Making It

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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pauline Lewis wanted to help women in developing countries. Traveling through Southeast Asia as a marketing research consultant, she'd also seen how locally made goods often sold for 10 times more in U.S. stores.

After a separate trip to Vietnam in 2004, Pauline's company, Oovoo, was born. Its name is derived from the Latin word for egg. Its informal motto: "Made for women, by women."

Operating out of Pauline's Alexandria home, the company manufactures hand-embroidered purses, backpacks and messenger bags in Vietnam and sells them in 144 stores across the United States, including 17 boutiques in the Washington area. Pauline says Oovoo supports 120 women who assemble the purses by machine in South Vietnam and another 150 to 200 who do the hand-embroidery in North Vietnam.

"When you give women money, it goes to their children, their education and food -- true necessities," says Pauline, 36, who was born in Malaysia and spent part of her childhood in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The handbags, which also sell on her Web site, range from $35 to $250, and they generated about $650,000 in sales last year. Five percent of her annual profits -- about $1,750 in 2006 -- go to women's charities in Vietnam and Northern Virginia, she says.

When she started, Pauline says, she knew nothing about purses beyond the three she owned. After quitting her marketing research job in 2004, she took a free, two-hour class on launching a business and worked with advisers at the Women's Business Center of Northern Virginia in Springfield. There she devised her business plan.

She also went to Vietnam and, in a store in Ho Chi Minh City, found the kind of handbags she'd had in mind. They were consistently well-sewn, and she liked the embroidery.

"I knew the quality was unlike anything I'd ever seen," Pauline says. The store owner, Le Thi Hong Tu, eventually agreed to help Pauline manufacture her own designs.

During her travels, Pauline also had visited a women's embroidery cooperative in a village outside Hanoi. The women gathered in one another's homes, in groups of about 10, sewing and chatting while their children played nearby.

"It's probably the most calming, peaceful experience I've ever had in my professional life," Pauline says. "I knew I was going to find some way to work with these women."

She says she pays 15 percent above the local rate for hand-embroidery plus an additional month's salary as a year-end bonus. She also provides an all-expenses-paid weekend trip for the women and their families once a year.

John Helm, co-owner of Red Orchard handcraft galleries in Bethesda and Rockville, says Pauline's bags sell out quickly. Customers are drawn to the bags' moderate prices, colorful designs and the Oovoo story included on the tags, he says.

"They're beautiful bags and for a good cause," Helm says. Pauline's sunny disposition helps, too. "She has such a happy, positive attitude," he says. "There's just good karma around Pauline's bags."

Pauline says her biggest challenge is withstanding pressure from some stores to make and sell her purses more cheaply. They could be manufactured for three times less if they were fully machine-made in China, but, she says, "that's not what we're about."

Have you found a fun, interesting or altruistic way to make a living? E-mail Katherine Shaver at shaverk@washpost.com.


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