Straight from the Source

An online emporium links collectors with artisans in distant lands.

November/December 2002

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Straight from the Source

Courtesy Novica

As grade-schoolers, Andy and Roberto Milk weren’t interested in their friends’ Star Wars action figures. Their tastes ran to small onyx dogs and coconut shells tricked out with beards and noses—loot from family forays to remote marketplaces in Mexico and Peru. Their dad’s least favorite item was the collection of real frogs that were stuffed, varnished and assembled into a miniature mariachi band.

“Why would you buy that?” asks their father, Robert Milk, laughing at the memory. “Their room—before long, it looked like a mercado.”

But the boys’ penchant for collecting foreshadowed a more elegant enterprise, the web-based Founded by the brothers and their extended family in 1998, the online emporium sells colorful tapestries woven in Peru, artfully imperfect Mexican glassware and hand-stretched djembe drums from West Africa. Artwork by the chief carver for the Ashanti people, pashmina shawls from India and ornate Thai birdcages are among the thousands of other handicrafts on sale. More than a marketplace, Novica lifts rural artisans out of poverty by linking them across the Internet to consumers worldwide.

“We always had a sense of needing to do something for our people,” explains Roberto, ’95. He and Andy, ’97, are half-Peruvian and American-born. They spent late nights at Mirrielees during their Stanford years talking with friends about how to introduce new buyers to the kinds of tapestries and ceramics they’d hung on their walls. The advent of the web in the late 1990s provided the way.

Today, some 1,700 painters, ceramists, glassblowers, jewelry makers and fabricators of musical instruments and furniture sell their work through Novica. Photographs of their work are clickable worldwide, along with the artists’ biographies and portraits.

Novica expects artists to take an active role in the business and to determine their own prices. Often they need a little prodding. “We say, ‘We want you to set your price higher,’” Roberto explains. “The artist is always like, ‘Wow! Everyone is always telling us to cut corners.’”

“We also tell them, ‘You have to sign your work.’ It’s really the opposite of everything they’ve been told,” says Andy. Middlemen typically cloak the creator’s identity, set prices themselves and keep the bulk of the markup on sales. Through Novica, artists earn 10 percent to 50 percent more than local prices, and Roberto estimates that buyers pay 50 percent to 75 percent less than they would for items marked up by middlemen.

The chief executive and business brains behind Novica, Roberto majored in international relations, then worked at Prudential Securities in New York and became a chartered financial analyst. His former boss at Prudential provided seed funding and attracted other backers; he now serves as Novica’s chairman. Andy Milk, a psychology major at Stanford, taught himself programming to oversee Novica’s global logistics as chief operating officer.

Novica ships goods from hubs in Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana, India, Mexico, Peru and Thailand; the company plans to start operations in South Africa next year. At Novica’s Los Angeles headquarters, a full-time licensed customs broker oversees all shipments using a computer program designed by Andy Milk. Having gone through several years of trial and error to build its own quality control and distribution procedures, Novica has patents pending on some of its business processes.

The Milks and their co-founders started small with hubs in the countries they knew best—Peru, Mexico and Brazil—and family members created some of the first products. As the company and its reputation grew, other artists signed on. Novica employees regularly go on “sourcing missions” to locate new artists, most of whom live in rural areas. A guiding principle is to bring commerce to the artists, not compel them to move to an urban area.

One of Novica’s early finds was Ernestina Oppong Assante, who lives in the Ghanaian village of Aburi. She left an unhappy marriage several years ago with little more than an ability to craft drums and masks out of sese (white wood) and tweneboah (cedar). She sells as many as 10 drums and 10 masks each month, earning more than 20 times the average Ghanaian’s annual income of $400. Now 34 and remarried, she supports five apprentices at two different shops. Oppong Assante’s income is about average for Novica artists, Roberto says. Top sellers earn salaries that would land them squarely in the U.S. middle class; at home, they are wealthy.

Stories like these inspired National Geographic Ventures, the for-profit arm of the 114-year-old society, to invest in Novica nearly two years ago. “Daily we’re watching cultures and languages disappear from the face of the earth,” says Fran Marshall, a vice president of National Geographic Ventures. “[Novica’s] purpose is cultural sustainability. That resonates very strongly with us.”

The society now owns about 20 percent of Novica, and as part of the strategic alliance, Novica products appear three times a year in National Geographic catalogs sent to 7 million households. Discussions are under way for a joint National Geographic-Novica cable television show about the website’s artists. The site attracts about 4 million page-views a month, and the Milks expect to turn a profit in 2003.

It’s hard to imagine two people better suited to what they do than the Milk brothers. Their father, Robert, ’67, MA ’69, PhD ’80, was raised in Cuba and Mexico. He met their mother, Rosa Maria Milk, while working for the Peace Corps in her native Peru. Andy and Roberto grew up speaking fluent English and Spanish. They spent their early years on the Stanford campus while their father completed his PhD. During the summers they traveled the world with their parents, both educators. Rosa Maria frequented local markets wherever they stopped and took her children to artists’ workshops.

“Out of that, they developed a great sense of admiration and respect for people who work with their hands,” says Robert, a professor and the director of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

The brothers also developed a talent for enlisting family and friends in their enterprise. As a senior, Roberto met his future wife, Milena Nercessian, while he was spinning music as a DJ at a campus party. She was a Foothill College student from Brazil. Milena became a Novica co-founder and now serves as vice president of sourcing. Her mother, Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira, another co-founder, is president of Novica’s international operations. Fluent in six languages, de Oliveira spent 16 years as a U.N. human rights officer in war-torn countries. Milena’s brother opened the company’s Brazilian office, while relatives on the Milk side started operations in Peru. Roberto’s college roommate, co-founder José Cervantes, ’95, started and runs Novica’s Mexican hub.

The elder Robert Milk says he always expected something greater than a moneymaking operation from the enterprise. “Novica is helping people who have been exploited,” he says. “This validates it in the eyes of me and my family.”

Ann Marsh, ’88, is a writer in Los Angeles.

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