A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

They Call Me Mr. Lawrence!

My primary project is to help the women from the Home for the Handicapped form a self-supporting and self-sustainable business. 'Self-sustainable' is the catchword in all areas of developmental work, especially in the Peace Corps. It's the old concept of 'teach a man to fish'...and so on. Unfortunately, my ladies aren't the least bit interested in learning to fish, no matter how often I suggest it. "But you'll never have to buy fish again.", I tell them. "We don't like fish!", they always reply. I suppose that there are also issues with wheelchairs on small boats, but I was willing to overlook that in order to teach them to fish. So, we're learning to turn our knitting crafts skills into a self-sustainable business instead. There are days when it becomes so frustrating that I think it really would be easier to teach them to fish.

We are moving towards sustainability at a speed measured in geological time. Glaciers advance and recede more rapidly than we measure our progress. The first task is to write a Business Plan. The ladies all agree that a Business Plan is an excellent idea and promptly asked me when I thought I'd have it finished for them. I explained that it would be much better for them if they wrote the Business Plan with my assistance, so they'd have more input into the creation of the business and more awareness of the goals. I gave them an outline of a basic Business Plan and went over all our objectives very slowly and very carefully. Then, in order to reduce the level of whining in the room, I told them to just work on the first item on the list. Have a meeting and decide on approximately twelve items to make up our intial catalog. They immediately began to shout out all the items they are capable of producing. Shawls, scarves, tops, bags, rugs, skirts, hats, mittens, blankets..... Robert's Rules of Order aside, I had to bang on a table to recover the chair.

Yes, but we need to pick a manageable number of items to get the business started and then we can add items to our list later. More shouting and lots of disagreement. I explained that we will be designing a website to enable us to market our products globally and that we have to focus on a few items that we make particularly well so we can build a reputation. So, please, have a meeting and give me a list of the items you'll start off making. After a lengthy discussion they finally agreed that it made sense to start the company up with four categories of items and three or so models in each category. Perfect! When you factor in different sizes and colors, the number of possible variations is quite sobering but still manageable. However, the more they considered it, the more they liked the idea of reducing the items to one. Sort of a Henry Ford approach to hand knit crafts..You can have anything you want as long as you want a beige shawl.

After a great deal of heated debate (they love to debate heatedly), it was agreed that we would begin the company by offering four categories of products and have three or four models in each category. Now they were all tired and didn't want to decide any more about the categories or models, we'd have another meeting soon. Oh, and by the way, could I please just write up the first part of the Business Plan as long as they had done all this work? So I did.

Next I got together with the designer to explain the business concept to her. The concept is simple, we'll offer four categories of hand knitted products for sale on the internet. The categories were determined during a brief meeting with my colleagues at the Agency and will consist of Women's Knitted Suits, Women's Tops & Sweaters, Women's Winter Wraps & Coats, and Women's Bags. Now we just needed the designer (Leonora) to design three of each and make them all sort of coordinated to encourage customers to purchase a bag with that shawl or a top with that skirt. In some strange way I think of this as Marketing.

Leonora thought of it as totally insane and wouldn't even consider it. She, it seemed, had already chosen and designed quite a few arbitrary and mismatched pieces and wasn't at all pleased when I said that they were nice but we couldn't use them. For one thing many of her designs followed the current fashion in the country of dressing like hookers and that might not appeal strongly to the international market. And this is where things became truly bizarre. I have now become the fashion designer consultant. I found myself in an hour-long discussion over whether long fringe on skirts was attractive or not. My position is that it is okay only for cowgirls and really tall women with terrific legs and we're seeking a broader market. This, I know, will come as something of a surprise to those of you who know that I can rarely pick out the right tie for myself, but I'm giving an enormous amount of advice on women's clothes these days. Hey, I might have a talent, who knows?

So it was decided that the next step would be to gather all the combatants into one room and see what kind of progress we'd made. Leonora vs The 8 Ladies vs My Colleagues was a fight worth seeing. The meeting had all the gentle ambiance of a bag of marbles being dropped from a great height onto a cement floor. Leonora is a very very stubborn artist and my colleagues are very very stubborn business women. The 8 Ladies enjoy being obstinate just for a welcome break in their day to day routine. Leonora doesn't shout but she doesn't agree to anything either. My colleagues shout (mostly to be heard above the chaos) and are the only ones making any sense. The 8 Ladies wave the thirteen or so arms they have amongst them and wheel violently back and forth while shouting. I stand out of the way. After a while, the meeting ended and everyone agreed that we'd had a really good time and that we were making terrific progress.

I tried to ask my colleagues what had been decided and was told that nothing was decided in its final form, but everyone was thinking about how to resolve the problem. So there we are. We have a designer who won't design for knitters who won't knit and a web designer who is waiting patiently for a list of products that we can't make to be put online. My skills in designing women's clothing are improving rapidly and it's only a matter of time before I open my own Hair Saloon, you know, a place where a woman can go to get her hair and nails done while she enjoys a beer and a shot of whiskey, but only if she's wearing a skirt with long fringe!

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