Member Spotlight: Ellen Fish, Friends of Tilonia

by Alexandra LaForge

Q: Could you briefly explain what Friends of Tilonia does and how you got involved with the organization?

Friends of Tilonia is a US nonprofit that works primarily with the Barefoot College and its affiliates in India.  We’re based in Tilonia, India, which is a small village in the desert region of Rajasthan.  Barefoot College trains the poorest of the poor to become “Barefoot” professionals and supports them in addressing basic needs for water, electricity, housing, health, education, and income within their own communities.  I work specifically with craft production.  Working with the College, Friends of Tilonia operates an online store (www.tilonia.com) that sells handcrafted home textiles, accessories and gifts produced by nearly 800 artisans.  The production, warehousing, and order fulfillment for the store are all handled in India, by the team in Tilonia. Our mission is to create a social enterprise that is sustainable and profitable, and managed by members of the local community.

I first visited Tilonia in 1982, while stationed in Delhi with the US Foreign Service.  I went back to Tilonia in 1998 as a volunteer and helped launch the first Barefoot College website.  After working on Wall Street for many years, I left three years ago to develop Tilonia.com as a social enterprise.

Q: What are the specific challenges to working in rural and emerging markets?

My capability is building business.  Much of my experience comes from working on Wall Street in new products and business development.  The process of working now with Barefoot College and Friends of Tilonia is the same in that I am continuing to identify products and services and mapping them to target markets.  I have spent a lot of time working in London with partners across the US and have found that there are challenges to global business and these are similar between developed and rural markets.  You have the same issues – crossing cultures, crossing languages, crossing time zones – regardless of what you’re doing.  Though the Barefoot College is different in terms of geography and its economic situation, the process is the same.

Q: Are there unique benefits or payoffs?

The results have more impact.  We’re working in a community where people make less than $1 a day, where the livelihood is typically subsistence farming, and where fulfilling basic needs can be a struggle.  The income from craft-making, for example, is small by US standards, but it is significant within this community.

Q: What brought you to Investors’ Circle?

I believe in the mission.  Many people in the network share my way of looking at the world.  I’ve found that the members are smart, successful business people who want to have an impact in building a sustainable future.

Q: I know that you are participating in the Selection Committee for the Community & International Development track.  Is that the area that most interests you or are you looking to explore other industries within IC’s reach?

I’m learning.  I come at business from a more operational point of view and it is really helpful to learn where others are coming from in terms of investing.  And, yes, international development is the segment that interests me most.

Q: What advice would you give to investors who are interested in international and emerging market deals but who don’t have experience in the field?

[Laughs] I think it’s a little presumptuous of me to give advice – most IC members seem to be quite sophisticated about these markets.  However, I think collectively IC members can do more in this arena.  We should put our heads together and think about the point of investing in these enterprises, which is to impact the future.  Together, we can change the space and have an impact on many types of companies – and companies in emerging markets should be included in this mix.

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