Roberto Milk, co-founder and CEO of NOVICA, will tell you that one of the things that makes him so proud of his company is that their home base of Santa Monica is also their No. 1 per capita sales location. Milk said NOVICA’s artisanal products from around the globe sell well in other locations too. So there has to be something specific to Santa Monica that makes it their largest customer base. Something special about the City.

“I’m very inspired by our support locally. Santa Monica is a place that supports individuals and art,” Milk, 41, said. “[Santa Monica] has heart and is a city known for that. It feels like a natural place to be located. It is nice to be in a city that supports the same ideals. So it is interesting that Santa Monica is our No. 1 market in the world. Not just cause we’re located here.”

NOVICA, partially owned by National Geographic, is a company that gives artisans around the world control over selling their goods. The artisans name their price and sell to buyers through NOVICA’s online, fair-trade marketplace.

Founded in 1999, NOVICA has local sourcing and direct-shipping offices in eight global regions (Peru, Brazil, Central America, Mexico, India, Thailand, Bali and West Africa) where artisans can take their goods, cutting out the middlemen who are normally involved in sales of artisans goods in these regions.

It is this idea of cutting out the middlemen, who often take advantage of the artisans, which first gave Milk the idea for NOVICA when he was a senior at Stanford.

“I was in a Portuguese class at Stanford University and the professor was telling the class how traditional artists around the world had a hard time making a living off their craft, and it was often because they were dealing with middlemen. This bothered me so much. And the professor said someone should do something about it and I actually thought they were looking at me,” Milk said.

Milk told his girlfriend, now wife, Mina Olivera, about how he wanted to do something about the problems these artisans faced. Olivera told him that he should contact her mother, Armenia Nercessian de Olivera, a United Nations Peacekeeper who worked to resolve conflicts in war-torn countries.

“I hadn’t even met Armenia yet! But Mina said she would be a good person to talk to so I called her up. And she had a career dealing with refugees in all of these countries where the artisans I was talking about were located. And she said she would be interested in going back to many of those same communities that were in a fragile state and helping them, especially women.”

Nercessian de Olivera is quoted as saying, “If Rob gets it started, I’ll consider leaving the UN to help launch NOVICA.”

Milk became an investment banker after leaving Stanford to raise funds to fulfill his dream. And when he left to start the company, Nercessian de Olivera was there with him.

“Rob is brilliant and shares the same social concern I do, said Nercessian de Olivera, now president of NOVICA. Investors and journalists were always surprised to see our partnership, especially when they knew that I was his mother-in-law. In 2004, we both were invited to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos after being nominated as Outstanding Entrepreneurs of the Year by the Schwab Foundation and there a journalist approached me to certify that we were in-laws!”

Since 1999, NOVICA has raised more than $20 million in financing from National Geographic (a 20 percent owner of the company), Scripps Ventures, World Bank and the Grassroots Business Fund, and over $60 million has been distributed to artists in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Milk stated that by the numbers, NOVICA has about 2,500 groups of artisans around the world, which represent almost 20,000 artisans total. They also employee 140 workers globally, and 15 in their Santa Monica headquarters.

NOVICA is continually trying to support their artisans, so in 2010 the company launched an Artisan Loan Program.

“This platform allows the internet community to fund small, zero-interest loans for artisans. These loans, ranging between $150 and $2,900, are repaid to lenders, who can then re-lend as many times as they want. To date, through NOVICA and our partner Kiva, customers and supporters have funded over $1,000,000 in artisan loans,” Nercessian de Olivera said.

Milk, who has four children with his wife, says one of the most exciting things about being a part of NOVICA is going out and finding the artisans, which he does often with his family.

“It’s part of the adventure,” Milk said. “It can get a little dangerous at times … Normally the middlemen don’t let artisans sign their work and it is hard to find them. And this is so unfortunate because some of our artists have pieces in museums and may not even know it or made little to no money for [the piece] … So we will find a piece and ask someone in the market who made it and they will take us to the next person and the next, till we find the artist. And once we find them it is great because we can finally give them the respect they deserve.”

For Nercessian de Olivera, a lot of her pride in NOVICA comes from seeing how it changes the lives of their artisans.

“There is a pride that comes from seeing artisans building new houses, sending their children to the university, buying cars. But more important than their economic growth, is the recognition for a work that is not just a good item, but the creation of an individual that has a face, a story, dreams.”

Nercessian de Olivera would rather refer to the company’s customers as “NOVICA supporters,” and she hopes they feel connected to the people they buy from.

“The appreciation for other cultures is the base for tolerance and understanding, and so important for world peace.”

Every piece on NOVICA’s website is 100 percent approved and authenticated by the company. To find out more about NOVICA you can visit their website at http://www.novica.com.

jennifer@www.smdp.com

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