Ellen Reich has always struggled with trying to find just the right profession, something that would enable her to mesh her aesthetic side with her political leanings. It took her some time to figure it out, but today Reich is the proud owner of Three Stone Steps, a small import business specializing in “ethically-sourced” products.
“I never took a linear path, I meandered a bit, but that’s sort of what I do. And in the end, it all worked out. I like to think I’ve had an impact on making people more conscious about what they buy, where things come from and if they are fairly made. I don’t hit them over the head with it, but I find it really satisfying when it happens.”
Originally from Baltimore, Reich was a “super political kid with a big interest in art”. But after high school, she found herself floundering, doing “every type of silly job you could imagine” and having an on-again, off-again relationship with English studies at various universities before getting a BA almost ten years later. Still unsure of what she should be doing with her life she opted for a masters in labor studies after working out west for an independent union, the United Farm Workers of Washington State. Next she headed to Kansas City on a grant to promote literacy among workers. “I never really had a firm path so grad school was simply a refuge from what I couldn’t face.”
Masters in hand, Reich returned to the Baltimore area where she got “a real job with benefits inside the Beltway [of Washington DC]” as a research assistant for union bargaining. After a few years, she joined another well-established public sector union, where she stayed for several years until she finally admitted how unhappy she was.
“At first it was exciting because I thought ‘oh, finally, this is what I am meant to do’ but that wore off pretty quickly. I was in a cubicle with a bunch of other people. It drove me crazy. It was really, really not me. I was making good money and had the Cadillac of benefits but the thought of doing that endless commute on the MARC train until I retired was going to send me to an early grave. I was in my 40s and knew I just had to make a change.”
In 2007, she called it quits without really knowing her next steps. “My husband and I talked about what was essential and cut back from there. He understood I was miserable. I guess you could say I was either very brave or really dumb. But either way it wasn’t easy. Everyone big in my life has a secure job, no one comes from the ‘let’s open a frozen yogurt shop’ mentality so I’ve got no role models around me.”
It’s not really accurate to say that Reich had no plan. She did, but she didn’t know if it would work.
Driven by her love of travel and exploring new places, the 51-year-old planned to go to Southeast Asia, scouring out beautiful but affordable accessories that she could import and sell in the US. She was particularly interested in fair trade products thanks to her union background and was conscious of the need to see where and how the products were produced.
She began by looking for fair trade groups online, and contacted them asking for pointers. She went for 3–6 weeks at a time, travelling lightly and on a strict budget. The process of finding the right artisanal items was very time consuming but when she found what she wanted, she hired a fair trade facilitator to manage all the paperwork and shipped everything via DHL. For the first years of her import business, she focused exclusively on Southeast Asia, but, after problems with quality, Reich started looking around for other options.
“I had always been drawn to Haitian art, with its African symbolism and religious influences. So I travelled there with a group but ended up on my own with a driver. It was daunting, nothing prepared me for it. My French is so terrible that when I try to speak the locals think I am trying to speak Creole. I’m the typical mono-lingual American. It’s a detriment considering what I do, but somehow I manage,” she adds self-deprecatingly.
Today Three Stone Steps sells mostly recycled oil drum metal art from Haiti along with some Judaica custom-made from recycled material, and a small but growing collection of hand-embroidered bags from the Silk Road in Central Asia. “I know what we have on offer is small, but we prefer to be curators rather than aggregators. We source only environmentally friendly materials, work with artisans who are economically disadvantaged, and pay a living wage for sweatshop- and child-labor-free products.”
Reich has no retail location but rather sells wholesale to museum shops and fair trade stores. She does small shows and markets and sells online.
Sometimes a teeny tiny bit of regret seeps in when setting up the 50-pound tent at 5 am in the rain for an outdoor market. “At those times, I have to tell myself, I chose this. I live in an old house and there’s stuff to fix up and it would be nice to have more money and a stable job.” But Reich is adamant. “Jumping in like I did isn’t necessarily the model for everyone, but for me it was the only way. It was all or nothing. It’s a pity it took me so long to figure out that I needed to work for myself.”
- Started selling first at shows, it’s good to get face-to-face feedback.
- When I got started a small biz development center representative was really discouraging because I was not strong on the numbers. It almost threw me off the path and was very disheartening. But I started reading about taking more creative approaches and realized just because one approach does not fit you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
- You’re probably not the only person who found this great product. Figure out a niche.