Founded in November 2013 by Californian husband-and-wife Courtney and Laren, Rose & Fitzgerald is a design and craft studio based in Uganda.
The couple works with master artisans and local small business to create and curate unexpected and collectible pieces mixing traditional craft with a stylish flair – all with the intention of running a sustainable business and create a positive impact on the community. Courtney shares what it takes to build a business with purpose, create a sustainable lifestyle brand and why, taking a leap of faith in life and business, is sometimes the best choice one can make.
I met Laren in 2006 when I was an intern for the non-profit he co-founded, which was focused on ending the longest running war in Africa. At the time, I was studying Communication at Texas A&M University, and just a few months after graduation, Laren and I got married and spent 3 years in San Diego, where I worked for a boutique advertising firm. Although it was a creative, fast-paced environment, I constantly dreamed about spending my time doing something that gave me greater purpose and fulfillment.
TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH
A few years into our marriage, Laren started working for Bridgeway Foundation, which focuses on peacemaking and reconciliation in East and Central Africa. His new role at the foundation meant that he was traveling constantly – so in an attempt to spend more time together, we decided to move to the capital of Uganda, which would allow Laren to be closer to his work and subsequently, allow me to experience life abroad and explore new passions and dreams. Living and working in Uganda is a constant adventure, one that comes with all kinds of difficulties. Being so far from friends and family, learning to drive through the chaos of the city, walking through overcrowded markets to seek out new artisans, learning the cultural differences and making new friends, are all challenges that have given me strength, independence, and confidence, and have taught me that taking leaps of faith into the unknown, is a scary yet super exciting part of a life well lived.
After being exposed to many talented artisans in my new community, I began designing products to decorate my home – mixing our coastal roots and design perspective with newfound materials and traditional handiwork. With every piece I created, each one constructed with unmistakable care and patience by an individual artisan, I began to realize they were truly something special. Thus began my dream – to share this beautiful part of the world with others who value handmade products from native, natural materials; products created by artisans truly passionate about their craft. My desire to build relationships in Uganda as well as make a positive impact on the community became a reality when I realized I could offer a sustainable income to artisans, challenge them to create high-quality products and expose them to the global market. My husband shared my dream and was part of building the business all along. And so, Rose & Fitzgerald was born, a name that comes from each of our middle names.
EMPLOY LOCAL ARTISANS AND INVEST IN SMALL BUSINESS
We strive to enable our artisans and small-business partners to become profitable while also having a positive social impact. To do this, we work closely with the artisans to preserve, but more importantly, enhance artistic traditions with a modern aesthetic, while using local, sustainable materials. By providing them with consistent business, we help increase their ability to meet the capacity demands of the global marketplace. In addition, we purchase the products from the artisans and small businesses we partner with at their asking price. By providing our artisans with marketable and economically beneficial outlets for their skills, Rose & Fitzgerald contributes to reducing poverty and thereby improving the livelihood of these individuals and their communities. Combining unique design perspectives with beautiful materials, we produce high-quality, unique products that challenge these artisans to continue to develop skills, confidence, and product versatility. Our job opportunities empower both men and women, support families, and, as a result, sustain communities.
I met the artisans very organically, in markets and at small craft stores and boutiques throughout the vast city. I’d have them work on a product and then realize how incredibly talented they were, so we continued working together. A few of the artisans I work with now were friends or connections of artisans I found in the very beginning, so a lot of it was relationship and network based. We don’t work with large factories or workshops. In some cases, we’re working with a single artisan who has a simple workshop, or works from home, and has minimal tools and equipment. By contributing our design experience, challenging the artisan to create a high-quality product, providing consistent business, as well as providing business support, production assistance, as well as tools and machinery, we help our artisans to reach a higher quality standard and grow their own businesses.
I typically come up with designs that I love and I believe can be executed, and then I work closely with the artisans to create the first sample. Through the sampling process, we typically make adjustments until we reach the final version. I’m fortunate that my artisans are as talented and creative as they are. They truly love the challenge and are always willing to push the envelope, even if it’s something they’ve never created before.
NETWORK TO GET YOUR BRAND KNOWN
A few months after moving to Uganda, I started designing and produced a collection of home goods samples, and I took them back to The States on our first visit back, where we shared them with friends and family and sought-out feedback. It was on that trip that we were luckily enough to get connected and meet with TOMS to share our story and initial product line. They believed in us enough to include some of our products in their inaugural season of TOMS Marketplace. And so, we headed back to Uganda and I worked incredibly hard to produce our very first large order for a major American retailer (in just a few months!), ship it all to The States and then cross our fingers that the response would be a positive one. I was terrified and had never put myself out there like this before. But over the next few months, we saw our dream come alive. We were able to reinvest into launching our own e-commerce website and shop shortly after. TOMS placed another order for their spring season and wholesalers started inquiring about carrying our products and began placing orders.
We promote our products through our social media channels and word of mouth. We have an incredible community of family and friends that help to spread the word, including lots of design bloggers that enjoy doing reviews and giveaways. It is definitely difficult attempting to grow Rose & Fitzgerald in The United States being all the way in Uganda, but fortunately, technology allows us to host and sell products via our e-commerce website and shop. It allows us to share the craftsmanship and rich history as well as the personal journey and inspiration behind each of our products, through our social media platforms and blog. It allows us to ship meticulously crafted items, often made in rural villages in Uganda, to bustling, developed cities thousands of miles away. We live in such a special time, where technology allows us to connect with people, cultures, and goods that we otherwise would never get the chance to experience and appreciate – and I’m so thankful I get to take part in such a special way.
I knew the girls from The Citizenry in college, and then reconnected after the launch of Rose & Fitzgerald, when Carly reached out to me about doing collaboration with her soon to be launched company. Both of our brands were created to progress human craftsmanship in the distant corners of the world. This shared vision made partnering to design an exclusive collection of handcrafted goods from Uganda a no-brainer, and the end result is a collection that will continue to give back through sustainable relationships in Uganda. We’re both so glad we took the leap to team up and tell this story.
TAKE SOME TIME OFF TO UNWIND
It’s definitely important to me that my creative/work life and social/love life have a healthy balance. As entrepreneurs, your work tends to dominate much of your energy and thought-life, but it is crucial to carve out time to relax and unwind. I make sure that I have hobbies outside of work that I love and I’m intentional about having time throughout the day for conversations that don’t revolve around my business. It is really difficult but important that work doesn’t become my entire life. For Laren and I, traveling as much as possible throughout Africa and the world and spending time with our friends, is crucial for us to maintain that balance — and it leaves us really refreshed.
– As told to Francesca Mey