How She Got There: Rebecca van Bergen, Founder & Executive Director at Nest

Name: Rebecca van Bergen

Age: 33

Job Title and Description: Founder and Executive Director, Nest

College Name/Major: Washington University in St. Louis/Masters of Social Work

Website: www.buildanest.org

 

 

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?  

Rebecca van Bergen: There is really no such thing as a typical day at Nest, but that is something that I love about our work. Because Nest is helping to advance the global community of artisans, I am often Skyping all around the world, sometimes at crazy hours. It is always worth it when we hear our artisan business leaders on the other end. Connecting with people is a huge piece of what Nest is all about – we are committed to people, not just the products that they make. Typically, however, my day begins by kissing my son and daughter goodbye and taking off for my commute from Connecticut to Nest’s New York City offices. We are a small team, which helps to keep us creative and nimble. The constant crop of new ideas that spring from our team, keeps every day different and interesting.

 

What is the best part of your job?

RVB: Travel is an important part of the work that Nest does. Meeting with the artisan women whose lives our work is impacting is by far the best part of what I do. To see the smiles, warmth, courage, strength and passion that characterize a woman at work is to understand the universal language of craft and its power to bind us together. At the end of the day, the hopes, fears, struggles and joys of artisan women in Oaxaca, Mexico; Varanasi, India; Swaziland and even here in the USA are not so different.

 

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

​RVB: I founded Nest at just 24, right after completing my Masters in Social Work at Washington University, so I did not have a job prior, if you can believe that! After graduating, I was deciding on next steps when I realized that the perfect job for me was one I had to create myself. Over a glass of wine at my favorite wine bar, I made a list of my strengths, interests, skills and opportunities to contribute, when the idea for Nest began to take shape. At that point, I was young and single with a supportive family, so I started Nest with a shoestring budget, but an ambitious vision, and never looked back. 

 

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

​RVB: My educational background was in social work, so I had no experience working in the fashion industry. Because many of Nest’s artisan produce craft is being creatively incorporated into stunning fashion collections, I have become very embedded in this world as well. It has been eye-opening to better understand the ins and outs of the industry, particularly from the production side of things. From the idea for a garment or handbag to what actually walks down the runway or ends up on shelves, so many steps are involved and so many people’s hard work goes into making every step possible. I have an enormous appreciation for this work.

 

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

​RVB: In the very early days of Nest, I was honored to be included in St. Louis Business Journal’s 30 under 30 list of future leaders of the region. I was one of the few females, and I believe, the only nonprofit. I was honored to be at the awards ceremony, but couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable when the announcer clearly had more of an interest in the financial achievements of bankers and real estate investors than in a woman with a small nonprofit. He fumbled my bio entirely, but I accepted my award and stood for my picture. My phone rang several times the next day from other winners, all men, requesting to meet with me. I enthusiastically accepted. It was not until the third lunch that I realized I was being vetted as a potential date, not being courted by a potential supporter.

I almost turned down the last request to meet for coffee, but decided to try one last time. I was thrilled when the young man I was meeting with asked me questions about my ideas and my work. He was clearly not on a date. During that first meeting, this gentleman asked me to define, in one sentence, why I needed his support. I was new to the idea of an elevator pitch, so he sat patiently giving me pointers until I was able to articulate the importance of my work. He wrote me a check on the spot and became Nest’s earliest and most important funder. Almost single-handedly, he kept our doors open and lights on during those early start-up days. And, he stayed around to make sure that I had the confidence to grow the organization to the place it is today.

 

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable? 

​RVB: “We all need beauty as well as bread.” I heard this John Muir quote once, and it really resonated with me. It encapsulates very well our work at Nest. Yes, craft brings economic independence to the artisans we work with, but it is so much more than this – it brings beauty into the world too. This makes our lives just a little more peaceful, a little more pleasant and all the more fulfilling. With all the tragedy and ugliness in the world, beauty is needed.

 

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it? 

​RVB: When I first began Nest, we were an organization that operated as a sourcing agent and sales channel for artisan products. What I quickly learned was that this model had certain drawbacks for our artisans, largely because it fostered dependency on Nest. Our goals at Nest are geared towards artisan sustainability. For this reason, I made a rather swift strategic decision to evolve our model for artisan advancement by which Nest remains a third party entirely outside of the supply chain. This allows us to focus instead on directly providing artisans the on-the-ground tools, training and infrastructure that will allow them to become more viable entities who are able to build their own client relationships with diverse brand clients across the fashion and home industries.

 

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

​RVB: In 2011, Nest made a pledge at the Clinton Global Initiative Forum in New York to deliver training to more than 2,600 artisans globally, a goal that we are far surpassed. The moment on stage was incredibly surreal, and one that I will not soon forget. In 2015, Nest has the distinct honor of becoming a complimentary Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) member.

 

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

​RVB: As a small team, we must wear many hats at Nest. Given the global scope of our work across many different fields of craft, new challenges arise on at least a daily basis. It follows that I seek to build a team of employees who are both personally and professionally committed to the Nest mission to empower artisans through craft. I look for go-getters who are willing to take on new challenges and fill roles outside the typical job description. Most importantly, I look for kindness and compassion – these are qualities that make all Nest team members family.  

 

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations? 

​RVB: One of my favorite memories at Nest is one of our team members pulling me aside and telling me they were so amazed that I went into a meeting with a potential significant funder in Converse sneakers. It only occurred to me at that very moment (after the meeting) that I probably should have worn heels! Luckily, we got the gift but I think being genuine in all that you do is always important.

 

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