June 24, 2021 UT Alumna Establishes Online Store Supporting African Artisans

An online business started by a UT alumna does more than sell jewelry, lifestyle products and baskets. It also supports African artisans.

Image of Laura Walker and basket weavers

Laura Walker, a 2008 graduate of the college’s School of Interior Design (now Interior Architecture) is the owner and founder of Amsha, an online store that uses “design and business as a tool to educate and employ underserved artisans in Africa by providing skills training and a market connection” according to Amsha’s website.

Walker uses her skills, her compassion and her UT education to transform our world. Her mission is inspiring as she works to create jobs, promote education and improve quality of life in Africa.

Walker established Amsha after a trip to East Africa in 2008. She visited the countries of Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania, as she followed her interest in the exploration of the diversity of the continent.

“During my time in East Africa, I was struck by the level of handcraft and ingenuity of goods sold at tourist markets, as well as in everyday objects used by locals,” Walker said. “I was also interested in foreign aid and NGOs (nonprofits) operating in rural areas that appeared to be doing more harm than good. One of my biggest takeaways from design school was honing my problem-solving skills, and I knew I could use design to create jobs for underserved populations,” Walker said.

She returned to a sluggish U.S. economy, making job searches in her chosen field of interior design difficult. Ever the problem solver, Walker chose to see these challenges as opportunities, a “perfect storm” to find her way to the creation of Amsha and the many lives it impacts. She spent the next two years planning a business where she could use design to create jobs for underserved populations.

image of artisan weaving a basket

Today, Amsha employs 500 basket weavers, soapstone artisans and jewelers in Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Ghana and South Africa to produce home and lifestyle goods that celebrate traditional technique through modern design. The designs for each product are created at Amsha’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and sent to the artisans to be created by hand. The unique products are sold all across the world, in more than 300 retail stores across the U.S. and directly to consumers. By creating new jobs, Amsha and its founder are educating future generations and supporting self-sufficiency.

“Our staff and partners are equally as dedicated to improving the lives of women and artisans in the communities where we work,” she said. “We operate like one big family in many ways, and I think that has played a big role in our achievements thus far.”

While Walker’s path with her degree is perhaps unconventional, the skills she learned at UT are used every day. “There are so many aspects of my design degree that I use, from problem solving and design thinking skills, to color theory, presentation layouts and computer software. I hope this design path allows me to create real and measurable economic change in the communities where we work and that they have an intergenerational impact for the future,” Walker said.

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