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Alumni Start-up Amplifies Artisans’ Reach

Parvez Pothiawala, Alma Hartman
Parvez Pothiawala ’06, Alma Hartman ’12

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ALUMNI PROFILES

Alumni Start-up Amplifies Artisans’ Reach

By Amanda Waite ’02 G’04

Alma Hartman ’12 and Parvez Pothiawala ’06 are making the world a little smaller, a little more connected. Their business, Rock + Pillar Trading Co., works with Peruvian artisans to bring their hand-made clothing and textiles to the U.S. market, narrowing the typical gulf between producer and consumer, and sharing the history of the Andes and the stories of its people in the process.

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that for years, Pothiawala and Hartman, both the children of Indian immigrants, lived just five minutes from each other in Essex, Vermont—a place where the world, arguably, feels plenty small enough—yet the two had never met. Both would attend and graduate from UVM, but it wasn’t until last year that a mutual friend introduced them. Over a table at Burlington’s Three Needs, a partnership was born.

At the time, Hartman was home from her work with non-governmental organizations in Peru, and Pothiawala was working as marketing director for a Burlington-area start-up. Back in Cusco after her trip home, Hartman would Skype Pothiawala, sharing her life in Peru, talking, in particular, about the artisans she was meeting—leather workers and weavers who made intricate, iconographic fabrics from memory. What if U.S. consumers, beyond the lucky few tourists who made it to the Andes, had access to these high-quality clothing and materials, they wondered. And, more importantly, what if the women who made these goods had a much larger market to sell them to—and were fairly compensated?

A resource-rich part of the world, Peru is now victim to its abundance. The land has been heavily mined, and environmental protections are weak, leaving contaminated conditions for agriculture. Artisan work is an increasingly important piece of the country’s economy, Hartman says. Importantly, weaving, in particular—which is taught from mother to daughter—is a rare opportunity for women to bring in an income.

Rock + Pillar’s goal, Pothiawala says, is to “be a mouthpiece and amplifier for this work that’s already happening.” The couple is well suited to do just that. Although he majored in molecular genetics, it was his minor in business with a focus in marketing that was Pothiawala’s true passion while in school. Hartman studied international business and finance and minored in Spanish, which her time abroad—both in Peru and in Mexico—has brought to fluency. Together, they’ve merged a personal relationship with a professional one, working with artisan communities via already existing NGOs and have created an e-commerce platform and marketing strategy, which includes pop-up shop locations across the U.S.—from boutiques on Church Street to markets in San Francisco.

Starting an international business has its challenges, and Hartman and Pothiawala say they’re now fully understanding lessons from school. “One day in Peru, we literally wrote emails to our professors, saying, ‘We didn’t get it before, but we get it now! Thank you!” Hartman remembers a particularly tough logistics class. “I was ripping my hair out! I didn’t get it!” she says. “Now I’m understanding it because it’s in practice.”

Even given all the challenges—leaving their jobs to begin this venture; doing business in a foreign culture; piecing together a living during the lean, early months; learning how to structure a for-profit business to do good in the world; lots of travel—it’s the possibility for change that keep Hartman and Pothiawala going. They’re hoping to create a model that can help chip away at this sobering statistic: 70 percent of those living in poverty in the world are women.

If successful, they can imagine taking this model to other countries, possibly to India, their parents’ homeland. But one step at a time for the fledgling business. For now, they’re focused on supporting and sharing Peru’s centuries-old weaving tradition. “It’s amazing,” Hartman says, “to show these women that what they’re doing is valued in other places.”

“Yes,” Pothiawala says. “‘Your work is valued.’ Everyone wants to hear that.”

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