Photo courtesy of the Smile Network International.

Smile Network opens retail store

‘Global gifts for urban adventurers’ to fund Third World missions

By Kevyn Burger
Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alpaca mittens woven by a collective of indigenous women in Peru. Shawls edged with dramatic ostrich feathers created by Zulu tribeswomen in South Africa. Handsome weekender bags constructed of leather and cowhide by a family in Ecuador.

Such exotic accessories — and fair trade goods that empower the artisans who create them — are twin trends in the fashion world, and a Minnesota nonprofit is bringing both to a new retail outlet in the Loring Park neighborhood.

The shop, named Inspire, is a revenue-generator for Smile Network International. The store’s very existence has been made possible by donated services and products from local businesses inspired by the nonprofit’s mission.

Smile Network International provides free surgeries for children with cleft lips and palates. Since 2003, its medical teams have performed 3,000 such reconstructive operations during 75 missions on five continents.

Inspire arrives after many years of dreaming and scheming by the organization’s leaders.

“When we go on our missions, we take about a thousand pounds of medical cargo with us — we pack sutures, tubing, and supplies in our suitcases,” says Smile Network’s Executive Director Maureen Cahill. “The suitcases are empty on the way back. Our founder Kim Valentini started buying products from artisans in the countries we serve. We sold the items at fundraisers and in-home events and we got the idea that this could be a revenue generator for us, if we could only find a way to afford the right retail space.”

For the past two years, Smile Network has operated out of cramped temporary offices donated by a board member. Their search for expanded space was on when Valentini noticed an empty storefront on the ground floor of the new 40-story LPM Apartments building.

“As a nonprofit, we were priced out of a lot of spaces, but our broker thought this might work,” Cahill says.

Broker Dan Johnson of the TEGRA Group helped negotiate what Cahill calls “an excellent rate” to lease the 3,000 square foot space, working with Magellan Property Management, which owns LPM.

“They learned about what we do and they wanted to support us,” Cahill explains. “So there we were with this raw space and we wondered how we would afford the buildout.”

Johnson then brought in Gardner Builders and architecture firm Studio Hive, two businesses that he’s had longstanding relationships with, to meet with Valentini and Cahill.

A throw blanket sold at Inspire. Photo courtesy of the Smile Network International.

“Dan introduced us to Bert Westerman (Gardner Builders) and Janice Lindster (Studio Hive) and we told them what we do and how it is life altering for these children and their families. Bert had tears in his eyes and he said, we are going to make this happen.”

Together, the contractor and the design firm, along with vendors and tradesmen they brought in, donated goods, services and labor valued at $250,000.

Today, Smile Network International’s new headquarters features an open floor plan, with the brightly lit retail shop in the front and administrative offices and warehouse space directly behind it.

“I was talking to the drywall guy who was working here one day. He valued his work at $2,000. We always say that it costs $500 for each of our surgeries, and he’d heard that. He said, this will be four kids for you,” Cahill smiles. “I think he was really proud of that.”

Cahill has found that the missions, which bring advanced medicine to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children, bring out the best in people.

“There’s something magical about it. We see it over and over. When they hear what we do, people step up and say, how can I help?”

Inspire opened with little fanfare; a Grand Opening event at the space at 108 West 14th Street is planned October 27.

But already the shop is attracting customers in the dense residential neighborhood. It’s sandwiched between a Yoga Fit studio and the Lakes and Legends brewery/taproom, just adjacent to Eggy’s, a new breakfast and lunch spot.

“We had someone rush in yesterday and said, quick, I need a gift and a card,” Cahill recalls.

Prices for the fair trade apparel, accessories and home goods range from $5 to $6,500 — that’s the price for original oil paintings by a distinguished Peruvian artist.

Whatever they spend, customers can shop with an eye towards enriching the nonprofit.

“Customers love seeing where the money goes,” says Cahill, gesturing to a floor-to-ceiling portrait of a child that’s used as a divider between the retail space and her office.

“One hundred percent of our sales go to the cause, and we know that we are also economically empowering the women on the other end who create our merchandise. We never could have done this without the partnerships with these local businesses. It’s really a win-win for everybody.”