Presented by Cole Haan
This article is part of a Lenny series on Extraordinary Women produced in partnership with Cole Haan. Read previous parts of the series here .
Rebecca van Bergen still gets sweaty palms when she thinks about budgeting — even a decade into her role as founder and executive director of Nest, a global nonprofit that helps artisan workers build profitable businesses. This makes her massive, precocious success seem like it's remotely attainable: Rebecca didn't let her initial lack of business knowledge keep her from going after a phenomenal idea.
Rebecca founded Nest eleven years ago, when she was just 24. She had received her master's degree in social work when she decided to enter a business competition with the idea for Nest. "This was before artisan was a buzzword," she tells me. "Ethical fashion didn't exist." But when she won that competition, she hit the ground running, translating what she'd studied in school — how to talk to women in trauma — into a business with sights on the fashion industry.
Through word of mouth and her entrepreneurial spirit (she wasn't afraid to ask for help, she notes), Rebecca found her way into a world she knew little about. The path wasn't always straight, but her commitment to building relationships helped her create her own definition for what it means to start a nonprofit. Now, Nest has helped develop more than 350 artisan businesses in 50 countries where homeworkers and craftspeople with skills that include Indian handloom weaving, Kenyan Maasai beading, and Mexican pottery-making can partner with luxury-fashion and home-goods brands. Through Nest, these women learn how to pivot on the skills they already have to find greater economic opportunities.
I talked to Rebecca about the unconventional ways she went about launching her nonprofit, the powerful impact commerce can have in women's lives, and more.
Molly Elizalde: How did Nest grow out of what you were studying in graduate school?
Rebecca van Bergen: I actually didn't have the idea for Nest during graduate school. I got my master's degree in social work, and most of my coursework was around working with women abroad. I thought I would practice social work in a more traditional way.
Right when I was graduating, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for microfinance, and it started being called the solution to poverty. I had just spent two years studying social work, which is more about working directly with an individual woman. Through that lens, it seemed like microfinance could be really challenging for poor women if it wasn't coupled with more comprehensive business-development training.
I was really starting to think about what a more holistic model could look like for women internationally, and how craft could be an overarching sector with which to work. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and they had a business-plan competition specifically for social enterprise that was done between the social-work school and the business school. On a whim, I had the idea for Nest and two weeks later applied for that funding and won. I won $24,000, which, eleven years ago in St. Louis, Missouri, was enough to start a business. So I did.
ME: I would love to hear about the beginning of Nest. What was it like to launch a nonprofit without a background in business?
RvB: Going back to the early days, I was only 24. I had no connections in the fashion industry whatsoever. I didn't know how to write a business plan or what financial statements were. I had studied how to talk to a woman in trauma — it's just a totally different skill set. So I called my entrepreneurial father, and he was like, "Great, send me your business plan and your financials, and I'll critique it and send it back to you." And I didn't even know how to start to do that.