In the world of gift shops, Ten Thousand Villages is unique.


As manager Elizabeth Russ explains, "It is a job creation program." The non-profit develops relationships with co-ops in numerous countries. These groups may contain as few as 10 or as many as 1,000 people. Once a bond is established, the organization places consistent orders for products and helps determine pricing.

"If the co-op suggests too low a price, we will offer a higher price, so they can begin building an infrastructure," Russ explains. Then the company and the artisans reach an agreement that guarantees a certain amount of orders every year. For example, Ten Thousand Villages may agree to order $100,000 worth of the merchandise over 10 years from a supplier. Half is paid for when the order is placed, and the balance when the order is filled.


"The artisans we employ would not have a job otherwise," Russ says. In addition to offering people a livable income, the company attempts to nurture mutual relationships between its employees and the creators of the products. Managers and foreign contributors are given the opportunity to travel the world and meet one another. Russ has traveled across Peru and India. Her O'Bryonville store has hosted visitors from Cambodia, Laos and Nigeria.


The products sold by the Ten Thousand Villages come from more than 100 groups in 32 different countries, spanning Africa, Asia and Latin America. With such a variety of items, a single store cannot carry all of them. That's where the shop managers play a special role in running the business. While the larger company places orders, local outlets select merchandise that would sell best in their markets. With their knowledge of individual customers and their interests, managers "also have a big say in the development of products," Russ says.


When choosing inventory, Russ keeps in mind that she has "an extremely well-educated and sophisticated market."


Located on Madison Road, the shop has been in operation since 2002 and is doing exceptionally well. "We were the top store in our region this season."


As a non-profit organization, Ten Thousand Villages employs only three managers. With 150 willing volunteers, however, they're never short of help. The mission of the company and the people she works with, are some of the many reasons that Russ enjoys her job. "Working in fair trade is a whole different world," she observes.

Russ graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in interior design. She turned a college co-op job into 30 years in the home furnishings industry, including lessons in business ownership. When she was ready for a change, she wondered what she could find that combined her love for design and her retail experience. "I found the perfect thing. What could be better?"


Ten Thousand Villages brought unexpected satisfaction, too. "I was able to get back to an idealistic view of the world and make a difference to people."