Magalie Dresse is helping Haiti move beyond handouts

The entrepreneurial owner of Caribbean Craft has created a successful business that offers employees wages and benefits far above what is usual in Haiti.

Gary G. Yerkey
Magalie Dresse is the co-owner of Caribbean Craft, which manufactures handmade Haitian crafts for export to North American retailers. Most of her 400 or so artisans and workers live in the slums around Port-au-Prince. She provides them with one meal a day and other benefits, such as no-interest loans- almost unheard of in Haiti.

Former US President Bill Clinton says he’s proud to be her friend. Oprah Winfrey sings her praises. And the American fashion mogul Donna Karan says that her tireless work in uplifting the lives of her fellow Haitians has been extraordinary.

Magalie Dresse, born and raised in Haiti,  has nothing against receiving praise from the rich and famous, and she’s grateful for their support. But on a recent visit to the company she runs here in Port-au-PrinceCaribbean Craft, which designs and manufactures arts and crafts products for foreign markets – it was clear that her heart and soul are with the people of Haiti, especially those who have been hit hardest by decades of political instability, civil unrest, health crises, and natural disasters.

Ms. Dresse speaks quickly and easily, switching between English and French, with some Creole thrown in. She smiles often, clearly energized by her work and her workers. She describes her for-profit business as being “socially responsible,” as do others. And she welcomes support from overseas.  

But in the long run, she says, Haiti will only prosper in the fullest sense of the word when it can reduce its dependence on foreign handouts and instead attract more foreign investment.

Foreign investors have shown growing interest in Haiti, according to a June 2014 report from the US State Department. Private investment has continued to increase, reaching a 10-year high in 2013 and outpacing spending from foreign aid by more than 100 percent.

The United States supports foreign business investment in Haiti. But the State Department report has also raised red flags. It noted that the investment climate in Haiti remains “favorable” but that the favorable outlook depends on the continuation of legal and structural reforms. These reforms, it said, have been seriously hindered by years of political uncertainty.

Further reforms and improvements in the business climate are “necessary to transform this interest into meaningful investment,” the report said.

Dresse is trying to do her part. She is helping to build a prosperous Haiti by providing employment to some 400 Haitians, she says, most of whom come from slum neighborhoods in and around Port-au-Prince, the capital. Each person in Haiti who has a job, she points out, usually supports another eight to 10 who do not.

With support from foreign investors, Dresse plans to expand the design and manufacturing side of her business to other parts of the country. And she looks forward to the day when more Haitians are starting successful businesses, she says.

Speaking to a visitor at her sprawling factory – near the international airport and adjacent to one of Port-au-Prince’s many slums – she says she is also proud to be able to provide artisans and other employees with fair wages (6 out of 10 Haitians live on less than $2 a day, and 1 in 4 lives on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank).

Caribbean Craft workers earn between $13.50 and $18 a day, high wages for Haiti, the publication Latin Trade reported in 2013.

She also offers her employees benefits such as health and accident insurance, one meal a day at the on-site facility, and educational opportunities.        

Last September, for instance, 37 of her employees completed a six-month literacy-training course through PRODEV, a Haitian-led nonprofit organization. (Less than half of the adult population in Haiti is literate, according to the United Nations.)   

Support for the project was provided by the US furniture retailer West Elm and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The more than three-dozen graduates of the program now can understand and read work orders without assistance, Dresse says, and they now can help their children with their homework.

Caribbean Craft was founded by Dutch and Belgian entrepreneurs in 1990. Dresse began working for the company in 2001 after obtaining a degree from the New York University Stern School of Business. In 2006 she and her husband, Joel, bought the company, driven by a commitment to create jobs in Haiti by training unskilled – but often gifted – artisans.

At a trade show in Atlanta, they won their first major order – from the home furnishings chain HomeGoods – which soon led to accounts with other leading US retailers. Today, Caribbean Craft’s clients include West Elm, Restoration Hardware, TOMS Shoes, Williams-Sonoma, Lord & Taylor, Crate & Barrel, Wal-Mart, Anthropologie, and Urban Zen.

On Jan. 12, 2010, just as their business was taking off, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing nearly 300,000 people and leaving some 1.5 million displaced and living in camps.

Many Caribbean Craft employees were personally affected: One man lost his only daughter, born just 15 days earlier; another man’s mother was killed.

The earthquake also destroyed the factory that Dresse and her husband had built. Undaunted, they quickly moved the company’s operations into their home, turning it into a workshop and putting 20 of their employees immediately back to work filling the orders that continued to come in.  

To support their employees in their “everyday battle,” as they put it at the time, the couple also provided each of them with a daily meal and a small subsidy for transportation, programs that continue to this day.

Orders for the company’s wide range of home-decorating products – from papier-mâché animals made from recycled materials to brightly colored wall decorations crafted out of recycled metal – have been growing ever since.  

Orders come exclusively from retail and wholesale clients in the US and Canada. But plans are under way to create a Caribbean Craft retail brand that would be marketed directly to consumers.

Dresse has been recognized for her work in promoting Haitian business in a socially responsible way by organizations such as the Latin Trade Group, which presented its Innovation and Social Sustainability award to her at its annual ceremony in Miami in 2013. 

Mr. Clinton said in a video message shown at the ceremony that, in his opinion, no one was more deserving of the award than Dresse.

“Even during tough times,” he said, “your determination and hope have endured.... [Y]our entrepreneurial spirit, your leadership abilities, and your belief in your people and your products shine....

“You’re an ambassador for the promise of Haitian entrepreneurs and indeed for entrepreneurs everywhere.... I can’t wait to see what you’ll accomplish next.”

In accepting the award Dresse noted that what she plans to do next is what she has been doing all along: helping to build Haiti “from the inside out.

“I strongly believe,” she said, “that socially responsible businesses have an important role to play in the development of our societies and in the global economy....”  

While Haiti is clearly in everyone’s hearts these days, its future, she says, is ultimately in the hands of Haitians: “our hands.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are three groups selected by Universal Giving that work in Haiti and other developing countries:

Yspaniola Incorporated supports high-quality education in marginalized communities. Take action: Help educate future leaders of Haiti.

Build Change reduces losses caused by housing and school collapses due to earthquakes and typhoons. Take action: Provide families with booklets on safe construction.

Solar Household Energy Inc. promotes solar cooking to improve health, economic development, and the environment. Take action: Fund safe, clean solar ovens for Haiti.

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