perfect candles, and teaching other women refugees to do the same. We adore Moo Kho.
Following the devastating earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, we wanted to help. We each made personal donations, but felt compelled to do more. Ted had worked in Haiti in years past, and had the same concern about development projects there as elsewhere – limited long-term impact. So we consulted with advisors, then made the decision that Haiti would be our next destination. We would adapt the model to a group space rather than home-based candle-making, aiming for higher capacity, lower cost, and more support for the artisans. It would be the first export-oriented candle business owned and operated by Haitian women.
Planning began immediately and by early 2012 we were visiting locations and meeting potential nonprofit partners. From Port-au-Prince to St. Marc to Cap-Haitien, every town we visited wanted help, and at every stop Prosperity Candle's model was received with enthusiasm. It promised more than charity – the opportunity to thrive through entrepreneurship with a product that had both local and export markets.
It was exactly what Haiti’s president at the time, Michel Martelly, and countless others were saying 2 years following the earthquake: relief aid was much appreciated, but now Haiti needed opportunity.
It's been 9 years since the idea of Prosperity Candle crystallized over a cannoli. Since then, we’ve launched our sister nonprofit, Prosperity Catalyst, created to seed entrepreneurial opportunities for women, and together completed a 2-year program funded by the U.S. State Department to build on our original pilot project in Iraq. So we were finally able to return to Baghdad.
Now Prosperity Catalyst is expanding north to the Kurdish region and adding jewelry-making under the name Akkadian Collection. And in Haiti, Prosperity Catalyst has relocated the enterprise to Port-au-Prince, linked up with artisans making beautiful metal luminaries, and brought in wonderful designers to create stunning new candles.
Here at our studio in western Massachusetts, we remain 6-8 people working side-by-side every day. The candle-makers are women recently relocated to the U.S. from refugee camps through UN and federal programs. We’ve had a few changes with Amber following her passion to perform on stage and lead women’s retreats, and Siiri becoming Executive Director of Strong Women, Strong Girls in Boston. Patsy, Ted’s partner in life, joined full-time to co-manage everything, and Moo Kho oversees hiring and training of candle-makers.
Riley, our rescued pup from Louisiana, ensures we get out for a midday walk – rain or shine. And she comes home with us every day with a curious blend of scents in her hair.
We’ve moved from that first somewhat dismal space to a beautiful sunlit studio on the 3rd floor of a century-old mill building, and are now in dozens of stores across the U.S. We make professionally designed custom gifts for the likes of Microsoft, Univision, Oxfam and CARE. And we make private label candles for several companies including Lauren Conrad’s The Little Market.
Recently we were commissioned to create an exclusive design with original artwork for the London launch of Murder on the Orient Express starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley and Penélope Cruz. That was FUN.
We continue to develop unique candle and gifts, reach out to new customers, and expand our work. Every day we are making improvements so that this small social enterprise delivers on its original promise.
Most importantly, we make every decision with impact in mind. The women artisans are the reason Prosperity Candle exists. This is more than a mission statement, more than a guiding principle. It’s etched in stone in our charter.
Prosperity Candle is a social enterprise created to prioritize a public benefit over all else. Our joy is creating products that change lives and help make the world a better place.
Thanks for reading!