Elisha Brown: Can you expand on Proud Mary’s slogan, “Pride, not pity”?
Harper Poe: The idea is that Proud Mary is a business-to-business relationship. A lot of people are like, “We’re empowering women.” That’s awesome, but there’s something wrong with that. When you say you’re empowering someone else, that’s insinuating that you have the power, and you’re saying, “Oh, I’ll give you some of my power.” But the artisans who are making these products—I can’t weave like that, I can’t make that embroidery—they already have a lot of power. We wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for these artists.
Brown: What are the origins of the company?
Poe: I was living in New York City a year prior to launching Proud Mary. I studied construction management in college, and I was working for a general contractor in the city. I just burned out on working nine-to-five in New York City, so I quit my job, went to South America, and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. For the first time, I saw women weaving textiles and the cultural significance of it really struck a chord with me. I got back to New York and I started taking classes in global affairs, because I was also interested in international development and reducing poverty.
It was a perfect storm of different passions coming together at one time. A friend and I started Proud Mary together, and we launched our first collection of handbags, pillows, and small accessories made in Guatemala at the end of 2008.
Brown: Who has guided you as you’ve learned about the ethical-fashion movement?
Poe: Starting out, I had no idea what I was doing and probably didn’t ask for enough help. I just knew this was my calling and I was going to form a business and figure it out. I met Elaine Bellezza. When she was 40, she was living in San Francisco as a private chef and artist. She quit those and joined the Peace Corps in Cameroon and ended up living in Mali for 15 years. She had a gallery and started working with artisans there. She’s been developing handcrafts all across West Africa, and did some work with the World Bank.
She was always super encouraging of me. Whenever there was an opportunity to bring a designer on some of these development trips, she would encourage me to apply for it. I think that she definitely challenged me and still does. She just always told me to not having a bleeding heart about this work. I definitely found that challenging sometimes. She’s like, “This is business. Go do the work. The good will come out of those business relationships.” I think about that a lot.
Brown: How did you wind up working with women in Syria and Mali?
Poe: I think Mali is the country that’s probably the closest to my heart. I went there in 2011, and fell in love with the textiles and the people and the music. I went with Elaine, who had lived there for 15 years. I started talking with her, telling her I wanted to work with textiles in Ghana. She said, “You should go to Mali—they have beautiful stuff.”