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Weave Dreamer: Our Q&A with Tunisian Towel Entrepreneur Ellie Montazeri

Ellie Montazeri is prone to making friends in random places and being open to new experiences.  Originally from Iran, and raised in Los Angeles, Ellie has lived in New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore. She now has homes in both Los Angeles and Tunisia.

She is keeping busy bringing a traditional Tunisian product to southern California (and beyond).  Her company, Balthazar & Rose, is manufacturing and importing foutas.  Pronounced “foo-tahs” (fouta is the Arabic word for “towel”), she first encountered these local specialties twelve years back when visiting Tunisia with the man she later married (a Franco-Tunisian). They wore their foutas as sarongs on their walk to the beach, and when they arrived at the beach, they relaxed on them.  After going in the water, they dried off on them. Foutas are very absorbent, and get more absorbent with washing and use. Sand didn’t stick to them, they didn’t get heavy, they dried in about ten minutes in the sun, and when it was time to leave, they just flipped them over, brushed the sand off, and wore them right back to the house.

Ellie knows a good thing when she sees it, so she stocked up on foutas during her trips to visit Tunisia, and used them all the time, in various places, in various countries.  And she discovered more and more uses for them.  Foutas don’t take up much room in the linen closet the way terrycloth towels do.  And terrycloth wasn’t practical at all in Singapore (it was much too humid) but foutas did nicely.  They worked for baby blankets after she had kids, and were good for emergency diaper changes in the car.  They made perfect picnic blankets and outdoor tablecloths.  On a cold evening, they made convenient shawls and outdoor throws.

Finding herself in her forties, with a lot of varied experience under her belt, Ellie was trying to decide what to do in the next phase of her life.  She’d spent some more time in Tunisia with her husband and kids, where her husband, an architect passionate about environmental building, had been building an earthen (rammed earth) home for the family, and while she was there she had some time to ponder, meditate, and dream. She wanted to be entrepreneurial. She wanted to find her mission. She got back in touch with a former spiritual director of hers who helped guide her, elevating her search to a spiritual level. It had a huge impact.

When her family finished the Tunisian earthen home project, they moved back to California and she felt a change coming.  Making decisions towards finding her purpose, she felt that she was being led to start her business, despite the logically “bad” timing: a new baby, living with her parents, and a husband about to start his career in a new country. Yet she trusted her gut feelings, and the body of events that began.

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Ellie Montazeri

Date: December 10, 2015

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So you were feeling somewhat at loose ends?  I think that happens to many of us, when we’ve reached a certain age.  We’ve had kids, or we haven’t.  We’ve gone to school.  We’ve had jobs.  And we don’t want to just do the same thing for the rest of our lives; it may be time for something different.

Yes.  Maybe we used to see this moment of transition as a mid-life crisis. It’s a term we’ve all heard applied to someone in mid-life, searching again, like a curious child, for who they want to be. We question why we are here and what our mission/purpose is.  I feel like I was led to start this small business; I had guidance. A sudden desire to go to a tiny little arts center in town, where to my surprise there was an exhibit on textiles. Random conversations with strangers who would comment on the fouta over my baby stroller. Dreams about being in a room full of fabric – high up to the sky. Step by step, I decided to follow this guidance; it was magical and neat to follow the signs and see what happened.

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How did you prepare for starting an importing business, with your background in the non-profit world and international relations?

I started doing some research.  I was very confident in the product.  I was thinking, how can I use my skills?  How will my studies in international relations and my previous work in NGOs serve me on this path? How can I keep learning?  How do the dots connect?  But it all started to come together…

How so?

I met, by chance, a man named Rich Tafel, the founder and president of an organization called The Public Squared. I knew that he was into social entrepreneurship, but I didn’t know much else about him. But the thought of contacting him kept on popping up in my head.  I finally bit the bullet and wrote to him….and he wrote back immediately and was interested in my story.  There was a strong connection there. He’s one of the leading social entrepreneurship coaches in the country, a political strategist, and a reverend. A Harvard grad and a well-known gay rights advocate.

So you and Rich Tafel had a special connection?

Yes. I’m still a student. He is a teacher, but yes. I connected with him from the beginning; I was happy to have crossed his path. His clients are “world-changing leaders” and he was so accomplished. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about this, and thought I was out of my depth. During our first call I told him that I feared I’d made a mistake — that I was a housewife in Los Angeles who wanted to do good, not a leader, or someone who will change the world.  He was very quick to stop me from such a self-defeating attitude. He basically said, “You’re being guided to something, and I believe in you, and I want you to believe in yourself.”  No one had ever believed in me as intuitively.  It was life changing for me.

So he became your coach?

Yes, he helped me with three months of intensive coaching, and incredible things came forward. We began with True Purpose work, reading the books True Purpose by Tim Kelley and The Path by Lori Beth Jones.  Rich urges people to do True Purpose work before embarking on a journey, because you just don’t want to bark up the wrong tree over and over again in your life. The books are just wonderful. Full of exercises and wisdom. The belief is that your soul knows what it is here to do, what huge life lessons it is meant to learn, and how it is meant to be useful to others. Your job is to do some digging, to communicate with your soul and in that oneness, get to know yourself and your mission. As I worked with Rich, a dam broke open, as he put it. Every single thing that had ever happened in my life suddenly made perfect sense.

I think everyone has a mission, and some lucky people know what it is early on.  But most of us have to go look for it.  It’s not hidden, but it is often revealed through life lessons and through hard work.  I knew what it was like to have to force myself to get up and go to work. At the same time, I watched my husband get up with such enthusiasm and creativity and joy at going to work, enthused with the idea of designing, building, helping others in any small way, daily. He has been a real source of inspiration and a realistic example that passion, hard work, sacrifice, and usefulness to others are what truly make you joyous. Aside from trying to be a good mother and woman, I wanted to find a vocation that gave me that feeling of living a purposeful life with passion, creativity, and usefulness. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I finally feel that I am on my path.

I’ve heard of life coaches and I’ve heard of career coaches; it sounds like Rich Tafel was serving both of those roles for you.

Yes, a life coach, and social entrepreneurship/career coach, and spiritual coach.  He even made me walk one hour a day. Working from home has so many challenges: distraction and wearing 25 hats leaves very little time for self-care. Rich pointed out how important it was to try to stay healthy. Important for my body, the vessel of the soul, but also important for creativity, releasing stress, feeling good.

He’s also an incredibly pragmatic man – he had me get my numbers in order, do my five-year projection, start writing my pitch, and really focus on the finances and making this a true success story.

I had no idea that 80% of small businesses fail in the first 5 years! Eek! So he had me read The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber, which is all about how to organize your business and plan strategically in order not to fail. We did a lot of work on strategy and organization, setting goals and writing them out and meeting them. He gave me deadlines and homework and had me listen to key pod casts while walking ….my goodness, looking back I don’t know how we did so much in such little time!

I’m just so lucky to have met someone who is so grounded and pragmatic, and yet so spiritual and who sees the bigger picture too.

I do have to say that I also had precious help from my Small Business Development Center, mentors around me who are entrepreneurs, and family and friends who believed in me and in the business. The impact of every word of encouragement and each pat on the shoulder was strongly felt and appreciated.

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So you are having the foutas manufactured in Tunisia?

I am having them made in Tunisia, and importing them here to the United States.

Are they all made to your specifications?

We’re working on that!  My husband is helping me design.  They’re artisanal, so it’s really not mass production.  The color isn’t always exactly right.  For some of the foutas, the thread on the loom gets changed every four minutes.  It’s a beautiful process. Old world traditions for the modern life. I just love it. We’re getting closer to our ultimate goal of a vertical design chain.

Are they proving popular so far?

Yes, they’re beautiful, simple, and useful, and 2,000 years old.  And now trending again!  They’ve been trending in Europe for several years and are now getting more popular in the United States.  There is a beauty and genius in its simplicity and usefulness.

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And what is your price point?

I wanted to make the product affordable, give some money to an NGO called Kiva, and make a little profit.

The foutas are $35 for one type, and $45 for the other type, which is done on mid-century looms. We are also bringing in hand towels soon, along with a few other items.

It was important to make the cost accessible, to make them a gift giving item: useful gifts from afar.

That’s really very affordable.  I may have to buy some for you to use as Christmas gifts. Why did you choose Kiva to support?

I wanted to give loans to other entrepreneurs through Kiva.  When I read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about the efficacy of NGOs giving microloans across the world, I wanted to help. That book made me cry every single night – my husband started to worry when I would pick it up. Of all the NGOs mentioned in the book, Kiva was the one that just jumped out of the page at me.  It’s headquartered in California and they give 0% micro loans to entrepreneurs and artisans around the world, especially in poverty-stricken countries.

Kristof and WuDunn’s research showed me how microloans are successful, and bring people out of poverty; since they have to pay the loans back, they have to learn to manage the money.

The story goes that the people who founded Kiva were traveling in Africa and came across this word “kiva” which is Swahili for “unity.”  But it resonated with me because “kiva” is a Native American word as well, that is a sacred earthen fire pit.  Again, it reminded me of Zoroastrians and of ancient Persian traditions, as well as my husband’s passion for earthen architecture, which is now a passion of mine, too.

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So it sounds like you are doing quite a lot: helping grow a business in a country that needs business, doing some good worldwide with micro-loans, doing what makes you happy and learning new things.

Thanks Laura…and hopefully there will be more to the story very soon. My work with Rich Tafel and our social entrepreneurship model is being worked on now. It’s super exciting. But for now, yes, just giving business to Tunisia and giving 0% micro loans to small entrepreneurs and artisans in poverty-stricken countries feels great.

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Were you fearful traveling to Tunisia with some of the violence that has happened there recently?  

Our latest trip to Tunisia was in July of 2015, right after the shootings on the beach. I felt fear, yes. Stress too. But my husband said to me: look, if you are scared to go to Tunisia, then I should be scared to go to a movie here in the States, or scared to send my children to school. Horrible things happen all across the world. It was a great reminder not to let fear control us. On top of it, my husband had a small heart scare right before our trip and needed to seriously rest during our time in Tunisia. That led to my going alone on a five-day trip to various manufacturers and business appointments. I felt…brave. My seven year old daughter often talks of Mulan, Jeanne d’Arc, and Pocahontas as brave women that she’d like to be like. I’m learning about bravery right along with her, and I hope that one day she will see me as a brave woman, too.

I know that Tunisia is the only Arab Spring nation that has emerged as a democracy (so far).  Why do you think that is?

As you know, this is a huge reason to support Tunisia, and they just won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps there is less divide in the Tunisian population, fewer tribes. It is more homogeneous. Also, the politics engaged by President Bourguiba in the 1950s was a politics of education and the implication of women in society. According to my husband, this had a huge impact on society in Tunisia. There is a base that is open to democracy, the education and integration of everyone. Lastly, the proximity of Mediterranean countries and its strong exchange with tourism have made Tunisians more open to contact with others and open to new ideas and solutions. Tunisia does not have natural resources and so it has had to develop its society and economy in all sectors, from handicrafts to industry to tourism to agricultural export. It is a diversified economy.

It is still a fragile democracy and needs vigilance and untiring support.

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What’s next for you?

I am hoping to grow the businesses, take it to another level. I’d like to import on a larger scale.  I’ve been meeting amazing people, which again, feels so guided. The overwhelming majority of those people feel the energy and the excitement of Balthazar & Rose and want to help somehow. They spread the word or have pop-up parties in their homes, they introduce me to boutiques and to friends in PR. I’ve also just decided to take on a partner, a friend of 20 years, so I feel stronger and even more optimistic as a team. It’s so great to have someone to brainstorm with and talk to. Rich had encouraged me to start an unofficial Advisory Board, and I do have a great team of five on my Board, but having a partner is something else.

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What’s a book that you recommend to our readers?

What a tough question! Several! But for finding your purpose in life, I’d say three books: James Martin’s book The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, True Purpose by Tim Kelley, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (all about following the signs).

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How about a movie that everyone should watch?

It’s a Wonderful Life. I just think it’s such a beautiful lesson. My mom always said to me “all good things come with some sacrifice.” I sound like Forest Gump (and I love him by the way), but you know, even the smallest things, like not accepting a fun invitation because your family needs you, or giving of yourself and your time to be with an elderly friend. Even those small acts have a great impact. This movie just shows how the ripple effects and overall goodness that come from usefulness and unselfishness have impacts far beyond our imagination. I’m still striving to be that kind of person.

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What’s something most people don’t know about you?

The people closest to me know this – that I can be moody! Not a very elegant thing to reveal, but there you have it. Exercise and vitamin B help a lot. People who don’t know me intimately look at me and often say….you’re so calm, do you ever get upset? Or you have a peace about you… and I’m so flattered, and I love hearing it, but hey, I’m human and I have my moods. Especially when I’m hungry.

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What is your strangest phobia or superstition?

I have a lot of fears that pop up with the travel and the work that I now do, but like a goofy unrealistic phobia or superstition? I’ve luckily outgrown them. I try to start each day with a prayer of gratitude, protection, and surrender. When you work your hardest and do your best, but each day just say…I surrender to the Higher Will, you will see amazing things happen in your life. Not saying that in the mornings kind of throws me off.

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What is the best or the worst thing that has happened to you this week?

Putting up our Christmas tree last night with the kids was the best thing that happened to me this week.

The worst thing was probably hearing about more shootings, this time in California. It’s just madness.

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You have traveled extensively and lived in many different places…is there a place you’d like to recommend to our readers to visit?

Tunisia! It is a gorgeous country with such a deep, rich history: Carthage, Roman aqueducts…beautiful blue and white homes nestled in the hills of Sidi Bou Said, gorgeous beaches, and don’t even get me started on the food!

Also Japan….a magical place. I lived there for two years and let me tell you, I have never felt so peaceful, so in sync with my surroundings. Their nature, architecture, mountains, temples…Maybe I had a special connection with the culture, I don’t know, but it was two of the most rewarding years of my life. Beautiful people, culture, and of course the food as well.

Lastly, Turkey, namely Istanbul. The Haga Sophia in particular: a former church, then mosque, and now museum just connected it all for me. Walking into that space was walking into our past and at the same time seeing how beautiful and peaceful the present can be when we respect all beliefs and all people. Rumi, the Sufi mystic, spent a great amount of time in Turkey and his remains are in a city outside of Istanbul. “Come out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.” That was Haga Sophia for me.

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Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Try out Balthazar & Rose foutas and other products coming soon!

Also, if you are interested in True Purpose work or spiritual entrepreneurship, get a coach and just GO FOR IT! Be patient with yourself – it can take years and years to unfold, but start looking for your path. And I hope you find the mission you are here to fulfill and live a wonderful, joyous, purposeful life full of passion!

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All images courtesy of Balthazar & Rose

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

* Camilla Huey, artist, designer

* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

* Jibrail Nor, drummer

* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

* Patrick Smith, author and pilot

* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino