Oration given by Jules Lubbock on 15 July 2009
Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Carry Somers shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2009
In 1991, after completing her first degree in Modern Languages, Carry Somers came to do an MA in Latin American Studies here at Essex, one of only a handful of universities in Britain far sighted enough to specialise in this vitally important region which contains 6% of the world’s population and covers an area double the size of the United States. Pursuing her dissertation on textile production in the Andes she visited Ecuador in 1991. She was horrified by the poverty she saw, and particularly by reports of how two textile co-operatives had been intimidated by the middlemen who supplied them with their raw materials, even suffering from arson attacks. She resolved to help them and after completing her MA in 1992, using £500 of her own money she supplied them with raw materials as well as with knitwear patterns based upon local cave art, even though she had no training in textile design. The products sold out in six weeks. She borrowed a further £6,000 from friends to continue the business, returned to Ecuador and got robbed of everything at gunpoint. At this point most of us would have given up and returned to work on our PhD, which she had already started. Not Carry Somers. She lived in a van in order to repay her debts and continued to develop the business, now called Pachacuti after the 15th century Inca Emperor who conquered much of the western side of the continent and whose name means, appropriately enough, “He who remakes the world”. Remember also that 1992 was the middle of the last recession.
Today the business has a turnover of about £400,000, with ten employees in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, employing some 700 textile workers and milliners in the Andean region. You can shop online and see Carry herself modelling some of their extremely elegant designs. Pachacuti’s main product, accounting for two thirds of their sales, is the Panama hat, made not in Panama but for the past 5,000 years in Ecuador. For me, one of the main benefits of writing this tribute has been to discover this source of Panamas, which I always wear in the summer. Carry’s hats are around half the price of those in the West End. Yet, the most remarkable thing is that as a Fair Trade business the craftswomen far from being exploited are paid excellent rates, provided with pensions in a country where state pensions do not exist, as well as medical benefits. In addition Pachacuti trains the next generation in these age old skills so that they do not disappear as they are in danger of doing as a result of the westernisation of clothing in Latin America. Consumers and producers all benefit.
Although the PhD was never completed Carry has co-authored a book with her mother, Leslie Somers, amongst others, who used to work for her and has now set up her own Fair Trade business. Published in 2007, just before unethical practices in commerce and politics brought the world financial system close to breakdown, it is appropriately entitled Working Ethically: Creating a Sustainable Business … Without Breaking the Bank. Written in the simplest language it sets out the stringent and logical process any organisation, including our own, government as well as business, must follow if it wishes to embed key moral values into its everyday practice. I can’t summarise it here but I will recommend it to all you graduands as you enter upon the next stage of your lives.
Chancellor, I present Carry Somers.