I have discovered why out of all the businesses I have started in the past why Beara Beara has become so meaningful to me. I began the business because it was an opportunity that combined my passion for the world, by which I mean the experiences and the people within it, with my desire to bring those opportunities taken for granted by us in Europe to those who were not so fortunate. Providing people with a chance to live and work where they feel they belong while improving their lives through access to the markets of Europe, the United States and East Asia is what I felt worked.
I have long criticized volunteer work, as is quite predictably harsh of me, as very often being more beneficial to the volunteer than the proposed recipient. I travelled the world for my twenties enjoying life, being consciously selfish, determined that life and my youth would not pass me by. I have walked past tens of thousands of helpless people on the streets of less well off countries, turning my harsh face and convincing myself that the change in my pocket would not in fact improve their lives. I still think I was right.
Beara Beara however, is beginning to make up for that harshness. The staff in our three workshops are not orphans or beggars. They are skillful workmen and women who have dedicated themselves to creating quality products. The elder members have for years eked out an existence selling rather basic leather products. Don Pedro has been working in this workshop for twenty years. The business was closed down four times in that period and Don Pedro was forced to labour in the fields. For sixteen of those years there were five or less workers cramped in a cold basement. Our workforce is now over forty strong and with the best equipped workshop in the country. This combined with Don Pedro’s practical knowledge, which is comparable with any ‘master’ of a high-end Italian brand, is the heart of the business. The elders mentor those enthusiastic youngsters who show up at the doors desperate to improve their lives by learning a meaningful skill. The combination of this practical knowledge and youthful zeal is precious.
The elders smile. They genuinely smile at me every day that I’m in the workshop. They are very shy and even more humble. They think I’m rather odd, yet they smile at me. The reason is not that they no longer have to struggle to survive but that they can now relax and do what they love, where they love and with the people they love. They have no desire to live the imaginary European ‘dream’. Another important ingredient to the success the last year has brought is that for the first time these timid people can hold their heads high in the knowledge their work is being appreciated throughout the world.
The elders look up shyly as I inspect their work. The youngsters laugh, the boys cajole each other, the girls blush and giggle. They are the luck ones who have been taken on to learn the skills. Sure it is repetitive work but they do feel a sense of accomplishment. I show them a photo of a tall model with a Beara Beara bag. They seem confused, almost not believing it’s a bag they themselves have made. The reality of the situation is too much for them. The elders retreat to their worktops. The cultural gulf between them and me is huge yet we have formed a quiet, mutual respect and trust.
They don’t have the faintest idea about style but they happily, although somewhat bemusedly, continue making the designs that we present them with on each visit. So Willson is figuring out the lining for the new large backpack and Nery is finishing off the stitching of the new large women’s shopper. New rooms are being built, new machinery is being installed, new workers are being trained but thankfully Don Pedro still stands at his grubby table humming a tune in traditional Aymara ignorant of the ‘master’ that he has become.
What drives me to push our brand into an already saturated market is the knowledge that we have an excellent product along with a sustainable business model. I have never been told I have an ego but finally I find myself in a place to do good. No more turning the harsh cheek, but instead embracing the situation and not giving up. I look around our concession in Topshop and see nothing but consumerism. Bags for the sake of needing something to buy, fulfilling that desire for materialism. Thankfully I can smile and think about Don Pedro, knowing that we are something more. Much more.