For Taribba do Nascimento, designing and making handbags turned out to be the perfect side business after the birth of her son, making it a home-based business was a natural move. It was something she loved to do, and it allowed her to spend more time with her newborn. “At first, I was only designing bags and outsourced their production. When I had my son, I realized I wanted to stay home more, so figured I would rather stay home and sew bags instead,” she explains. “One day while selling at a bazaar, I met a young leather smith who was impressed with the bags that I had outsourced. I told him I could not make bags, so he took me under his wing, helped me buy my first machine, introduced me to the merchants and has been my mentor every step of the way.” Thus meme bete Ltd. was developed–and it developed into a much bigger business than at first imagined.
The name même bête comes from a St. Lucian Creole saying that means “we are all the same.” It’s a nod to Nascimento’s heritage. “I was born in Canada to St. Lucian parents, and grew up my whole life in St. Lucia. I moved to Ethiopia in 2006 as an intern working with craft women which is when I got the inspiration to start making bags. The company started in Ethiopia in 2006. Despite being born in Canada, I always refer to myself as St. Lucian,” she says. “I go back to Ethiopia maybe once a year. I just returned from a trip recently and will be creating a docu-short on my mentor. It is always great to go back and be amongst the root of my inspiration. I particularly enjoy going to the market and shopping for unique finds and embellishments to add to my bags.”
Her St. Lucian heritage and African influences are reflected in her designs. She uses different types of traditional cloths such as African wax print and madras, along with leather. Nascimento operates out of a home-based workshop in St. Lucia where each bag is handmade. She enjoys her creations. “As a Caribbean person, we are a melting pot of all cultures. African culture is one such culture that permeates our everyday lives. The vibrancy and color of African print mirrors the vibrancy and color of Caribbean life. Mixing the African print with leather to me feels like an artistic representation of Caribbean life, that is a mixture of so many cultures,” she shares.
She continues, “I also use traditional french creole fabric called madras, and make a special bag called boho bags that, at best, mirror East Indian and Asian cultures. These bags incorporate sari material, African print, Chinese silk and essentially anything I can get my hands on,” she says, and adds, “Bags are easy! Bags have no sizes; either you them or not! Unlike clothing, where it has to fit different body types and sizes, bags are generally one size fits all,” she explains.
Like most small businesses, Nascimento has had her share of business challenges. “Start up has been difficult. I feel like I am in a perpetual start-up phase. It has taken me a while to get consumers to appreciate handmade items, particularly from a smaller brand. I believe now there is a movement to support small businesses, and the benefits this has on local economies, and this paradigm shift has really been benefiting the company as of late,” she says. “My biggest business challenge is market access. St. Lucia is a very small place with an even smaller populace that I can rely on to purchase my bags. For the business to become viable, I need to access regional and international markets. This has been the most difficult for me, because then I become a little fish in a big pond. I tried to have an online store a few years ago and I failed miserably.”
Along the way, Nascimento has had to make a few business adjustments. “I closed my online store and focused heavily on the domestic market. I realized that St. Lucians abroad began taking notice of the brand and that helped me inch into the overseas market. Several local people kept buying bags to send to friends and family abroad to show what great talent we have locally. Bit by bit, this has allowed me to gain more traction overseas. I began focusing heavily on social media, trying to curate my Instagram and Facebook pages to show a more professional side while still aiming to be personal. I do not want meme bete to ever seem like an unattainable brand. I put myself out there as much as I can and I try to share my story. This helps with the marketing and helps me to connect to customers,” she says.
For now, she is focused on getting the word out. “I mainly market through social media. I also try to do donations for auctions for various charity causes which has proved to be a good marketing tool. Social media has given me a very wide reach and through it, the brand has been noticed by several online magazines,” she shares.
Nascimento says her entrepreneurial journey has been filled with lessons. “My biggest business lesson is that if there is no risk, there is no reward. If I try to play it too safe, the company will not grow. I tried to juggle two jobs, my day job and this company, and it simply was not working out. I had to make the tough decision on whether to leave a steady salary when I had two kids, student loan, credit card debt, car loan, and a mortgage and take the plunge and live in financial uncertainty. I realized though that I will succeed because I have to succeed. I cannot afford to fail… literally,” she reveals. “So, I do a lot of vision planning and, like Erykah Badu says, I ‘write stuff down with a real pen on real paper and watch things get real’. If I do not believe in myself and envision my path ahead, then my dreams will not come to fruition.”
Looking ahead, Nascimento has some definite plans. “My goals for 2016 are: to get formal training in Florence; to relaunch my online store; to upgrade my machinery; and to hire more staff,” she says. “My long-term goal is for meme bete to be a lifestyle brand! And…to be a brand heavily associated with St. Lucia; to have a state-of-the-art factory producing all sorts of bags; to have an easily recognizable brand; for Solange Knowles to wear my bag; to be featured in more international magazines; to attend the NAACP awards; to inspire people; to employ more people; to have a more dynamic philanthropic policy for the company; and to wake up everyday doing what I love. My goals are endless but, day by day, I chip at the block and one day I will achieve all that I have dreamed of!”