yoko onoWhat do Gloria Steinem, Yoko Ono, and Lauren Bush have in common (besides the fact they are women)?

If you said they’re all jewelry designers, give yourself a pat on the back.

Surprised? Don’t be. They, and others, have been seduced by the idea behind New York-based startup Maiden Nation, which launched in November. The company seeks to empower women by providing a platform for them to earn an income through ethical fashion – either by partnering with a designer for charity or having their products sold directly to customers. This “trade not aid” mission enables the socially conscious, curated commerce site to showcase unknown designers, be it artisans in Peru or a local New York artist, thus giving these women exposure to a much wider audience.

The current charitable collection comes with the touchy-feely tagline: “Without imagination, nothing is possible. Nations may be bound by necessity but they are founded on dreams.” Jewelry created in collaboration between celebrities and artisans from Kenya to Guatemala are showcased and run anywhere from $20 to $3,400. Maiden Nation takes a sliver of the retail price but all other proceeds are reinvested into various women’s entrepreneurship projects, with some jewelry pieces going to a particular designer charity.  For example, money generated from Yoko Ono’s “Imagine Peace” bracelet goes to the Rainbow House in Japan, an organization to help victims of the 2011 tsunami.

Charities have long relied on the power of celebrities to help drive donations. Like my colleague Michael Carney mentioned in his recent post about Milk & Honey, the strategy of spotlighting a celebrity’s charity is a win-win for both the famous and the company – the companies get the added publicity, and the famous folks look good while backing something they believe in.

While the celebrities draw attention, the small percentage Maiden Nation receives from these sales won’t pay the bills, though. As a result, the startup has been planning an commerce component in the form of an international marketplace. It will provide a global audience for artisans and obscure local designers by purchasing jewelry and apparel and selling directly to the consumer.

The idea of combining commerce with charity is not new. Product Red has joined forces with several companies, including Gap, to develop product lines, the proceeds earmarked for the Global Fund which help fund programs, treatment and care programs that address AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Toms Shoes claims to give a pair of shoes to a child in need with every purchase. Warby Parker has the same “one for one” model but for eyewear. For Maiden Nation, it’s not about giving a tangible item or monetary donation to someone in need. It’s about empowering women in rural areas to help them earn a living as artisans and reach a global market.

Maiden Nation was founded in 2012 by artist Willa Shalit, daughter of the famously moustached film critic Gene Shalit, co-owner of New York City Web design firm Studioe9 Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, and social entrepreneur Juliana Um. Their collective vision gelled after the devastating 2010 earthquake. While Americans had good intentions – donating food, sending clothing, and getting big corporations involved through artisan skill development – their charitable giving often didn’t make it to those in need. Food ended up peddled on the black market, donated clothes were sold at street stands, and corporates skill training did little to improve lives.

Sometimes other forces were at work. A couple of years ago Brown organized a group of women to collect plastic bottles from the garbage-infested streets of Port-au-Prince. Once they collected enough, the bottles were sliced and paper mached with recycled newspapers to create bracelets for big-name retailers. Then Hurricane Tomas hit, and the group missed the shipping deadline by two weeks. Some US companies rejected the shipment, as it was a one-off, and the bracelets were useless. The women artisans were depending on future orders, which never came to feed their families. Brown says she never wanted to see the sad look on those women’s faces again. So through the Clinton Foundation she teamed up with Shalit and Um to form Maiden Nation.

This social conscious ecommerce model isn’t easy to pull off. Logistics can be a nightmare. Maiden Nation isn’t dealing with a factory in China producing thousands of goods a day; the startup is engaged with small groups of people living all over the world, mostly in rural areas. Transporting a chunk of jewelry from Afghanistan to New York can be a nightmare. Not only must they tackle the issues pertaining to importing they must deal with longer timelines, communication barriers, and design discrepancies. They also run into the classic retail difficulties with inventory control and ensuring strong enough demand to keep their business afloat.

Of course, there is the option of allowing these groups and local designers to offer their handmade goods on sites like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon, but being shoved between a cheap trinket ring and a cubic zirconia tennis bracelet may not be the best way for a brand that is based on charity to thrive.

In some ways, with Maiden Nation there’s more at stake than just a business. If it’s successful, though, it could offer these poor women a passport to their own success.