Leila Handanovic and Dina Bajric are not only best friends, they’re also business partners with a mission – to get Canadians thinking about purchasing with purpose.
The pair launched Unikati & Co. in January, an online shop featuring jewellery, scarves and more that are unikati – the Bosnian word for unique item – made by artisans from around the world, from India to Uganda.
“What humans want is to work – rather than giving charity or donating something that will help that that day, that’s not sustainable,” said Leila. “It’s going to help that day but it’s not going to help them tomorrow and it’s not necessarily going to help the next generation.”
Their belief in this helped them take the leap to open a business in an industry neither has ever worked in, but their passion is already paying off. Since launching, the pair have gotten attention from media, magazines and fashion blogs like Metro, Clin d’oeil, and HelloElo.
Sitting with them over tea and cookies, it’s hard not to be infected by their enthusiasm. Leila jumps at every twang that comes from her phone.
“Twitter,” she says smiling.
From shoppers to business owners
Leila and Dina grew up together, meeting so early as children through the Bosnian community they can barely remember life without each other. A love of travel and beautiful jewellery bound the two and as they traipsed the globe in search of ethically made gifts for loved ones, they always wondered how they could do more to bring these handicrafts to the Canadian market.
After researching fair trade organizations they could hit up for for gifts while traveling, they had the tendency to go a little overboard, coming back with 40 or 50 pieces – an assortment scarves, necklaces and bracelets.
“We would come back with suitcases – who can we give this to or give that to – and we thought wouldn’t it be great if we could do more than bring a suitcase back every time we travel?” said Dina. “Leila was the one who came up with the concept, she dreamed and dreamed about selling these beautiful, handmade goods.”
Leila interjects: “That’s only because I’m a shopaholic.”
But Leila was too risk averse to take the leap on her own.
“She’s my motivator,” said Leila, looking at Dina smiling.
It was a trip to Bosnia that Dina took that pushed them to take the next step. She found a group of women hand-making earrings and brought back as many pairs as she could to sell to the Bosnian community in Toronto. Leila fell in love with one pair and thought they were contemporary enough to sell to a broader market in Canada. Dina got in touch with the artisans and got 50 more pairs – and quickly sold them all.
“Leila said, Dina we really need to sell these and we can’t really go to our Bosnian community and try to sell these – you know this needs to be sold online,” recalls Dina. “That’s when we decided. [I said] you know what, Leila you had this dream to sell goods and you know what this dream starts today.”
Ethical, accessible product
They started by getting more product, reaching out to social enterprises like Craftworks Cambodia they had visited on a recent trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. Then they diversified by taking a chance on suppliers from India, Kenya, Rwanda and beyond. They’ve even managed to take their first trip dedicated to sourcing product to Guatemala and El Salvador this spring.
In seeking suppliers, what was most important was that organizations that follow fair trade principles, that the artisans were mostly women and located in rural communities where employment opportunities are scarce.
“The majority of the women – when you read their interviews – say they use that money to send their children to school,” said Leila. “ So not only is it sustainable for them today, but also for their children – allowing their kids opportunities that maybe they wouldn’t have.”
They also stumbled on a way to incorporate environmental sustainability into their product line, buying upcycled bags and wallets in Cambodia, bracelets made from sari scraps from India, and cuffs made from bone sourced from Uganda.
It reminded Leila of the way her parents recycled and reused goods.
“When our parents were children, there are these type of rugs where they would take old clothing and make colourful rugs out of it,” said Leila.
“These days they are selling them at ikea,” adds Dina.
While Unikati stands mostly in contrast to the Swedish furniture giant, what both brands strive for is to keep prices low, keeping product accessible.
“It’s pretty easy to find scarves that are $300 but we didn’t want to do that,” said Leila.
On the site, shoppers can find bracelets for under $10 to very special items like handmade leather bags from Pakistan selling just under the $300 mark – but most items range from $20 to $60.
“We are keeping costs quite low – some people selling product for three times as much but the idea is we would rather buy five bracelets and give someone the opportunity to sell five bracelets rather than one bracelet for a greater profit,” said Dina. “The more pieces we buy, the more people we help.”