Colleen Thompson – Co-Founder and CEO of Bundu Designs

[quote]Keep going, get up and keep going again. Persevere, believe passionately in an idea and be flexible to change things up when they’re not working. Being an entrepreneur these days is particularly tough, but I think the world needs more of them. In countries throughout Africa, it is entrepreneurs who are changing life for the better for people on the ground.[/quote]

Colleen Thompson is the co-founder and CEO of social enterprise, Bundu Designs. The idea behind Bundu is a simple one: to make a difference in people’s lives. With a passionate belief that lives could be changed by design, she launched an online marketplace with her husband and creative director, Cliff Thompson, to transform the awareness and consumption of contemporary African designed products. With a core philosophy in community upliftment and job creation, Bundu showcases a witty, streetwise and inspired Africa. Colleen Thompson spent years as a journalist and editor in South Africa and later studied environmental science, both of these backgrounds fused the idea for Bundu Designs.

What are you working on right now?

Bundu Designs is all consuming for me at the moment. Finding new markets for the 25 community upliftment projects we collaborate on is the core business for Bundu Designs. We work with artisans and co-operatives in about 10 different African countries to design and create products that we think will resonate with a contemporary urban market. It’s about taking time honored, traditional African skills like beading, weaving and wire art and reinventing them. It’s also about finding new uses for recyclable materials like paper, plastic or tires and creating something innovative, unique and with an African spin.

We are about to launch a range of beach bags. We started our own women’s development project in South Africa, trying to focus on skills that the ladies already had, which were largely sewing capabilities. We designed a range of beach bags using recycled binding strips that create a striking affect when woven together.

Where did the idea for Bundu Designs come from?

My husband and I are both South Africans who ended up living in Canada. I think we both felt that the incredible, vibrant and innovative talent that we loved about African design just wasn’t showcased in North America. Coupled with the fact that most of this amazing work was being created by artisans who have no formal training, have minimal material to work with and often live in dire conditions, we wanted to be able to help in some small way. We started with the products we loved and grew it from there. Now we have more than 300 products that we have either helped develop or have collaborated on with individual artisans and groups. We have also partnered with some great organizations and NGOs to bring together like-minded companies to create specific products for them and to help raise their awareness.

What does your typical day look like?

Coffee first! Then a mad scramble to get my son organized and off to school. After that, nothing is really typical. It depends on what is going on, but I brainstorm new products, write proposals for partnerships, talk to artisans, streamline our new distribution out of the US, tweak and redesign the website, write blog posts and generally market Bundu Designs. I spend lots of time online.

How do you bring ideas to life?

There is copious amounts of note scribbling, brainstorming, researching and talking. I’m old school in the way I brainstorm; nothing beats a white board and markers. There is lots of trial and error. Good ideas have a way of sticking.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

African design, without question. Cape Town just won Design Capital for 2014 and with good reason. The city oozes creativity. The amazing thing is that it is not only exciting, innovative and smart design but it is often created with upliftment and community at the core. From fashion to architecture to eco savvy products, Africa is leading the way. I see it every day. It’s already starting to happen as international designers look to the continent for collaboration and inspiration from Fendi and Lanvin.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad job. I’ve had tough jobs, but not bad ones. My first real job was working for a notoriously hard core editor who demanded his writers be as vigilant and assertive as he was. Working for him was challenging, but he taught me to advocate for people who often don’t have voices but had stories to tell. It was a tough but incredible time to be a writer in South Africa. It instilled a work ethic and discipline in me that I don’t think I would have had otherwise.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Probably nothing. Life is for sure a journey and I think all of the lessons we learn along the way accumulate into exactly where we are now for a reason. I may have started Bundu sooner, but I needed to leave South Africa for awhile to be able to gain a new perspective and connect with the North American market. That takes a long time.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Keep going, get up and keep going again. Persevere, believe passionately in an idea and be flexible to change things up when they’re not working. Being an entrepreneur these days is particularly tough, but I think the world needs more of them. In countries throughout Africa, it is entrepreneurs who are changing life for the better for people on the ground.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I love the idea of creating a chain of African shoes and accessories stores. At the moment, there are several 100% African shoe brands that are cool, fair trade certified and eco friendly. There are also bags designed by everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Fendi that were created by women’s organizations in different parts of Africa. The products are made from recycled materials, are edgy, urban and beautifully made. A one stop brick and mortar place to find them all, that’s a cool business idea!

Tell us a secret.

Bundu might just launch the idea above!

What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?

I’m not super techie. I’m not even on Twitter. Shocking, I know. My iPad may just change my life, though.

I just discovered Pinterest, which I think is really fun.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I recommend Rian Malan’s Resident Alien because he sums up South Africa so well. He pulls no punches and he gets it right. Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie is an excellent read because I think it is important to start a businesses with a conscience and a larger purpose.  Finally, I recommend Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv because how and what we teach our children is probably more important than anything else.

What’s on your playlist?

Cesaria Evoria, Fela Kuti, Papa Wemba, Freshly Ground and lots of world music. I recently added Arcade Fire and Midway State.

If you weren’t working on Bundu Designs, what would you be doing?

After many years of being a journalist and editor, I went back and studied environmental science, specializing in coastal management. So I’d be doing something with the ocean. I’m happiest on a beach.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Watching South African rap band Die Antwoord on David Letterman recently. What a totally weird combination.

Who is your hero?

I look to different people for different things. My father was the consummate entrepreneur, so I learned from an early age the roller coaster that can be. He took us on some amazing rides.

My mother for teaching me the importance of home.

My sister for a strength that I think only women possess.

My husband for unconditional support to pursue my passions and an eye for design like no other.

The hundreds of artisans I have the privilege of working with every day. They astound me with their courage, creativity and determination to change their lives.

Should business have a conscience?

Absolutely. I think it’s very old school to be motivated purely by profit. Social entrepreneurs will change the world. Business does have to be conscious, both socially and environmentally. The world is a messy place these days; there has to be a new way of thinking and a new way of doing business.

What other social entrepreneurs should we be taking notice of?

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu launched Sole Rebels, the first ever fair trade certified footwear made in Ethiopia. Brett Beach started Madecasse Chocolate out of Madagascar and Andrew Rugasira founded Good African Coffee. Each of them tackled notoriously difficult commodities, especially out of Africa, and all of them have created awesome products with social conscience at the forefront.

Where would you love to travel to in Africa that you haven’t been to yet?

There are many, many beautiful places I’d like to visit, but I have a real fascination with Lamu, which is part of the archipelago of Kenya. I think I might just have to base Bundu Designs there.


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