Prior to Michelle Kime’s first trip to Cambodia with friend and now co-owner of Imagine Goods, Aiyana Ehrman, Kime said that some of the issues she is “passionate about now were not even really on my radar. When I saw with my own eyes the aftermath of war … I began to educate myself … and my life changed. It had to.”
Imagine Goods offers beautifully handmade products both online and in some brick-and-mortar locations, partnering with, according to their website, “vulnerable and marginalized people around the world to make products that, in many cases, give them the first fair wages they’ve ever received.”
Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Ehrman enjoyed a rather unorthodox childhood.
“When I was born, my parents were part of a commune—think flower power and lots of yoga. We learned early on to color outside the lines.”
In her teens, her family was part of a church that stressed the importance of showing their faith by reaching out to other parts of the world, and so each summer she diligently raised the money to travel, visiting 14 countries before she turned 20.
“The perspective I gained from seeing global poverty at such a young age was a huge part of the reason I began to work in Cambodia,” she said.
Kime, a Lancaster County native, also grew up with travel a big part of her life, and to date has made more than 30 international trips. She met Ehrman when their husbands worked together, and the women discovered they had a love of travel in common.
“Aiyana mentioned that she had traveled once to Cambodia and was planning a return trip, and she asked if I would join her. I said yes, and we have been traveling to Cambodia and working together ever since,” said Kime.
Based on the needs they witnessed together in Cambodia, the ladies decided to form a nonprofit, working with NGOs in Cambodia and raising funds for sanitation projects, clean water wells, formula for HIV-positive infants, and other causes.
“On one of our trips, we realized the ladies who had survived trafficking and who had been educated in the trade of sewing were having a difficult time finding work that paid them a living wage,” Kime said. “So the idea of a sewing project—making simple bags and sourcing the fabrics in-country—was formed.”
Soon, tablecloths, napkins, aprons, and clothing were added as the women tested the market to see who would buy the products and would they be willing to pay for a fairly made product.
“We really wanted to have goods that were giving empowerment to the artisans, were affordable to the Western consumer, and were fun to wear and have,” Kime said.
Their Cambodian partners told Kime and Ehrman that their biggest need was sustainable employment that would provide a living wage, so they decided to close their nonprofit and a little more than two years ago incorporated as a business.
All their fabrics are purchased in the open markets of Cambodia, and they have developed personal relationships with the artisans they work with. But it is important to approach these relationships in the right way.
Because the employment center is known as a place where survivors of sex trafficking can find training and work, they are easily identifiable as survivors of sexual trauma simply by their presence at the center. They know this, and they know that any visitor, although carefully vetted, knows this about them.
“So in a different situation, I might walk in and want to introduce myself to workers, asking their names and questions about their work, trying to get to know them a little bit,” Ehrman said.
“But in this employment center, I may ask questions about the machines or the products, and comment on how beautiful the sewing work is, but I avoid the kind of personal questions that may make them uncomfortable … but I try to speak with the body language of friendliness by smiling a lot and showing respect with the sampeah—the traditional Cambodian greeting in which you hold your palms together (as if in prayer) at chest level and bow slightly.”
The production partners they work with in Cambodia are the ones who live and work there full time, finding women who need the opportunity for better work, training them, and finding access to psychological and physical health professionals.
Kime feels certain that because their business is built on their deep desire to empower the mostly female survivors of trafficking, being women has been an asset to their success.
“Primarily the artisans we are working with are women. Our main customers are female, and we generally are producing products that we ourselves want to wear and have in our homes,” Kime said.
“Honestly, most of the time, Michelle and I make our buying decisions on what we’d want in our own homes,” Ehrman added.
Ehrman and Kime visit Cambodia about three times a year, spending time in the fabric markets and meeting with their partner organizations where the artisans work. They both also spend a lot of time on the business of Imagine Goods when back home in the United States.
“Because Imagine Goods is a business with a social purpose, a good day for me might be either because we’ve had success from the business side of things or from the social-purpose side of things,” Ehrman said. “A great day is when I hear a story about a family whose life is changed because one of our artisans was empowered with living-wage employment!”
Although they currently reside in two different states (Ehrman is in Maryland while Kime is in Lancaster County, Pa.), both women are quick to acknowledge how much they enjoy working together, and that thanks to modern technology, a long-distance partnership is no problem at all.
Plus, it helps that they genuinely like and respect each other.
“We get along quite well and respect each other’s gifts and what we are ‘bringing to the table,’” Kime said. “We have the same heart in why we are doing what we are doing; we have similar personalities and have similar worldviews.
“We call ourselves ‘accidental entrepreneurs,’ and that is really true. We did not set out to start a business; we just knew we had to do something.”
“Our business is unusual for several reasons,” Ehrman said. “It has a dual purpose of providing great goods as well as empowering survivors with employment. I’ve learned that I am more of a problem solver than I realized I was … A friend of mine who is also a female business owner told me once that if you can be a problem solver, you can handle anything that comes up.”