Photography by Caitlin Abrams
Every purchase at Smile Network International’s new boutique funds surgeries for kids in need.
To the delight of many Minneapolis high-rise dwellers, Loring Park has a new neighborhood boutique filled with everything from cards, journals, and candles to decorative bowls, beaded throws, and chic cowhide handbags. It’s convenient. It’s local. And yet its impact can be felt in the far off villages of West Africa and Peru.
Inspire: Global Gifts for Urban Adventures is the fully realized storefront of Smile Network International. It’s a dream 13 years in the making, says Kim Valentini, founder of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which provides reconstructive surgeries for children in developing countries born with cleft lips and palates.
In her frequent travels to the remote regions where surgeries are few and far between, Valentini discovered talented artisans making pottery, leather goods, and textiles. She started bringing back as much as she could fit in her suitcase, and sold the items at fundraisers. True, the sale comes easier when it’s helping a cause, but with Valentini’s eye for quality merchandise, people really wanted those pretty scarves and vases. Valentini quickly realized that retail could be a significant revenue stream for Smile Network—the price of one weekender bag or two purses covers the cost of a $500 cleft palate surgery.
But when you’re a nonprofit, it’s tough to find the right retail location, with good traffic and low rent. Smile Network had a small presence in the front of its North Loop offices—back before the neighborhood became a destination. Now, that space is home to Spoon and Stable, and the organization had been without a permanent home ever since. Stars aligned this spring, just east of Loring Park, where the new LPM Apartments was looking for first-floor retail to round out a mix that includes Lakes & Legends Brewing Company, YogaFit, and Eggy’s Diner. There was a raw space with floor-to-ceiling windows and room enough for retail, offices, and events. It was perfect for Smile Network, says Valentini, with just one small catch: “We had a budget of zero.”
Tegra Group, Gardner Builders, and Studio Hive stepped up, leading the effort to get the entire build-out donated—nearly $250,000, including materials and construction. Not one dollar of donor money was used. Likewise, all proceeds from the store go directly toward surgeries.
As a secondary benefit, Smile Network is bringing industry to economically disadvantaged communities by buying, and in some cases commissioning, its merchandise from artisans at fair market prices.
Smile Network’s mission has inspired local makers to get involved, too. The Inspire store features some Minnesota-made goods—Lunalux letterpress cards, Sol Organics candles, LA Grace jewelry—and a portion of proceeds goes to the cause.
“Everybody wins,” Valentini says. “Everybody benefits.”