A One of a Kind Collection
Joan Schultz, founder of The Kenyan Collection, discusses a unique line of pet collars and leads that are handcrafted in Africa by Maasai artisans.
Tell us about The Kenyan Collection. When was the brand created? What inspired the idea of having dog collars and leads crafted by Maasai artisans?
The Kenyan Collection was officially started in 2003. I lived and worked in Kenya for several years with an international organization (and later as a private citizen). I remember being so impressed with how industrious and hardworking Kenyans are in general, so I really had a hard time accepting that so many struggled to take care of their families and educate their children in the most basic way. At the same time, I listened to some young Kenyan friends talk about how frustrating it was to see the continent portrayed as hopeless and needing handouts. While they appreciated people’s generosity through the many charitable organizations that operate in Kenya (more than 1,200 at the time), they also felt it was in some way encouraging “poverty of mind.”
I don’t want to get controversial in an interview like this, but their concern was that by asking for donations or support in the context of selling products, it suggested they are not capable of creating something of value—that one had to manage one’s expectations of quality, beauty, availability, etc. So, I innocently said, “Well then, let’s create a collection that is all about changing that image.” At their request, we did not set up as a non-profit; it was for profit—the profit of the artisans in Kenya. Our motto was we don’t want your donations, we want your business, and we promise to earn your business everyday with the quality of products we sell.
At about the same time, I witnessed a group of Maasai herd cattle to the U.S. Embassy to donate to those impacted by 9/11. Americans had been kind to one of their sons, and they wanted to express their appreciation and condolences. I thought, “We think they are poor, but they have gifts—we all have gifts, and if we each do what we can to help each other, it would be a great world.” My gift was to figure out how to make this operation successful, so the artisans could make their own money and spend their income on what is important to them—the same desire you and I have.
How does the way The Kenyan Collection collars and leads are crafted make them stand out from other products in the market?
I have no marketing experience, no background in the pet industry (other than I too am an obsessed dog rescuer). The first person I met in the pet industry said, “You have to get them to make a single design and repeat that design predictably over and over or you will be out of business in a year.” I couldn’t do it, out of respect to the Maasai—I couldn’t ask these artisans who know so much about color and design (by virtue of their beading heritage) to stifle their creativity. While we guided them on certain collections, in terms of colors and a few elements of design to distinguish our collections, we left detailed design elements to them. We took a risk that people felt like we do—our dogs are one of a kind and we like the idea of having a unique adornment for them.
Beyond the unique aesthetics, what are some of the key selling features of The Kenyan Collections collars and leads?
The next challenge was consistency, in terms of quality and delivery. There are a number of beaders out there, but stores and customers don’t want surprises when they get a delivery paid by their hard earned money. The consistency and quality is a real challenge when the artisans are spread over the countryside, where they create their pieces at the same time as they herd cattle, watch children and take care of their communities.
It also was a challenge when a younger generation is increasingly leaving the villages for work in the city to increase their earnings. We made it more attractive for the existing and younger beaders by paying them well, involving them in the product line evolution, listening to their needs and trying to support them in ways they felt were meaningful. For instance, often because of drought, they have to walk for hours during the day to find water. As a result, after doing basic chores, it was too late to bead (no electricity). They were also spending a lot of money burning kerosene lamps, which are not particularly healthy. They wanted simple solar lights—nothing too complicated, but something reliable that would allow them to bead at night (and a bonus was it provided light for children to do their homework).
Another key selling feature is our focus on quality. As the leather industry in Kenya has become more sophisticated and expanded, we opt for higher quality leather and supplies. In order to get this under our control, we now source through one particular community group that only beads for The Kenyan Collection. We invest time in explaining what and why we have quality control standards. As a result, they are a loyal and committed group who feel they share in the success of the company, and their commitment shows every time we receive a shipment of breathtakingly beautiful product.
Finally, in identifying key selling features, we have to mention our customers—many of whom have been with us from the beginning of this journey. As a result, a very positive element of the collection is that it has evolved in response to customer feedback (both good and bad). Of course, we love hearing our collar saved a dog’s life during an attack because the offending dog couldn’t get to the other dogs neck through our sturdy collar; or that a customer proudly owns a 12-year-old collar, which they are sure must be a record. We also equally gather details to address concerns and opportunities for improvement when they arise. I personally would want a product that has been vetted by other responsible dog owners.
What are some of The Kenyan Collection’s most popular products? What are your newest product introductions?
The products we are best known for are the dog collars and leads. Dogs being a passion of mine, it was an easy fit when we were starting. Sales of human belts have increased significantly, and we are branching out into handbags and other accessories, as well as home accessories, in the coming months
What does the future hold for The Kenyan Collection? Can we expect to see the brand expand into other product categories?
The future is bright for The Kenyan Collection. I recently sold the company to Cindy Lay and Stewart Newman (who also own Exceptional Equestrian). They started out as committed customers, but over the past five years, I also noticed they had the same passion for the product and the company objectives, so they became obvious partners. I will remain involved in the business and focus more on design and working on initiatives that benefit the artisans. Cindy and Stewart have retail and marketing experience, and I think that is needed to take the business to the next stage. The Kenyans have met the new owners and together they are excited for the next chapter.
When I see these interviews from people in the industry, I always look for that little gem of information that will help me in my business, so I have one I would like to offer—particularly as it relates to small businesses, and particularly in the pet industry, which I have seen is unlike many other industries. It is often the passion that drives us, whether it is commitment to the pets’ well being, health or rescue. I would remind fellow small business owners of the importance of day-to-day internal operations because, in order for your passion to be realized, it must be pursued on solid footing. I feel honored to have worked in this industry, where I have been inspired by many determined, passionate and hardworking people. PB