Like many start-ups, Prosperity Candle began as a simple idea that evolved over time with many bumps along the way. Some funny, others painful… all part of the journey. And as that guy Steve once said, "the journey is the reward."
In 2004 Ted was working on poverty alleviation projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other aid organizations, focused on helping small businesses in developing countries access global markets. It was interesting and challenging, but there was a troubling reality – few of these projects had tangible long-term impact. Skills and knowledge were gained, but improving the ability of families to put food on the table, pay for medicines, and send kids to school was lacking.
The more projects he worked on, the more Ted wondered how many people were able to escape poverty as a result. It felt like the focus was on building capacity instead of helping to create real opportunities to earn a living. He also saw that while handcrafted products are incredibly beautiful, it's rare that artisans in developing countries can earn enough to afford the basics, let alone actually thrive.
Several years later, Amber and Ted had a meeting of minds (and souls). Amber had been working with Rwandan and Sudanese women to create unique handmade products that helped them earn a living during and after conflict. Both wanted to start a social enterprise with a mission to create opportunities for families to escape poverty through entrepreneurship.
They agreed that if you really want to help solve poverty, you should start by investing in women. Personal experiences in places like Uganda (where Amber grew up) and Ghana (where Ted volunteered) reinforced this belief. They also decided to focus on regions of conflict – places where the need was greatest, and few others were able or willing to go.
This led to a daunting question: what kind of entrepreneurial opportunities could a small, mission-driven start-up in Western Massachusetts create in conflict areas? And could they really have an impact?
At one point this was the concept . . . weapons of war turned into instruments of peace. It seemed a powerful idea, one based on delicate bells made from landmines in Cambodia. Amber and Ted spent a fair bit of time working on it before concluding that encouraging people to collect field shrapnel was a terrible idea. But this early concept did help crystalize their criteria.
The product needed local materials and markets, as well as global demand. It had to be consumable so happy customers would return. And most importantly, making the product needed to create an opportunity to escape poverty. It had to be a business that could start in the safety of a home, but grow well beyond once the conflict had ended. Unlike most handcrafted products, it had to be scalable with not only the potential to earn a living wage, but the opportunity to truly prosper.
In early 2008, Amber and Ted were in La Fiorentina Pastry Shop in Northampton, Massachusetts sharing a cannoli when Ted asked “what about candles?”
It was one of those classic “aha” moments. By then they had been meeting regularly for several years, worked on related projects, and gotten sidetracked by the bombs-to-chimes idea. But they maintained their vision of a business designed to create entrepreneurial opportunities for women. They talked through their criteria and realized that candles and candle-making fit every one. So Ted sped home, ordered a kit online, and several days later emerged from his kitchen with the first Prosperity Candle - a little blue pillar.
It took an hour to make that pillar by hand, and it was clear that with more molds and wax, candle-making could scale up to dozens, even hundreds of candles a day. Riddle solved. Local and global markets, local supplies, consumable, extraordinarily scalable. A woman in Afghanistan could go from poverty to prospering in a matter of months as long as she had markets for her products.
Of all the places they wanted to test their idea, Iraq was not on the list. They were thinking Rwanda, perhaps Kosovo, places that were accessible and where they had previously worked. But Prosperity Candle’s ideal field partner, Women for Women International, had an opening in Iraq with their vocational training programs. So Baghdad it was.
Following months of preparation, Amber and Ted flew to Turkey to train the Iraqi staff in candle-making and Prosperity's model, and in May 2009 the pilot program was launched. Fifty "business-in-a-box" sets – commercial grade and much more comprehensive than that beginner’s kit purchased online – were assembled in Ted's dining room and shipped to Iraq.
Soon after colleague and soul mate Siiri joined the team. She brought an MBA, years of experience working in developing countries with the Peace Corps and international development projects, and a deep commitment to supporting women’s entrepreneurship. What followed was extraordinary… training, shipping samples, quality tests, equipment changes, and more training – once by live video Skype from Ted's kitchen with the apprentice entrepreneurs all gathered in a room in Baghdad.
And a year later, in April 2010, the first candles began to arrive – handmade by Iraqi women, many of whom were war widows. It was an emotional moment. Bombs were a near daily occurrence in Baghdad, yet perfect candles were being made and shipped, and the women were earning an income – for some, the first time ever.
Ted's and Siiri's dining rooms were transformed into candle finishing centers with family and friends pitching in, and by May Prosperity Candle was selling online and to a handful of local stores. The soy-paraffin pillars burned beautifully, and each included the name of the woman who had made it. Customers began writing words of encouragement to the women, which Prosperity Candle forwarded to Iraq.
The team had launched the company with its own funds, and successfully proven that the idea could work. On the production side, the women were earning above a living wage during the pilot program, selling their candles locally and exporting to the U.S. One woman, Nazahat, earned over 3 times the minimum wage in Iraq, exceeding all expectations.
On the market side, retailers expressed interest. But the cost of shipping from Baghdad was extraordinary, quantities had not yet reached projections for volume discounts, and freight companies were unwilling to offer concessions. Wholesaling meant a loss with every candle sold. The only option was to focus on building an online community and sell directly. No easy task.
At the time, Prosperity Candle had essentially one product (a pillar in 2 colors, 2 sizes) and a problematic marketing campaign that included the words "Iraq" and "Baghdad". This was 2010, a time when anything related to Iraq triggered deeply negative emotions for many people. Amber, Siiri and Ted struggled to get traction, raise interest in the media, and sell candles.
Too few sold, and plans for the next phase had to put on hold as they scrambled to raise capital and address the marketing challenges. The women in Baghdad focused on local markets, but it would not be enough – they needed the export opportunity as well.
Working with no salary out of their homes and a tiny rented mill space, the team dug deep and reached out to potential investors. Traditional sources of capital were not interested – too risky, not enough profit, saturated market. All of that was true (and still is). But Amber, Siiri and Ted believed in what they were doing, and dug in further. Then a group of remarkable, wonderful family members, friends, and friends of friends stepped in with loans. Enough to pay rent, purchase candles, and improve the company website. It was a miracle.
By late 2010 it was clear that Iraq alone, with only a few pillars, would not work. Yet Prosperity Candle did not have the resources to expand to a second country and broaden its product offering as planned. Then a comment by Andrew, a longtime supporter, caught us by surprise: "A lot of people would like to see local impact as well." Local impact, here in the Pioneer Valley? How? Our mission was to support women’s entrepreneurship in regions of conflict. Our next destinations were to be Afghanistan and Sudan.
Then we learned about refugee populations in nearby Springfield. From Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and a dozen other countries. Many had fled conflict, and all struggled to find work and earn a living. After meeting with several social services, we decided to start with Burmese and Bhutanese women who had recently been resettled in the U.S. after great loss and years living in refugee camps. Our mission expanded to women in and from regions of conflict, and we started having a local impact as well. It would turn out to be a great decision.
Our first new product, a soy wax candle in a beautiful glass vessel, made locally by women refugees, was an immediate success – until the temperature dropped. Then the wax became brittle and cracked during shipping, arriving a mess on customers’ doorsteps. We had no idea, and neither did the wax supplier in Tennessee. But our customers noticed, and they were not happy. Worse, we had spent a significant sum on the custom glass and gift box, which were now unsellable for the holidays. We refunded and replaced all the faulty candles, and once people understood what had happened, most were sympathetic. Still, it was a huge misstep for a young start-up.
We learned from that mistake and started the new year with determination to improve our candles, expand the collection, and begin making custom label gifts for businesses and events. Fortunately, we had help. Amazing volunteers and interns stepped in to lend a hand, and by the end of 2011 – our first full year of operation – we had enough traction to quiet the detractors. Not enough for our small team to live by, but enough to say to one another "we can make this work."
And Moo Kho, one of the first Burmese women to join Prosperity Candle, became our production manager. More than anything else that year, we attribute our success to her. Moo Kho studied candle-making, conducted tests, and soon became an expert – making perfect candles, and teaching other women to do the same. We love Moo Kho.
Following the devastating earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, we wanted to help. We all made donations, but felt compelled to do more. Ted had worked in Haiti in 2005, and experienced the same disappointment with development projects there as elsewhere – limited long-term impact. So the team consulted with its advisors, then made the decision that Haiti would be our next destination. We would adapt the model to a group space rather than home-based production, aiming for higher capacity, lower cost, and much more support. It would be the first export-oriented candle business owned and operated by Haitian women.
Planning began immediately and by early 2012 we were in Haiti, researching locations and meeting potential nonprofit partners. From Port-au-Prince to St. Marc to Cap-Haitien, every town we visited needed help, and at every stop Prosperity Candle's model was received with enthusiasm. It promised more than charity – the opportunity to thrive through entrepreneurship with a product that had both local and export markets.
It was exactly what Haitian President Martelly, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and countless others were saying two years after the earthquake: relief aid was much appreciated, but now Haiti needed opportunity.
It's been five years since the idea of Prosperity Candle crystalized over a cannoli. We’ve launched Prosperity Catalyst, our sister nonprofit created to help seed entrepreneurial opportunities for women. The Haitian candle enterprise is up and running. Our team has expanded with the additions of Kim and Heather, two more soul mates dedicated to the goal of creating sustainable impact through women’s entrepreneurship. Siiri is now Executive Director of Prosperity Catalyst, growing her team in the U.S. and Haiti.
A return to Iraq with the support of the State Department. The next phase – bigger than originally envisioned – has just launched. It's a tremendous endorsement of our model.
We continue developing unique gifts, reaching out to new customers, and expanding our work. Every day we are making improvements so that this social enterprise can deliver on its original promise.
Most importantly, every decision is made with impact in mind. The women in Haiti and Iraq, the refugees in Springfield, and artisans in over a dozen countries around the world are our priority, the reason Prosperity Candle exists.
This is more than a mission statement, more than a guiding principle. It’s etched in stone in our operating agreement. Prosperity Candle is a social enterprise built to prioritize social benefit over profit. To create products that change lives and help make the world a better place.
That is why we say designed to do good.
There are many exceedingly generous people who have helped us along the way, for which we are deeply appreciative. Their time and support has often meant the difference between being stuck or moving forward, living at Prosperity Candle or being able to go home at night.
Thank you Andrea, Ashleigh, Brenna, Catherine, C.A., Elizabeth, Emma, Erika, Grace, Jackie, Lisa, Liz, Lourdes, Lynn, Min Min, Nandi, Nicole, Sara, Sheldon, Stephanie, Supreet and Taylor for your help with marketing, proposals, and figuring things out.
Thank you Alan, Judy, Mark and Reed for jumping in whenever needed to finish and pack candles.
Thank you Rusty for taking the lead in Haiti and making it a reality, helping us to locate the candle business in Cap-Haitien and connecting us to all the right people.
Thank you to all the family, friends and friends of friends who have supported this social enterprise with loans and investments. Your belief in our mission and model is phenomenal.
Thank you to our board of advisors who have responded when called to help us think through a tough decision, lend an ear, and connect us. Notably Terry, who was there beside Amber and Ted long before the cannoli moment.
Thank you to the many stellar organizations that have partnered with us and guided us, most especially our friends at Equal Exchange, UMCOR, Week of Compassion and Women for Women International.
And most of all, thank you Patsy, Jeremy, Jesse, Sophie and Casey. Spouses and kids never receive enough of the credit, yet without their constant support, enthusiasm and readiness to jump in when all hands are needed, no crazy idea would ever get off the ground. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And thanks to Pula, too. Siiri's awesome dog has been a constant joy in our midst.