Black Friday Gifts With Meaning: This Entrepreneur Has Generated Over $100M For Indigenous Artisans

Recently, John Greathouse, of Forbes Magazine Online interviewed Robert Milk about his background and the growth of NOVICA. The conversation is written below.

Roberto Milk, co-founder of NOVICA, grew up taking low-budget, high-adventure trips with his parents. Avoiding tourist destinations, his family sought authentic, native experiences which included wandering through markets frequented by locals. These encounters lit a life-long passion to share indigenous artisans’ creations with the world while ensuring that the craftspeople earned a fair return for their talents.

To date, NOVICA has generated over $100 million in revenue for artisans around the globe. In recognition of his efforts, Roberto was recently selected as the 2020 YPO Global Impact regional honoree for the Pacific U.S.

John Greathouse: Roberto – I understand your father worked in the Peace Corp, where he met your mom in Peru and (that) your paternal grandmother was a missionary. How did your mom, dad and grandmother’s international experiences impact you, and your brother Andy’s worldview growing up and your desire to launch (along with third Cofounder, Charles Hachtmann) NOVICA? (Roberto’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)

Roberto Milk: That’s right – my mother and father met as teachers when my father was in Peru with the Peace Corps. The missionary and entrepreneurial spirit definitely runs strong in my family.

My paternal grandfather was a missionary in Cuba in the 1950s. Malnutrition and poverty were rampant in the rural area of Mayari where he worked, and a terrible heat wave had severely affected the milk production of local cows. My grandfather had a crazy idea to import a bull from India that could withstand the heat and cross it with a high milk producing New England cow. Everyone thought he was out of his mind. But he did it, and to this day, the success of the “Cuban Cow” is attributed to the determination of this strange American missionary with a wild idea.

On my Peruvian side, my mom’s side, my grandfather had an equally adventurous life. He was an orphan from Italy who stowed away on a ship bound for Peru. When he arrived, he didn’t speak the language or have any money, but he managed to open an Italian restaurant that became a vibrant part of Italian life in Northern Peru.

My mom and dad were born into these unusual circumstances, and the values they took from their families, then cultivated into their own, shaped my life and my brother Andy’s life.

I remember during the summers we would all pile into our navy-blue VW vanagon and just drive south into Mexico for the most memorable, low budget, high adrenaline family adventures possible. My cousins would join, both of my grandmothers, and also our childhood friend Charles Hachtmann, who later became a NOVICA cofounder. Schedules were formed on the fly as we would drive, and my dad would weigh everyone’s opinions on where we’d go the next day as we ventured out, with my mom’s opinion always winning the day, of course.

One thing was always a constant – my mother had a love for artisan crafts and we’d make time to venture to the most off the beaten path markets. Andy and I would be right by her side, seeking out the latest and greatest handmade items for our collection – we had the most eclectic kids room ever seen, filled with Star Wars figures, Legos, hot wheels, carved coconut pirate heads, mariachi frogs, Amazonian blow guns, spears and shields, onyx backgammon sets, Inca bronze daggers, furry alpaca figurines and so much more.

Our travels weren’t glamorous, no luxury resorts, no fancy hotels, and that’s probably what made them so amazing, we would go to where most tourists didn’t travel… out of the way deep into local markets, tasting new foods, trying new things. Just saying yes to life in a way that continues to shape my worldview.

Roberto Milk, Co-Founder, NOVICA. Photo by Laura Grier

Greathouse: I love it! What a childhood. I encourage my students to, “Be a Yes” (and) I’ve written about the power that comes from having an open mind and a willingness to overcome the natural anxiety that arises when you try new things.

The cofounders of NOVICA have known each other since childhood and have been called “The Three Amigos.” So much for, “Don’t start a business with friends or family” trope.

Kidding aside, there are obviously lots of advantages to starting a company with people you know intimately. However, no situation is perfect. What are some of the downsides you’ve experienced and how have you managed through them?

Milk: I think a large part of our success stems from the fact that Charles, Andy and I have been launching successful “businesses” together since we were seven years old.

When my brother, Andy, and I moved to San Antonio and met Charles, our friendship formed, in part, around our entrepreneurial adventures: selling greeting cards door-to-door, borrowing my dad’s lawnmower and edging tools, and offering our gardening services around the neighborhood. From a young age, we learned to broker disputes, hear each other out, trust each other with new ideas – all skills that have been essential for NOVICA today.

Other co-founders include my talented wife Mina and my mother-in-law Armenia, a former United Nations Human Rights Officer whose UNHCR team won the Nobel Peace Prize. My Stanford roommate Joe started the Mexico office, brother-in-law Fabio started Brazil, Cousin Eduardo started Peru. Joe’s cousin Jose Antonio helped launch Asia offices.

I think it’s everybody’s dream to work with people you like, respect, and have fun with. That’s definitely been the case for us. Not just with our founding team, but with many NOVICA team members around the world. We truly enjoy each other’s company.

The biggest issue I see with family and friends as cofounders is when big egos are involved, when you have different risk profiles, or when you have different work ethics. If you’re not aligned on those fronts, you can bet there will be issues down the road. On the flip side, if you get the formula right the way we did, it can be magic. Life is short. Do great things and surround yourself with people you like.

Greathouse: I second that emotion. You founded NOVICA about twenty years ago. What was the company’s initial focus and how has your mission and go-to-market strategies morphed over the years?

Milk: It’s crazy to think that twenty years have passed since we launched NOVICA in a basement in Santa Monica. We always wanted to do something no one else was doing. Back then, the only way that global artisans could reach customers was by going through multiple layers of middlemen, at the local, national, and international level, who raised the price each step of the way. The problem was the artisan saw none of those financial benefits. Our idea was simple: to disrupt that system, cut out the multiple levels of middlemen, and connect artisans directly with customers.

There were definitely challenges to that approach. We had to prove ourselves to global artisans. We had to overcome their distrust and show them that we were different. There were so many challenges. But we also had some early wins that solidified our reach.

The first was the investment we received in our second year of operation from National Geographic, which gave us a whole new level of legitimacy. Certainly, there were bumps along the way, but our fundamental commitment to empowering artisans has never wavered. What we’ve found is that this emphasis on the artisan has all these amazing consequences. It uplifts entire communities around the world, it preserves disappearing artistic traditions and it enables customers to discover items that they would never otherwise encounter.

Greathouse: You’re clearly still passionate about your mission, even after two decades. Good for you.

Milk: Thanks, John. We’ve boiled down our mission to one core tenet: spreading happiness. The best way we’re able to do that is by enabling artisans to practice their craft and sell their unique creations to customers, who also benefit because they can pay less for the finest handmade art.

Greathouse: I know it’s hard to pick favorites among all the artisans you’ve worked with, but are there particular success stories which you are especially proud of?

Milk: Oh wow, yeah, that’s a hard question. There are so many inspiring stories, which is really what keeps us going. One that immediately comes to mind is from a recent trip to Peru with Mina, my wife who has been so integral to the founding and running of this business.

We were scouring the local markets in Lima to find a small statue called an Ekeko, which is a symbol of good fortune in Peru. They’re everywhere, but we wanted the best, more authentic, well-crafted one we could find. To our amazement, we found exactly what we were looking for in a Lima market. The only problem was none of the middlemen would tell us who made it. We finally got the name of a place in the outskirts of the city and literally knocked on every door in this neighborhood before we stumbled upon Johnny Chamba, the statue’s creator.

He was so suspicious at first, hesitant to open the door. “Who were these people with his statue in hand?” Once we showed him that our aim was different from the middlemen he’d worked with – and in fact, we wanted to tell his story and buy dozens of pieces right then, he began to cry… and so did we.

We’ve been working with him ever since, and he’s an incredible artisan. His Peruvian Paso Horse carving has become a customer favorite and is highlighted in many of the catalogs we’ve done with National Geographic.

Greathouse: I like that story, not just because Johnny is an inspiring artisan, but it shows your willingness to literally go the extra mile to connect with your creators.

Your marketplace includes over 20,000 artists and you’ve generated more than $100 million in sales for your creators. Can you share the mechanics of your business model?

Milk: The $100 million figure is a counter we all watch and it represents 100% of funds to artisans, today at $104,661,645. That represents actual funds to artisans and is a constant reminder for us to focus on empowering artisans in everything we do.

We like to say that love is at the core of this exchange. This principle is really the heart of our business model. Everything is hands-on. We have local teams on the ground in each region who quality-check every item, work with artisans to discuss creative projects, set pricing, and oversee shipments. That local presence is essential, and it makes NOVICA feel like a true community.

When we hit $100 million sent to artisans earlier this year, it was a critical milestone, especially given the pandemic and how important NOVICA sales are to artisans during these challenging times when travel and tourism are limited.

Greathouse: Can you tell us a bit about your partnership with Kiva? How have microcredit loans impacted your creators’ ability to expand their businesses?

Milk: We love Kiva because we’ve seen firsthand how microcredit loans change people’s lives. So many of our artisans have received zero percent interest loans to invest in new materials, improve workshops, create new products. Often these loans go to individuals who may be financially marginalized, like women artisans in rural communities, or others, like Alejandro de Esesarte, who has autism and has faced discrimination in the workforce and in his community.

Alejandro creates beautiful steel wall art and garden décor inspired by nature and attributes his artistic inspiration to ASD. With the zero percent interest loan that he received, he was able to invest in his work and has been producing these magnificent pieces.

Greathouse: How do you find folks like Alejandro – how do you recruit and vet your artists?

Milk: None of this would be possible if it weren’t for our regional offices. From the beginning, we decided that we were not going to compromise on quality. So, we have art experts in every region who are constantly searching for exceptional artisans. We also have partnerships with local governments who help us discover incredible new talent.

So many of our artisans have faced serious struggles. They’ve lived through violence and civil war, financial hardship, and natural disasters. They may be unbelievable artisans with limited means. Our regional directors know how to find them and help them transform their lives through the sale of their art. It’s just an amazing process to watch.

Greathouse: Indeed. Do you have any advice for an emerging entrepreneur that is contemplating a dual bottom line, social-good driven startup? Anything that you wished you knew when you started NOVICA?

Milk: I think that the answer to this question is actually the secret to living a fulfilling life. Everything comes down to balance. If you let one aspect of your life, or your work, or your company, become too outsized, you compromise the health and well-being of the entire project.

It is truly hard for entrepreneurs to find balance…and guess what? It’s even harder for social entrepreneurs. Why? Because our stakes are even higher. There are lives on the line, there’s a mission to succeed, there are passionate people on the team, there are communities that rely on our services.

For social entrepreneurs, when lives are at stake, what we do becomes that much more critical. That’s a huge driver, but also creates tons of pressure, making balance even more important. And that’s true art – finding balance. For me, that means trying to be the best husband and dad that I can be. I feel like my commitment to family and friends, social-good, and business all inform one another. I try my best to have checks and balances set up in my life to ensure that no one element comes at the cost of another. For any social entrepreneurs out there, the world needs you – go for it, you won’t regret it.

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