Lessons from a Sacramento Street Fair
October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
Leaving Portland, for me, felt like the death of forward motion.
I thought that coming back to Northern California for a time was a detour, a useless rabbit trail – a lag in the race to find my plateau of success. I had doubt. I had fear. And, I had a sure sense that coming back to Sacramento for a few months was the right thing. So I came anyway, dragging my fear and my doubt and my white Miata behind my dad’s pickup, and feeling a ever increasing backwards tug in my heart the closer we drew to the California border.
What was I DOING?
I felt nervous to even find an inkling of hope in me that coming back to Sacramento could mean progress. And yet, it has. But it has been a restructuring of my foundation, rather than upward growth. The foundation I laid in Portland was faulty – from the aesthetics of my booth, to the way I measured the success of Nakate to the way I measured the success of myself as a person. I’ve begun to change the way I view these things, and this kind of growth – the kind that stretches out deep roots under the ground – is just as necessary as the growth upward that those around you can applaud and notice later.
Realizations of a girl regretfully sitting at a Sacramento street fair booth:
1. Be courageous in your aesthetics.
In Portland, I failed miserably with my aesthetics because I was nervous to try for things that stood out – like the girl in class hunching down in her desk so she won’t get called on (or was that just me in Spanish II?). My dear artist friend Dana is now involved in the evolution of Nakate’s aesthetics, and not only brought most all of my favorite furniture, Ugandan antiques and ferns to the street fair, she set up a booth she felt told the story of my travels, complete with an antique trunk.
More than half of the customers stopping at our booth commented first on its look, and were afterward drawn in to what we were selling.
2. Tell your story.
It’s when our story is re-told by others that we move forward as a company. In order for that to happen, they need to know the story with every purchase.
“You need to find a better way to display the fact that this jewelry is African, and it’s recycled,” said an impassioned Jeremy, last July. “People need to know it right off when they approach your booth.” At Jeremy’s command, we had a big poster printed with “Where will you take Africa?” in bold lettering, as well as a sign explaining that our goods were handmade in Kakooge. We came out with some great new branding despite me. I spent most of our Staples trip secretly calling his cell phone so it would go off in the nearly silent printer cartridge aisle.
This weekend, my friend Dana spiraled off of Jeremy’s idea, and came up with the idea of a 4×6 sign that displays the story behind Nakate’s launch. She’s painting it on a large canvas, and it will sit behind our booth. This is not only courageously aesthetic, it helps people to understand the story that goes with their purchase.
I learned more than just lessons about my booth. As the market was being set up, I met a Robert Laneau, a Haitian man from Cap-Haïtien. His paintings looked exactly like what I used to see in the Haitian marketplace, and I stopped Dana to look. “Where are you from?” she asked, and his voice came out like a warm cup of coffee – an accent I’d missed, a twist on the English language that my heart has yearned for since I last flew out of Port au Prince. “Haiti,” he smiled. I stopped by several times, and we exchanged information so that my family can have him for dinner.
Later, I met a man from Ghana who delighted my friend Anna by discerning that her dreads were “from the heart,” and gave me a deal on a beautiful handmade mask. “Africa is so different,” he said to me. “Africa is different like this,” and he stretched out his arms wide like a little kid might when they tell you their love is “THIS BIG.” Then he smiled, “I don’t have to tell you this. You know.”
Together, the three of us offered the only African or Haitian products in the marketplace. In the midst of my usual rushing and stressing about finding what success means for me (today, tomorrow – next year, in five years?), I found that it was enough to be standing in for a group of Ugandan women who couldn’t make it to bring their own goods to the marketplace in Sacramento. That’s all I’m really doing, anyways – standing in a marketplace they can’t get to. I am no different than the man from Ghana or Haiti, except that I am the middle-woman for women who stay within the bounds of their village, and these men have the privilege to come themselves.
When my friend stretched his arms out wide, I realized I wanted to intimately know what it was like to be a woman on the opposite side of that span of difference between his strong, dark arms.
“But you know that,” he said to me, and I’d like to be a woman well accustomed to these words. It takes becoming a student of people in order to know, instinctively, what lies in the palm of my new friend’s left hand. But that’s my job.
Perhaps it’s a lot more of our job, as people, than we think it is. Perhaps we are all to be students of one another. I have always felt that the biggest tie between Jeremy and I lies in our understanding. I know when he needs me to do something for him that is hard for me, and he knows the measure of strength in me, and how far I can be stretched outside of my comfort zone in order to do it. The same is true for what I ask of him. I know when he has reached the end of his giving place, and when I need to step back and let him take. Sometimes this looks much different than people would think. I give him silence. He gives me words. I give him time. He gives me honest communication. And, he measures my strength accurately because he has payed attention. Often, he knows I can handle much more than others would think I can. And, he’s right.
I’ve found that you can only rush progress so much. Along the way, you find big stretches of slow, methodical movement forward. Emails must be sent, and then responses must be waited for. Meetings have to be scheduled, and then responses to topics discussed have to be waited for. Shipments have to come in. Marketing has to be experimented with. Growth comes slowly.
I’ve begun to learn that I have to be content with what I have today – the place I am in, the tasks that involve being here, and what it looks like for me. I’ve also learned that I must always be discontent with the success we have reached, and be pushing forward for the next thing, though often that push forward looks like slow, methodical growth.
6. Progress in me is progress in my business.
When you have your own business positive change in you directly affects your business. So, even though this time in Sacramento often seems silly, I have seen exponential change in myself and my priorities – and that, I know, will directly affect Nakate when I return to Portland.
7. Success comes in unexpected places.
My profit margin in Sacramento, this weekend, was equal to that of a bustling street fair in Portland. Who would have thought?