All the pieces of a puzzle fell together for Niki Buitenrust Hettema ’09 during a summer 2005 holiday in Nepal.
“What triggered me was the poverty. I saw young people, like me, not having a chance to support themselves or have a future,” Hettema said. “I had such an urgent feeling that I needed to do something.”
He was 17 at the time, about to start business studies at the University of Zeeland in Vlissingen, the Netherlands. He saw that a business offering opportunities to the Nepali would also offer him a laboratory for testing what he would learn in school.
But what sort of business?
It would have to be one he could run from thousands of miles away. It would have to be one that used raw materials indigenous to Nepal, with a lightweight finished product inexpensive to ship from the landlocked country.
Hettema’s ultimate conclusion: pashminas.
Pashmina refers to both the fine wool fiber—finer than cashmere—woven from the underbelly fur of a mountain goat native to the high altitudes of the Himalayas, and to the textiles made from that fiber. In fashion shorthand, “a pashmina” has come to mean a shawl woven from that wool and now popular as a wardrobe accessory.
In 2005 pashminas weren’t widely worn or known. But Hettema knew there was a market for them among discerning buyers in Europe, people who wanted pashminas of the highest quality, woven by hand by individual craftspeople, like those in his mother’s hometown of Bhaktapur.
By the time he started at the University of Zeeland, Hettema had set up the online company Royal Bhaktapur to sell fair-trade pashminas. With help from family members in Nepal and the Netherlands, he has continued to run the business, which now supports 15 to 20 households a year
“The key driver to the company’s success has been an online structure that allows me to have access to its documents and to communicate with everyone in the business from anywhere in the world,” he said.
From anywhere, including Grand Rapids. When Hettema’s program at the University of Zeeland required him to study abroad for a semester, he signed up to go to Calvin College, about which he knew nothing except that it was in a place called Michigan.
“Calvin changed my life,” he said. “When I came, my faith was on a low, hidden level. At Calvin, it began to burn. I was prepared to be strong for the spiritual and emotional attacks on the lonely road of my internship in China the following semester.”
When his internship ended in the summer of 2008, Hettema was supposed to return to the Netherlands to finish his business program. Instead he worked out an agreement with the university to finish at Calvin.
“I wanted to be at the school that gave me a new purpose,” he said.
After finishing his coursework, he landed a job as a marketing and e-commerce analyst with Steelcase in Grand Rapids. He’s now in Dublin, working as a marketing strategist for Google.
Across four countries in four years, Hettema has continued to run Royal Bhaktapur. The company sold more pashminas in December 2010 than in any previous month, even though cheap imitations from China are now flooding the market.
“You don’t mind the competition so much when you can see how your own company is helping the craftspeople,” he said. “I love helping people change their lives in a positive way.”