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Q and A with Teresa Hernandez

by Lila Allen

October 9,2010

What made you decide to open Pura Vida?

I used to travel a lot with my business consulting job from ten years ago, and I like to travel in my free time. One of the things I found over and over again, especially the deeper I would go into villages from different countries, was that you'd find these artists that had no business model whatsoever. And they would make all these crafts, and they'd set them out on a blanket on a sidewalk or at the market and sit all day long trying to sell their product. And some of them would walk – walk!­ – two hours a day to get to the closest town, because they live in a small, remote village. Kids would also walk; some would have shoes. I kept seeing it over and over, and I thought it would be really neat to be able to help them at some point. But that thought stayed in my mind year after year after year, and then I decided to do it.

I work mostly with fair-trade organizations where whoever is the direct contact for the cooperative shows them different business models, techniques, and ideas for their products. So for example, maybe you have someone who is really good at sewing, and they can make bags. Whoever is the cooperative lead can show them how to make a bag that will sell more to the masses, to the U.S. or Europe – maybe adding pockets, a zipper. Or even making wallets that can hold credit cards or I.D.s, because the craftsperson doesn't have those things and wouldn't think to make them.

In introducing those new elements – say, a pocket, a zipper – is there a risk of sacrificing the integrity of the original product?

No, it's usually introducing a new product, something that's more sellable. So it's helping them create a model of income that is sustainable for them and their families.

How do you acquire your products?

I work mostly with the Fair Trade Federation. There are hundreds of cooperatives that are a part of it, and I can search online for specific products. I then get in touch with them as a business and let them know what I want. Some of the places even have websites now – because of the Fair Trade Federation, there are sometimes websites for these families who don't even have access to computers, phones, T.V.s or anything, so there would be no way that I they could get their product to me, or you, or anyone else. But through this organization they are able to reach tons of retailers like me who can then pass the product on to customers.

There are also international gift shows, usually in New York, sometimes in L.A or other places, where they'll have between 100,000 and 300,000 artists from cooperatives who come from all over the world. There, I can see the product, not just a photo online or a description over the phone. I can see what I want and place my order, and they'll start producing it. That's beneficial for the artists, because then they're not making product that doesn't move. The problem with that is that I won't get the order until a few months later. I also buy a lot when I travel, directly from markets.

In selling international wares in a predominantly white city, there is a risk of orientalizing those products. How do you avoid this in your store? Do you have an educational mission in your selling?

One of my main goals at the store is to educate people. I believe that the more people know and understand other cultures, the less hatred and bigotry there will be. You don't just want to sell a product, you want to tell people what it is and what it means. There are descriptions on products throughout the store, almost like a museum, because we want people to know about and be curious about the product. We want to educate about the people, about the culture, about the religion, because it will lower barriers and bring people together.

You're known for being knowledgeable about the products. I might buy a singing bowl from you, and you'll have a ten-minute story about it.

Anyone who works at the store goes through weeks and weeks of training. There's a hundred-page booklet that they have to study, and I quiz them on it. There's a lot of information to cover, but our customers expect that, and they trust us to know about the product. We can tell them how something is used, how something came to be. People come with a variety of needs, and we need to be able to find the right product for them.

You also sell a lot of items by local artists, writers, and craftspeople at your store, as well as host events in your lounge. How are those products and events in keeping with the mission of Pura Vida?

It's all about opening doors for artists to make a living. Especially with in the current economy, it is getting harder and harder to make a living, and a lot of people have discovered that they are artists, and that's the only way they can make an income right now.

I want to provide a venue for people to display their talents. There are visual artists and musicians, but I also consider people with talents and skills to teach to be artists as well. My store is a lot about inspiring people to enjoy life. Life is good, and I hope I can inspire and drive curiosity.

It also seems like one of your goals may be to make Charlotteans aware of the culture and talent available to them here in town.

It's all about connecting people. There are so many people doing things in town, and to me it's all about connecting the dots. Compared to when I was in corporate, I get to learn so often now about artist groups and organizations that I want to share that knowledge with other people.

You have moved from your Plaza Midwood location to a new venue on North Davidson Street. Does operating in these pockets of local independent business provide a supportive network?

My idea always from the beginning was that we are all in this together. From day one when I opened over there [in Plaza Midwood], I recommended the other businesses in the neighborhood, and I made it a point to visit other stores in the area to be able to be knowledgeable about what they offer. My goal is that a visitor unable to find a product at my store will buy it from another local business rather than giving up and going to Target. Sending customers to other stores is good for the whole neighborhood. And it's good for Charlotte because it keeps small businesses open, and that's what gives a city flavor.

How do you anticipate business changing in your new location in NoDa?

I hope that we'll expand our customer base and connect with the community more, because it is a different group here. I also hope that our customers from Plaza Midwood will continue to support us after the move. For the opening, we're in discussion about doing some partnerships with businesses in NoDa, but I also hope to have partnerships with business in Plaza Midwood so that we can send people back and forth. Really, it's not a rivalry between the neighborhoods like many think it is – we're all in it together, and it's only a ten minute bike ride! Small businesses need to support each other, no matter where they are.

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