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.

Today, after 16 years in the United States, Herzog’s kids are thoroughly American. When the water heater gave out one day recently at the family’s Shoreview home, she offered to bring in buckets of warm water so her kids could bathe. They balked, preferring to wait until the hot water had been restored.

Her oldest, Kwame, who was born in Ghana, is now 26 and works at Nordstrom while getting his master’s degree in physical therapy; her two younger sons, 14 and 11, have never even been to Africa. And while the kids know Mom used to carry water from the river on her head—mostly because she’s come to their classrooms to talk about her childhood—they can’t really grasp it. “As a mom, I’m American,” Herzog says. “If my kids have a sore throat, I rush them to the doctor.”

But then she’ll do something perplexing to her sons, like wash her clothes by hand despite having a washing machine. It’s a way to hold on to a piece of herself, to come to terms with the poor girl from Ghana becoming a prosperous woman in America. At least I know how to wash my own clothes. But even Herzog admits it’s a little silly. As one of her sons told her: “You can’t feed someone in Africa by starving yourself in Minnesota.”

Still, when it came to sharing the good fortune of her life here, she couldn’t shake the thought that helping her own family in Ghana wasn’t enough. She wanted to find a way to do more, to give people the sort of chance she’d been given. To empower those who lacked resources, not ambition.

She started by doing the things she thought people were supposed to do. She got involved with local nonprofit organizations. She joined a few boards. At first, she was amazed by American generosity, especially when she realized that it’s not only the wealthiest who give. “People take from their own earnings to give to others,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that.”

But as she got more involved, she started to pay attention to how Americans talk about philanthropy, especially when it comes to the developing world: how the promotional photos invariably show children in dirt, wearing rags, with stomachs distended and facial deformities. “Such a picture of despair,” she says. “It made me feel like no matter what, I couldn’t make a difference.”

She also knew it didn’t reflect reality. “I grew up poor, and I couldn’t relate to these pictures,” she says. “I didn’t see myself as hopeless. I saw myself as looking for opportunities.”

0214-OutofAfrica_S06.jpgIn 2007, at the age of 41, Herzog went back to school to get her MBA at the University of St. Thomas. In one of her classes, students were required to come up with their own entrepreneurial dream. Herzog’s first idea was fairly conventional, says her professor John McVea. But after class one day, she told McVea about a business idea she’d come up with on a trip back to Ghana, an idea she thought might be too far-fetched to mention in class: She wanted to alleviate poverty in her native country by connecting artisans there to resources here—to sell handmade Ghanaian goods in the United States. “That’s exactly what you need to do,” McVea said.

The point of the class was to teach the skills of entrepreneurship. Very few ideas actually go beyond the classroom. Herzog’s was an exception. “With the kind of vision Kate has, and the kind of smarts, we knew that she would figure out how to make things happen,” says associate professor Laura Dunham, chairwoman of the entrepreneurship program at St. Thomas.

Herzog was admitted to the business school’s incubator program, where she was given office space and guidance from professors and local entrepreneurs. A few weeks after receiving her degree in 2009, she formally registered her company: House of Talents.

As she did when she graduated from college in Ghana, Herzog decided the best approach to getting what she wanted was a direct one. So one day she walked into St. Paul’s Bibelot Shops, the iconic local retailer, where she managed to finagle five minutes with owner Roxy Freese. “I’m going to Ghana to bring back high-quality handmade goods from artisans in poor villages,” Herzog told Freese. And just like that, House of Talents had its first client.

With Bibelot on board, Herzog travelled to Ghana to search for products she could bring back to Minnesota. For two months, she “roamed around, looking for people to help.” She met a soap maker, a jewelry maker, and someone who constructed drums. She bought some of the goods but also felt compelled to keep searching. So she travelled all the way up to Zaare, some 15 hours north of Accra. There, she met a man named Joseph, who introduced her to a community of older women who made the most exquisite baskets Herzog had ever seen: Made with local grasses and dyed with colors the women made from scratch, each basket was painstakingly handcrafted and took a week to finish. It was exactly what Herzog had been searching for.

Back in the States, she soon discovered that she wasn’t the only one who appreciated the baskets’ artistry and utility. They sold—at Bibelot, at craft fairs, online. After a friend suggested that the durable baskets would be well-suited for bicycles, Herzog sent money for a bike to Ghana so her artisans could figure out how to create holes for handlebars. When she brought the prototype to Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington, the company quickly placed an order. The bike baskets eventually made their way to a shop in New York, where they caught the eye of a New York Times blogger. Online orders poured in.

The trajectory for House of Talents really changed in 2010, when Herzog was put in touch with Minneapolis entrepreneur Chris Plantan, who founded and sold successful office goods company russell+hazel. “I was so impressed by her tenacity and perseverance,” says Plantan. Now creative director for West Emory, a division of local design studio Mosquito Inc., Plantan initially offered advice and expertise. Then, last year, she offered something more.

Plantan had been tasked by retail giant Crate & Barrel with finding a spring 2014 “story” for the company to sell. Herzog’s artisan-made baskets were perfect. Thanks to the growing popularity of bike commuting, they were on-trend, and—just as important—they were part of a compelling narrative. “There’s so much competition out there for discretionary spending,” Plantan says. “You’ve got to be able to tell a story.”

With Plantan’s help, Herzog made the bike baskets “brand right” for Crate & Barrel, with neutral colors, a graphic black-and-white tag, and an artisan signature on each basket. The company loved them. The House of Talents bicycle baskets will launch this month at the retailer’s stores nationwide. “When I called my mom (in Ghana) to tell her, she was so excited, even though she doesn’t know what Crate & Barrel is,” Herzog says. “I told her, ‘Mom, it’s like Macy’s!’”

As the first entry into a national retailer, the Crate & Barrel deal is an important turning point for House of Talents, says Dunham, one of Herzog’s mentors at St. Thomas. “When she gets through this, then it’s really time to focus on the next chapter.”

For now, though, there is a lot of work to be done. House of Talents currently employs more than 1,000 artisans in seven different communities throughout Ghana and neighboring Mali. Each artisan earns $7 per basket—enough to pay for a year of health insurance in Ghana. “There’s dignity in it,” Herzog says. “Now teenage boys are making baskets for me. They see what it can do for them.” One of Herzog’s artisans is paying his way through medical school on money he made from House of Talents. Joseph, who first helped Herzog find the basket makers, oversees the network of artisans in his community. With the money he’s earned, he built his family a house. He and his wife named their daughter Kate.

Herzog goes to Ghana for a couple of months every year, where she coaches her artisans and learns about the needs in the communities where her employees live. She brings computers and books and is helping to build a library in one village.

When she’s back in Minnesota, Herzog is often at the warehouse that House of Talents occupies in St. Louis Park. African necklaces, sandals, and baskets line the shelves, and artisans’ pictures hang on the walls. Though the company opens its doors for shopping Thursday through Saturday, few know to come. Most days, it’s just Herzog unpacking baskets that arrive flat-packed from Ghana. Each one must be dunked in water and reshaped before getting tagged and sent to stores.

With orders starting to come in from other large retailers, including Anthropologie, Herzog is finally able to consider expanding locally, hiring a few employees to help with operations. She’s also in the process of setting up a nonprofit that will receive a portion of House of Talents earnings. That way, she can tend to some of her artisans’ more immediate needs, such as medical expenses and school scholarships and uniforms, without “driving my accountant crazy,” she says.

“Helping the poor is difficult,” she says. “You have to think about the consequences of your good deeds. If you continue to feed the poor, it has an impact on the local economy. You have to start at the base to change lives.”