Rebecca Hui Shares Her Advice for Successfully Scaling a Social Impact Project

For this year’s Core77 Design Awards, we’re conducting in-depth interviews with some of our 2020 jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and to hear more about what they’ll be looking for in this year’s awards submissions. 2020 awards open for entry is officially closed, but stay tuned for winner announcements that will be released on June 11, 2020.

Designing for social impact traditionally means working with communities face-to-face in a grassroots manner to enact change. While these types of interactions remain a helpful touchpoint in this evolving field, designers like Rebecca Hui are beginning to fully embrace the promise future technologies hold to empower individuals they are designing solutions for and with.

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Rebecca Hui, founder of Roots Studio

Hui is the founder of Roots Studio, an online platform hosting original graphics by artists from rural communities around the world. Her organization works with large fashion and product design companies to facilitate licensing partnerships, allowing artists represented on their site to receive royalties for their work. Roots Studios’ smart approach also addresses an industry-wide ethical issue in fashion: cultural appropriation. Knowing a valuable asset of these artisans includes their cultural narrative, Roots Studio even ensures companies pay artists when they want to share the story behind the makers in marketing efforts. Root Studio’s mission proves not only to be a great solution for providing consistent income for artists, it’s an idea that has garnered enough interest in the investment world to receive funding from sources like Echoing Green and the co-founder of Tesla.

We spoke recently with Hui, who will be the Jury Captain for our 2020 Core77 Design Awards Design for Social Impact category, about the journey that led her to founding Roots Studio, as well as her advice on what it takes to build a successful business rooted in social impact work.

Core77: Can you explain in your own words Root Studio’s mission?

Rebecca Hui: Roots Studio’s mission is to bridge cultures and reverse cultural loss and appropriation through beauty and wonder. We digitize endangered heritage artworks into patterns for brands and license onto fashion, stationery, and other products. We are building a new mode of cultural preservation by drawing attention to endangered heritage art and providing novel revenues for the communities that make that art.

Of course we need to talk about the touchy topic of appropriation. Avoiding the discussion only insures that appropriation will take place, and the world will succumb to a dominant and ultimately boring esthetic. But transposing a pattern drawn by an artist in rural India onto a garment designed in downtown Manhattan isn’t necessarily appropriation. Many heritage artists are eager to share their art with the world. And they are eager for the income that can sustain their practice. True cultural appropriation is founded on power imbalances from a history of dispossession and silencing. If communities can take back authorship, consent, and economic power, we can pave a way to share cultures more equitably and beautifully.

Could you summarize a little bit about your background, how it led you to Root Studios and why you wanted to start your company in the first place?

I’m Chinese American, and moved schools nine times before I turned 18 across Hong Kong and rural Arizona. This of course led to a lot of insecurities—not wanting to stand out, figuring out how to blend in. But as I aged away from those teenage worries, I became passionate about my own roots, and helping other minorities feel confident about theirs’ too. That drove me to study how minority communities maintain their identities in dominant cultures. For instance, I document Chinatowns in India, Mexico, Borneo, Tanzania, and Jordan. What makes their culinary flavors true to their heritage, but what have they changed to make their food palatable to the dominant culture?

Digitizing art with artists in Guizhou

Roots Studio’s journey has gone through several iterations and incarnations. Before Roots Studio, I’d been in India on a Fulbright, exploring how the relationships between humans and animals differed between urban and rural societies. I followed cows as they wandered through Mumbai to understand how their relationship with humans changed from rural to urban. That study highlighted the extreme disparities between rural and urban areas, and access to opportunities. In trying to address these disparities, I naively pursued a project to explore a flexible school that addressed education inaccessibility in areas lacking school infrastructure. In 2014, we built a 50-seater Mahindra bus that turned into a moving school-on-wheels. It serviced four villages in the interior villages of West Bengal. We asked the village teachers what they thought they should be teaching, and they said English. So we began teaching English out of the bus. But over the months, we realized that there was a discontinuity between what the teachers and government school system thought should be taught, and what the villages actually needed.

While education is a critical element in development, there is a large disconnect between being educated and being able to access opportunity. If you were born in the village, the chances of attending school beyond the 8th standard grade was less than 5%. And even the most educated will eventually return to the village because they cannot compete in the urban market. And they’re the exception. Most people in villages earn less than $600 per year, you don’t study. You can’t afford to study. You have to make money when you can with the immediate opportunities you have.

So I changed my focus. Instead of education for the sake of education, I asked how we might formalize existing skills in these rural communities; skills the urban community has lost or never had, but is craving for. Living as I did between the US and India I saw the artisanal, farm, earthy, “ethnic” aesthetic blow up in fashion. Textiles, baskets, visual aesthetics, were increasingly in vogue, and being sold at 10x the price they were in India. And neither the artist nor the heritage were benefitting. So Roots Studio came into being to bridge that disconnect: to put real artists behind the products, and create a platform to get artists paid and their stories told.

What are some examples of things you really had to consider at the beginning stages of this project, when it came to making something that lies in the social impact space that also must be scalable and profitable? What were some really important factors that you had to consider in order to make that possible?

The first factor is how much a community wants to “keep” a tradition versus let it change, especially with external pressure to make money or for a tradition to become “modern”. Traditions continue and they can be passed down the generations. But if generations don’t mimic the previous, then we would also expect traditions to change too. How much a tradition “keeps” is often in a beholder’s eye, and it is important to be realistic about what a tradition is, and whether it can survive through market or urbanization pressures. As anthropology-practitioners, the best we can do is be sensitive to how a community chooses what is sacred, point out what they have that the broader world is missing, and create a bridge so that the artists can examine how they want their art represented.

Roots Studio Community Organizer Osama Rahahleh and Lindsey Leger working with Syrian artist Youssef

The second factor is translating generations of identity for the global market can often make for bizarre collisions. The world is both increasingly connected culturally and increasingly siloed into fears. How do you translate a pictographic language carved into ancestral houses in Indonesia into a garment in NYC? The heart of our creativity is bringing about unlikely collisions and then managing them—bridging languages and cultures that do not know how to speak with each other. I don’t claim to do flawlessly; it’s a messy process guided by dialogue and reflective practice.

Your company thoroughly embraces the idea that in order to be a social impact organization, that sentiment should be holistic and envelop many different facets of companies. What advice would you give to designers when it comes to designing a social impact project or even a company in a holistic way?

How do you balance scaling proven systems versus changing the systems that have disenfranchised the communities you are trying to serve? Throughout the journey we grappled with how to keep our heart along all the roads we have to walk on. What are flaws in a system, how much should we be working within it, and how much do we just build new systems?

Over the years, I find myself moving from “either-or”s, to “and, all of these things can be true”. In building a social impact organization, it’s finding a balance between intentions and how to navigate between black and white territory. For instance, rather than reject all things business or tech related, we can borrow lessons in operational efficiency or resource abundance that make us excellent in our mission, without losing sight of who we are.

But let’s be real, there are shortcomings and harm across both private and public sectors, especially in equating scale with impact. The way a social enterprise is usually evaluated is highly problematic. The investing world is biased towards business models with metrics like unit economics and massive growth potential. But what kind of metric could capture the value of passing a rich and vibrant heritage from one generation to the next?

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In our case, we chose to scale beyond the first community we worked because we thought it would benefit more people. Having more varied designs keeps us from being siloed into a single style. And that drives sales, especially in a rapidly changing industry and market. Scaling in itself is neither good nor evil. What matters is that we are honest about how much good we are actually creating within certain models, how deep our impact can be on each life. Larger numbers do not equal greater impact. In the end, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. Thanks, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

You are the 2020 Design for Social Impact Jury Captain for the Core77 Design Awards. I’m curious to kind of hear about what you’re hoping to see in the submissions that you review this year. 

Is the solution carved from windy learning, or just from an ” innovation” playbook?

The startup world loves, “this worked so let’s replicate this over and over again”. But some of the most important solutions are shaped by back and forth conversations, by being wrong, and by the new insights that emerge from that very windy journey. Creative people don’t have to become victims of innovation. True innovation can also come from accommodating creatives. Sadly, that doesn’t happen enough. Even in the humanitarian space, it’s often reduced to the same stale tech-y buzz words. Actually, innovation is everywhere. It is just seldom recognized by those who use the word “innovation” most.

How do you balance beauty and practicality?

As designers, we create new solutions that also have beauty to them. But it’s critical to reel back that vision when designing for social impact. It’s all too easy to get carried away with alluring aesthetics when you’re working with vulnerable communities—to run with sexy ideas that in the end aren’t really practical. An “unsexy idea” can often be the most practical. Our job is to design around what we are hearing. We need to listen to what’s there, and re-frame it as something that’s communicable and visually interesting to a broader audience.

Source: core77

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