Huxley College Distinguished Alumni: Throwing their hearts into business

For Ganesh Himal’s owners, livable wages and community development are part of the bottom line
Frances Badgett
Attwood, right, chats with felters with Nepal's Association for Craft Producers, which focuses on empowering women artisans, in 2007. Courtesy photo.

Denise Attwood (’83) and Ric Conner (’85) were on a trek in Nepal 30 years ago when they bought two sweaters that changed their lives: The family who made them, Tibetan refugees, asked Attwood and Conner to help them sell sweaters in the U.S.

“Ric is a great entrepreneur and I’m a social justice nut,” says Attwood, who met Conner at a Huxley College potluck. Those two sweaters opened up a whole world of talented, hard-working craftspeople in one of the poorest regions in the world.

A few thousand sweaters later, they started Ganesh Himal Trading, LLC, to sell goods from Nepal in stores across the U.S. and Canada. Ganesh Himal Trading has since expanded into paper goods, baskets and other products.

Respect for people and the planet

When Attwood and Conner started, very few people were versed in the practice of fair trade, which encompasses respect for the environment, long-term relationships and livable wages for the producers, and financial support of the region. Today, Ganesh Himal Trading employs hundreds of Nepali and Tibetan craft producers.

“It’s only been 30 years and look at how conscious consumers are today,” Attwood says. “And it makes a huge difference. We see the change in the producers’ lives. We’ve seen families send their daughters to get masters degrees.”

Building Ganesh Himal offered another opportunity to Attwood and Conner to make a difference—the Baseri Health Clinic. On their first trek to Nepal, Attwood and Conner had met a 14-year-old girl, Sita Gurung. Eight years later in the Bangkok airport, the couple reunited with Gurung in a chance encounter.

They rekindled their friendship and discovered that Gurung had moved to Seattle. They stayed in touch and when Gurung’s mother died, Attwood and Conner worked with her to establish a health clinic in 2010 in her home village of Baseri, a rural town spread across a terraced hillside overlooking a river valley in central Nepal.

The clinic was serving an average of 10 people per day when it was destroyed in the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake. “Baseri is only 20 kilometers from the epicenter,” Attwood says.

Helping to rebuild

Attwood and Conner awoke to the news of the earthquake with a 3 a.m. phone call to their Spokane home. The couple’s 19-year-old son, Cameron Conner, took a year off from Whitman College to oversee the rebuilding of the Baseri clinic. “He did a phenomenal job,” Attwood says. Through Cameron’s efforts with local builders, the clinic was restored in a year.

As they continued to work in Nepal, Conner and Attwood noticed that families who struggled financially tended to keep their daughters home from school to save money. Disheartened, they started a fund to provide families with a stipend for education expenses. They also started a K-3 primary school in Baseri, with Cameron leading the fundraising for the project. And, after the 2015 earthquake, they began building earthquake-proof housing and providing earthquake relief in the community. Their nonprofit, the Conscious Connections Foundation, raises money for the Baseri Health Clinic, education funding, and earthquake relief.

For most non-governmental organizations, the long-term, ongoing work is the biggest challenge. Attwood and Conner have turned Ganesh Himal Trading into a very successful model of marrying humanitarian work with good business practices— at times even taking over where other NGOs have abandoned projects. And it’s that sustained presence that makes them, and Ganesh Himal Trading, special.

Frances Badgett is assistant director of Marketing and Communications for University Advancement.

Attwood, Conner and their son Cameron on a trip to Nepal. After the 2015 earthquake, Cameron took a year off school to help rebuild a rural health clinic that his family had helped build. Courtesy photo