Making the Connection

In this picture we have Karina (right) training Iryna (left) on how to best organize her shop policies. Iryna came to all five training seminars with both Karina and I and is one of the 13 current shop owners in the Eastern Rinok program.

Sustainability. It’s a word every Peace Corps volunteer knows and swears by. No development idea leaves the conception phase without being thoroughly tested for sustainability. Of course feasibility is important, but if project results are short-term and unsustainable, it’s back to the drawing board.

The Cold War meant very little to me. As a child the threat of communism and the Soviet Union were never on my radar. Since then improved relations with the former Soviet space, coupled with a fast paced, sometimes self-absorbed American culture, have made it easy for outsiders to forget that the Soviet Union even existed. But it very much did, and for those who lived through it, it’s not particularly easy to move on after 70 years of one tradition, one attitude, one mindset. This I would learn is Ukraine’s challenge: to maintain a sense of identity, while at the same time adapting to new global standards.

My service began in March 2011 with awkward dinner conversations in broken Russian with my Ukrainian host family, something every volunteers can relate to. As a Community Development volunteer, I struggled to find my niche after Swearing-In. I came to Ukraine with a unique set of skills, but these did not always line up with the needs of my host community. I was challenged to find a cause I could engross myself in and have a legitimate shot of precipitating positive change. Originally an Old Lyme native, I finally settled in northern Ukraine, along the Russian border, in a city called Sumy. A small but dense city with roughly 300,000 inhabitants, I quickly found many of the skills I thought would be helpful were not helpful at all.

So what could a Business and Economics student with ten years of Retail Management experience like myself do to help? As it turns out, a lot – write grant applications, evaluate business practices, and practice conversational English with municipal English language teachers and university students, to name a few. But that pesky word drilled home in every pre-service training session – sustainability – kept troubling me and I questioned if my efforts would have a lasting impact after my two years in Ukraine were up. These feelings led myself and a fellow volunteer, Stuart, to brainstorm ways in which we could add to Ukraine’s economic development on a micro level, while creating something that would not end when we board the plane home.

Buying and selling on the Internet has become second nature to many of us. Websites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy are places where millions of people engage in online commerce every single day. Finding the best price or the perfect gift from the comfort of our homes has never been easier and more and more people are joining in. Whereas most people in Ukraine have some form of access to the Internet, the level and understanding of virtual shopping is nowhere near what Americans have grown accustomed to. Here, Stuart and I saw an opportunity.

Over the course of a year, a small group of dedicated Ukrainians and Volunteers set about creating a training program designed specifically for Ukrainian small art and craft entrepreneurs. Together we believed that if properly trained and effectively marketed, Ukrainian artisans could successfully sell their handmade creations to people around the world on the increasingly popular Etsy.com. The concept was simple – help Ukrainians sell homemade goods online; however, getting from point A to B wasn’t so clear. Sure Ukrainians have access to and use the Internet, but what about language barriers and financial transparency? Who was going to teach them to become responsible business owners that understand American consumer culture? To answer these and other questions, we settled on a five-part training series that not only transfers skills essential for small business success, but also provides that one piece to the puzzle we’re so hell-bent on achieving: sustainability.

The Eastern Rinok project, as it became known, commenced in November 2012, with interested Ukrainians attending weekly meetings conducted in Russian or Ukrainian to learn how to become shop owners on Etsy.com. To date, 13 creative, hardworking, and dedicated Ukrainians have joined our team and opened Etsy shops, offering for sale nearly 50 authentic Ukrainian art and crafts ranging from colorful embroidery, traditional dolls, notebooks and diaries, handmade jewelry, and much more. Each team member is sponsored by a Peace Corps volunteer living in his or her community, helping the Ukrainian entrepreneur continue building their shop and serving as a language intermediary when needed. Training and registration has been arduous, but participants that stick with it to the end are always happy they did, as the skills and knowledge learned are now permanent, opening doors that were previously closed.

The hard work is beginning to pay off. Ukrainian shop owners on Etsy have sold nine handmade items over the past several months, and we’re doing what we can to continue spreading the work, both here in Ukraine and back home. We believe the Eastern Rinok project has the unique ability to address all three of Peace Corps goals in one fell swoop. While Ukrainian entrepreneurs learn valuable business skills and the nuances of Western consumerism, Americans are given the opportunity to learn more about Ukraine, its kind and generous people, and the chance to directly participate in Ukraine’s economic development. Not only does the buyer receive an authentic, high-quality product from Ukraine, but affirms the achievement of our Ukrainian vendors and tangibly helps improve their quality of life.

Please visit our Web blog easternrinok.wordpress.com for more information about the project and Peace Corps and Ukrainian team members making this dream a reality. An Etsy Team has also been created using the same name, Eastern Rinok, where all team members are listed as one community. Items sold by Eastern Rinok team members make for easy and special gifts for family and friends back home. Visit www.etsy.com and search for “Eastern Rinok” to see the products already available for sale.

The Peace Corps experience is not always about the projects one is able to accomplish, but it is more about community connection. The Eastern Rinok project has allowed me to connect while developing a truly sustainable project. Now when we all think about sustainability, I am able to showcase a note-worthy example.