Thanks for coming to the full version of Susan Yu’s interview, which is filled with so much great insight like her explanation on what a distribution analyst is, her thoughts on having worked for, and much more. See it all below and then please be sure to return to the original post to comment:


What is your educational background?

My educational background, I grew up in North Bay, Petaluma, went to high school there, and then went to UC Davis directly after high school, graduated in 2000.

What is fair trade?

In the simplest term, it’s just ethical sourcing, its knowing where your product comes from, who makes it, and that the people behind the product is being treated fairly.

And why did you go into that business?

You know I never grew up thinking I want to go into fair trade, its just, it kind of fell in my lap. I think it was just that constant curiosity in whatever job you have you question everyday about what interests you, and so I’ve always been in retail, I graduated from Davis in 2000, worked for Gap corporate downtown, so that was my first job out of college. So I did that for two years, I was a distribution analyst.

And what is a distribution analyst?

A distribution analyst is basically putting all the inventory into all their stores and analyzing it to see how the sales are doing based on inventory, if it’s turning fast enough, if you need to allocate more to certain areas because its popular, so you’re in charge of a category like say women’s pants or women’s tops, if its selling more in the East Coast you would analyze that and make sure they have enough inventory. So I did that for a couple years and then I tried a couple things after that. I studied in Taipei for a year and then came back and worked for, which is also in the Bay Area, so I just really liked retail I suppose, but you know I was always more interested in  merchandising and product development aspect of it so for me to cross over from distribution to product development it’s kind of a jump so you kind of have to work your way up or across so I started as a merchandise assistant at and then worked there for a little bit. Then endued up moving to Philadelphia with my husband for his graduate school, so I found another position with Anthropologie, another retail company, and they’re owned by Urban outfitters, so I was an assistant buyer there in their home department and Ten Thousand Villages just kind of fell into my lap like I said and they had a shop in Philadelphia and so I got to know the manager there and I just found the product really interesting and just dug deeper to know exactly what they were doing. And I didn’t really know the concept of fair trade I just thought the product was interesting and the story was interesting as well; it wasn’t all made in China you know hwo products are these days it actually came from Africa, form remote areas in southeast asia, in india, and that really peaked my interest. And so as I was looking att their website I noticed tthey were looking for a  buyer position and that’s sort of how it started and that’s how I got into fair trade.

And did you just apply online or did you know somebody?

No I just applied online and interestingly enough I was on vacation and I forgot how long it took them to get back to me, maybe it was two months before they got back to me, and it was odd I wasn’t ready for it I thought maybe my resume got lost or something and it was out of the blue I got a call on my voicemail and they were like can you come back for an interview…and I said I can’t get back right now but from that moment, I think like a month later, I started working.

Awesome. And what did you love most about working for Ten Thousand Villages?

Oh there’s a lot of things. It was really my dream job I think because not only did I get to utilize all the skills I had built up to that point, analytical skills, merchandising skills, buying skills, but it allowed me to travel and see where these things are made and actually talk to the people behind the product, so that was really awesome of that job I think just working with artisans one on one. And also the people in my office, you know, the people that were there were there because they wanted to be there and not because they needed a job, you know, they really had passion for this, for fair trade, and the people that made the product are the reason they went to work every day, so it’s a different kind of world than corporate.

And how did you choose what to buy?

Well we were split up by countries so we would always bring products that were exciting from our trip and part of that is looking at what was selling in that market and what people are excited about. There’s trade shows every year and so we go out to those to see what’s popular. And then we try to think about is there anything our artisans are making that would excite our customers so it’s a little bit of both, shopping here for our U.S. market and also coming up with interesting things that our artisans have created themselves.

Wow. And how did you ensure that fair trade was being upheld?

…it’s all based on relationships because we work with I don’t know how many artisan groups but there are four buyers and I think all buyers alone had close to fifty six groups that we were close with for product development and each of these groups had other smaller groups that they would work with in other smaller villages so the basis of fair trade is really trust and relationships. A lot of these relationships have been established for twenty years and they have their own fair trade organizations that work with these to certify them as fair trade, the fair trade artisan group. So it’s different in every country how they are certified but it all started with working with them and our relationship that goes back and we also visit and interview the artisans one on one without the manager just to see how their livelihood is, if their enjoying, if their being paid a living wage, so we document all these on our trips there as well along with doing product development as well so it actually turns out to be a long trip–when you go out there you have to interview a lot of people but a lot of it is just relationship building.

I’m going to go back and ask you a question, and I mean this with all due respect: do you find it ironic at all that you went from working with Wal-Mart that has a lot of controversy to working with Ten Thousand Villages that is fair trade?

Yeah, I think it was really eye opening. I think I was like everyone else, a consumer in the U.S. I’ll admit I was really ignorant with what fair trade was–to me fair trade was free trade; I was really ignorant and got those two confused. But when I worked at you know I was just like any consumer–didn’t really think about fair practices and the labor practices, but the longer I worked in retail I recognized that there was discrepancies in what fair trade is and isn’t. And I don’t want to bad mouth a company like Wal-Mart because they are doing legitimate as much as they can control, I know they have teams that do audits in some of their factories so it’s really hard for me to trump one over the other and say fair trade is so much better than Wal-Mart or the other, but I think the difference is that the people that we work with and the relationships we build does make a big difference in the artisans’ life. And I don’t’ want to say people in factories that are working for Wal-Mart aren’t changing their lives either, I don’t know that for a fact, I mean there could be families in villages in China that have benefited from a factory opening up for Wal-Mart as well… I hope I answered the question, does that make sense?
Yeah I get what you’re saying—it’s just a whole other environment.

Yeah and I know that Wal-Mart kind of has a bad PR image about them and I think they are trying their best to be better at what they do and from going from such a large organization to a small one that focuses on the grassroots organization of the artisan is different.

Yeah… What is your most touching experience working for Ten Thousand Villages?

Hmm… I think there are several. I think what is the most touching experience was really, I think what stuck out in my mind was the women in Ghana. In my second year I went to Ghana to visit a shea butter producing village in Northern Ghana and it just amazed me how hard working these women were, and they pretty much did everything for the family… these women who were pretty much the root of the family, you know they took care of the kids, they did all the work, they did all the housework, and the men were notoriously known for taking the money and gambling–I’m not saying it was all like that but it was very common for that culture to do that and it just kind of touched me that they were superwomen in a different setting and type of world that we are. And I think that was amazing and really touching to see that they can run a family, run a household, make the money, and still be happy at the end of the day. They were very happy, very joyful people and if that were me and I had to do everything not only housework and work but raising children I would be crabby so it was very touching to me to see those women in Ghana. And it wasn’t just Ghana I think it was a lot of places I just realized how strong women were across all kinds of countries that I visited, especially being a mom now I really appreciate the fact that raising a child is a full time job in itself.

And is Lauren the reason that you left Ten Thousand Villages

It is. It was a tough decision for me but I know it was the right one. My family lives in California and that job was in Pennsylvania and so it was really important to be here and raise her close to family.

How did you know it was time to leave Ten Thousand Villages?

I think it was… on a personal level my father was not feeling well, he had lung cancer, and so we know that the time was limited so it was really important to be back and be together with family. So it really came down to a decision of family and career and so I knew that was the right decision for me.

And what is it like being a stay at home mom after working so  extensively?

Wow. What’s the difference or what’s it like being a mom after working for so long? In terms of energy level and everything I think a full time mom is actually a lot more work. But you know the cliché is that it’s rewarding and it is. You know everything you give to them you see it come back to you and it’s amazing just to watch her grow and I know that this time–from the time she grows up until school–is so limited, and I just really appreciate my time with her. But the difference–I think both are work. I think it’s a hard adjustment at first–you know not going into work or having adult interaction on a daily basis so I think in terms of the mental exercises it’s different, it’s a different kind of stress and stuff but yeah I really enjoy it, but I do want to go back eventually.

What are your future plans with work?

If I could go back to Ten Thousand Villages I would, but they’re based in Pennsylvania so  I don’t think there’s a possibility of working for them, but I definitely want to stay within the fair trade industry, if not career wise then at least volunteering. But I think what’s a priority in the next few years is family, raising her, so I’d like to find something that can fit within my schedule with her. I might start my own fair trade organization or company out here—which is something I have been toying around with, or I might go back and work full time around here with an organization that is involved in fair trade.

That sounds exciting. So last question: what advice do you have for strivers of fair trade businesses?

For strivers of fair trade businesses, for people who are just starting out in a career, I would say learn as much as you can. There’s really great organizations in the Bay Area that you can get involved with. There’s TransFair, that’s in Oakland. I know there’s other ones in the Bay Area–I think one’s called Global Action through Fashion… but its fair trade eco clothing so there’s things like that that you can get involved with, interviewing people… and just talk to people and go to these events and learn more about it. There’s a lot of internet resources that you can read up on and go visit a country, if you have the resources, go visit these countries and try to seek out the artisans who make these wonderful products and learn about their life and you’ll probably learn more than just from reading–that personal experience.