Out of Africa and Into the Shopping Mall

From a warehouse in St. Louis Park, one Twin Cities woman is changing lives around the globe. One basket at a time.

Kate Herzog with one of House of Talents' baskets
Portraits by Cameron Wittig
Local entrepreneur Kate Herzog with one of her company’s baskets. Made by Ghanaian artisans, the bicycle baskets will be available at Crate and Barrel this month.

Minnesota doesn't stink. In fact, it doesn't smell like much of anything. It was 16 years ago when Kate Herzog first noticed it. In those initial breaths outside Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, she inhaled the stark contrast to her native Ghana, endlessly pungent with its blend of spicy foods, overheated sewers, and rank perspiration. The absence of strong odors is what most surprised her. “Everything here, it seemed like a clinic,” she recalls.

She had never left Africa before she made the trip, arriving here to marry a pale research development engineer from rural Minnesota. Years before, Phil Herzog had been serving in the Peace Corps in Mpraeso, a village in eastern Ghana, when he walked into Kate’s life. At the time, she was working in the library at the school where Phil was teaching. Having never seen a person with green eyes, she thought he was ill. “Kate looked at me like I was a three-legged chicken,” Phil says.

They struck up a friendship, one that deepened through the letters they exchanged after Phil went back to the United States. After 10 years of corresponding, he finally returned to Ghana—to propose.

Once in Minnesota, Kate Herzog marveled at the sights: the houses all lined up in perfect rows, the neatly trimmed grass, the cars that actually stopped at red lights. But where are the goats? she remembers thinking. She couldn’t believe animals weren’t running loose.

But it was the Minneapolis skyline that truly took her breath away. The towers of glass and concrete loomed so large—part of a world she could never have imagined when she was a little girl living in a windowless garage. “People here do very incredible things,” she said then, a phrase she repeats often today. “Crazy stuff.”

When she saw those buildings, she felt empowered—obligated, really—to accomplish something incredible in her own right and to help other people get a break like she’d been given.

House of Talents currently employs more than 1,000 artisans in seven different communities throughout Ghana and neighboring Mali.
The baskets the women make are produced with locally grown grass and dyed with colors they make from scratch. Each one takes a week to finish.
Above 5 photos courtesy of Jen Kowskie

Ghana is often described as an island of peace in West Africa. It’s a country rich in natural resources—it’s among the world’s leading producers of gold, diamonds, and cocoa—with a relatively stable government. But it is still an emerging economy, with a small sliver of concentrated wealth and vast swaths of poverty.

The poorest tend to be relegated to rural villages, places where people have little or no access to resources most Americans take for granted: transportation, health care, education. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the clothes that are donated to charity, there’s a good chance they’ll end up in Ghana. Oburoni wawu, they called it in the local dialect. It means “clothes of the dead foreigner.”

Growing up in Ghana’s capital, Accra, in the late 1960s, Herzog’s earliest memories are of living in another family’s garage. Her own family cooked their meals outside, where Herzog showered with a hose attached to the side of the house.

Herzog’s family lived in the capital so her father could attend school, but he eventually got a job in the village of Nkwatia, about 100 miles north of Accra. There, the family was better off than many of their neighbors, but their time in the city had exposed Herzog to the vast inequities of the world. It made her wonder why some families lived in big houses while others made do in a garage. “A lot of people think poor people are stupid,” Herzog says. “But so many are motivated to do well, they just need an opportunity.”

For Herzog, that opportunity came when she was 11. Eager to escape the village, where selling bread was about the best job she could aspire to, Herzog had taught herself to read with books given to her by an American grad student. Adventures of Tintin was the first book she’d ever seen with color pictures, and it became the canvas of her dreams to travel the world.

Knowing of her ambitions, a distant relative offered to pay for Herzog to go to boarding school. At the school, she was surrounded by the sort of wealth and privilege she had only gotten a glimpse of when she lived in the city before, and her ratty clothes immediately pegged her as an outsider among her fellow students, many of whom where the children of politicians and CEOs. But that sense of isolation only made her more determined. If she couldn’t compete socially, she could compete academically, and she quickly rose to the top of her class.

She had dreamed of going to college and was eventually accepted at the University of Ghana. “I was determined that this was going to be my ticket,” she says. But her plans were almost derailed before they even got underway. She got pregnant, and cultural norms in Ghana dictated that a single mother did not go to university. “I thought I was going to lose everything,” she recalls.

Her family stepped in to help. Her parents took care of her infant son, Kwame, while Herzog stayed in school, and they brought him to visit Herzog every few weeks.

After graduating, armed with nothing but her college degree, a sense of purpose, and a single decent work outfit (sewed by a friend), Herzog marched into the West Africa office of Deloitte Consulting. At the time, the firm’s employees were mostly expats from abroad or Ghanaians from elite families, but Herzog promptly convinced the office director to hire her as a business analyst. It helped that she spoke both French and English. More important was that she understood the nuances of the local culture, and she quickly became a point person on local projects.

She was a working mother who was able to buy a house for her parents, buy land for her siblings, and help put her youngest sister through college. She had beaten the odds—before she ever decided to uproot her life and move to Minnesota. She had accomplished much, and she knew she was capable of so much more.