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French Alps Now Home to Interior Decor Pieces From South Africa

Charlotte Felix-Faure set up ITU Espace Design after graduating from Grenoble Ecole de Management. Her customers are surprised at how modern South African designs are!

Charlotte Felix-Faure is the girl responsible for sprucing up Grenoble's interiors with homeware creations by South African artists. The 36-year-old, who is from South Africa but lives in France, founded ITU Espace Design in 2009 and has been running the company based out of Grenoble.

Charlotte graduated from the Grenoble Ecole de Management Masters in International Business in 2007. She thinks that ITU Espace Design is just one of many businesses that can combine ethical and fair trade, responsible consumer behaviour, and fostering entrepreneurship to develop the economies of African countries.

She was taking a break from putting together an application for a PhD in Social Entrepreneurship and Strategy when we spoke with her about her inspiration for the design company and how she plans to grow it.

What made you decide to start your own business?
I was at Hewlett Packard in the Product Management department and then as Business Execution Manager after I left Grenoble but I didn’t like the ambience of the corporation. This was back in 2009 when bosses at big corporations were getting kick-backs while more junior employees were being made redundant.

Even though the economy was bad I knew I wanted to start something that I could link with home. I have a lot of contacts and a good network with associations and artists I wanted to support. I’m a believer in supporting talents and businesses instead of giving aid. So that’s what I did. I love doing what I do now: even though I don’t make much money I want to build it up

What is the most unique thing about ITU Espace Design?
The plan was to market fair trade products working directly with artists and from there see how my contributions help their own. It is really about connecting cultures and showcasing the best Southern African talent to the world. By the time I left South Africa the new government had just come into power so I felt like it was a time when I could start contributing to the country’s economy and development.

I hadn’t planned to leave forever because I believe the country needs its people and I had been feeling guilty that there was so much brain drain. My friends in managerial positions back home kept telling me how we need people and there I was sitting in France, so I thought of a way to contribute even though I wasn’t there. 

Why did you choose France as the location to open your business?
The simple reason is that my husband is French so I started it in Grenoble and I’m loving the beautiful mix of old and new. It's been running for over two years now. 

Since you’ve started ITU Espace Design, what gives you the biggest feeling of accomplishment?
I woke up on a Friday and decided to do this. By Monday afternoon I had a location for it. I booked my ticket to South Africa and from then on the entire process took six months from the decision to the launch.

I’m very happy because I select the artists I’m going to support and I follow through. I pay even before I receive delivery of the products and I know the little money I bring in is greatly appreciated. I also have a lot of products made from recycled materials and all of the products are fair trade. I get chances to go home quite often and it’s great to meet with the people I work with.

What have been some of the challenges of getting this off the ground?
When you come with something unfamiliar you have to convince people about the product. Everyone expects traditional African products to be masks and Djembe drums and Fine Art students come in and see how contemporary the designs and are like ‘Are these kinds of things made in Africa?’ I say yes, you do get creativity in Africa!

Its been word of mouth that has been keeping me going because I didn’t spend much on advertising or communications. I also had a baby while all this has been going on.

What's next for you and for ITU Espace Design?

I would like a shop or showroom in Paris and possibly have some designs for clothing adapted by me. ITU Espace Design have been invited to show at the Maison et Objet exhibition in Paris this Fall so I’m happy with the direction things are going.

Right now, I’m studying for the GMAT because I’ll be applying for a PHD in Social Entrepreneurship and Strategy. I would like to help more small businesses in Africa because I feel entrepreneurship is really needed for economic development.

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