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FIELDTESTED | CHRIS AKIN, CO-FOUNDER OF THE BASE PROJECT

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Chris is the dynamic serial and social entrepreneur behind The Base Project, a social business that works with artisans in Namibia to create fashion products and invest in community development projects. Founded together with his twin brother Doug, Chris shares with us lessons from his journey and his view on the space between commerce and philanthropy.

Share with us the catalyst that got The Base Project started, and what’s been fundamental in its success so far. 

It all started over dinner one night between Doug and I in NYC. At the time we were both feeling a bit disenfranchised with aspects of our jobs in marketing and media. So, we decided to team up on an entrepreneurial venture that had social good built into the DNA of the company and focused in the fashion industry. The model we piloted with the bracelets is to produce a fashion item in the developing world, sell on the contemporary US fashion market, and then reinvest in development projects in the same producer communities. The inspiration was to find more meaning in our next career while maintaining the things we loved about our past work and volunteerism; like any social enterprise this is a convergence of the best attributes of for profit, non-profit, and government sectors.

Fittingly enough, our first line of bracelets were not part of our initial product test marketing. While we were test marketing a few designs, people kept resonating with one bracelet that I wore; given to me years earlier by a friend. At the time all I knew is that it came from Namibia and it was made from up-cycled plastic. So we decided to connect the dots…which led us to some of the oldest tribes in Africa.

Regarding the fundamentals of success, two things come to mind. The first is perspective. Taking a step back and asking the most basic and sometime hard questions. Is this really the best way to do things? Why does this industry do ‘X’ this way and does it make the most sense for us? If we do 'Y’ who is truly serving? The Second is hustle. There is no magic bullet to success and the common denominator in each ladder of success to date is hustle.  

The Base Project reinvests into the artisan communities you work with through Impact Projects like the Sustainable Community Farm. Can you tell us a moment that moved you, when you realised you were really making impact?

On our last trip to Ghana we sat down with the community leader whom we work with to talk about the production of our jewelry and travel bags. He began speaking in more detail about the women who produce the bags, whom are HIV positive. He then explained the inequality these women experience in the community and the adverse affect it has on the children. Often they can not find employment, which limits their income, and then may keep children from school. He then came full circle to make it clear that the income the women were making from sewing with us was helping sen children to school, maintain the women’s independence, and their sense of self worth. 

You have a pretty varied background. How do you introduce yourself when asked what you do, and what’s the common thread that runs through everything?

I simply say that I work for The Base Project, a socially conscious in brand. The common thread among my past work, side projects, public art, etc is entrepenurialism. When working for other I often worked in entrepreneurial environments or took on the role of an intrapreneur. Even when doing public art projects as a hobby I view them as entrepreneurial endeavours. 

Let’s talk about a passion of yours - the fusion of commerce and philanthropy. What developments in the space are you excited about?

Right now I am most excited about our new model of fair trade. With our new line we developed we structured a 'Fair Trade License’ on artisan designs and manufactured derivative products of our existing artisan, hand-made, products. Our new form of licensing/manufacturing is an evolution of Fair Trade practices and the way we structure the licensing deals flips a lot of 'standard’ licensing practices on its head. I believe that our new model is an amazing way to add scale into traditional handcraft; our approach to licensing and manuf. will teach new skills that evolve artisan’s businesses for the 21 century; and our approach elevates Fair Trade relationships from producer/buyer to product/design partners. In the end, successfully scaling means working with more artisans groups, generating more income, and having a greater impact on the artisans and their families (helping to send children to school, generate income to pay for health care, food security, etc). In my research I find it interesting that there is a major gap of expertise in 'Fair Trade liciensing’ amongst the major Fair Trade organizations and even fewer entrepreneurs practicing our style of product development and artisan partnerships.  

This is your third enterprise now after Treasure Hunts Hawaii, Locean Labs and now, Base Project. Top 3 lessons so far?

1) Everything takes longer than you expect, at a minimum double your anticipated time frames. 2) You’ll end up asking for more favors than you ever imagined and the most unexpected people will help in huge ways. 3) Be positive. 

What drives you in the day and keeps you up at night?  

Growing the business and growing the business. 

What’s an experience that has been instrumental to you being where you are today, but that you hated at the time?

Public Speaking. I had to push myself to do public speaking, which was uncomfortable at the time, even painful. It has been key to who I am now and how I am able to express myself, business, a non-profit i volunteer for, and more. 

Favorite treasure hunt ever?

Water, water, water. I did one amazing treasure hunt that had clues sunken 20 feet underwater on the reef, another clue was at the bottom of an ocean cliff, another one tethered to an ocean buoy, and more.

Chris is a diehard social entrepreneur who lives to blend commerce and social responsibility. Born and raised in New York City, Chris sought out a warmer island refuge and lived in Hawaii for over 10 before returning to NYC in Summer 2014. You can often find him globetrotting from remote villages in Southern Africa to French Polynesia. 

We are inspired by Chris’ drive and integrity, and are proud to have him as Fieldtester, a group of inspiring friends that regularly test MATTER products in their workplace and travels to help us improve durability and design. He wears The Sunday Overalls + Leharia Charcoal, Size 2.

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