Teresa Hamlin of Azerbaijani Socks is interesting on so many levels that it’s hard to decide where to begin telling her story. When I first met Teresa through our mutual friend in Baku, she amazed me with her fluent Azerbaijani and the way she pronounced her name – Tereza – just like the locals do. An all American girl from a suburb of Minneapolis, for the past 14 years she has been a resident of Azerbaijan where she built a successful business. She enables women-knitters from rural areas to do what they love to do while proliferating their traditional craft and getting fair wages to become self-sustainable and to supplement their families’ income. This resonated with me. So this interview became about one woman’s remarkable journey of empowering other women, as well as a few important life and business lessons she learned along the way.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up where you are at today.
Growing up in the US, I had a stable life with two parents, one brother. I lived in my bubble until in college I met people who were open to foreign cultures. I studied Teaching English as a Second Language, (TESL), and one year got an internship in Baku, Azerbaijan at an English school run by my friend’s father. It was during those 6 weeks in 2002 that I fell in love with this country. Once I finished my degree at Bethel University in Minnesota, the school in Baku invited me again for a teaching position, and I happily obliged. This time I came to stay.
It wasn’t easy at first. As much as I loved Azerbaijan, my parents were just too worried. This being a predominantly Muslim country, they imagined there was a terrorist hiding behind every tree here! But once they visited me in my new home they saw how friendly everyone was to me and to them. With time, I learned the Azerbaijani language and started looking for other employment opportunities.
How did the idea for Azerbaijani Socks come to you?
Actually, this project started off with Lezgi socks years ago, when I was in Gusar region. (Lezgis are an ethnic group native to Northeastern Azerbaijan). After spending one summer there as a guest, I got to love Gusar so much that I didn’t want to leave. I came back later, when they were building a ski resort Shahdag, and got myself a job as an English teacher for the resort staff. A few years later, when my contract ended, my love for the place did not. I bought a house so that I could stay in Gusar. I noticed that the locals were proudly wearing handmade woolen socks with a variety of traditional patterns. A few expats pointed out to me that the patterns and the whole idea were great, even though the colors did not always seem right for their taste. They asked me to find someone who could knit those socks in more neutral colors.
A neighbor of mine happened to be a knitter, so I got her to make ten pairs. Then I saw that other people, including my Mom, liked those socks as well. The demand grew. That neighbor introduced me to another knitter, so I was able to take twenty more pairs to the US with me. The socks were popular there as well! Around that time another important lesson on customer satisfaction kicked in: many houses in America have hardwood floors which created a slipping hazard with these socks, especially for children and the elderly. To add traction and to prolong the durability of the socks, on the next batch we started sewing suede to the bottom.
Now, 3 years later, you have customers in 7 countries and a network of knitters all over Azerbaijan. You must have done something right! Tell us about your business concept and your leadership style.
Through my travels, I found that other regions of Azerbaijan have their own unique knitting patterns that are worth pursuing. In some of the places, this beautiful craft is on the brink of extinction with the younger generations lacking the incentive to keep it up. I don’t want to see knitting die out, and being a people person helps me make the right connections. I like simple people. People in villages have simple hearts, so it’s an immediate connection. People can feel if you respect their culture, and appreciate if you speak their language. It’s very important not to go with the attitude of “I am the boss”.
I am looking for three main qualities in people who join my business. 1) She has to be a talented knitter capable of producing high quality, sellable results. 2) There has to be financial need – if they didn’t knit, what other means of making a living are available to them? 3) She has to be open for a long-term working relationship. If they only see this as a business transaction, we cannot work together. I take a holistic approach to the knitters’ lives: not only I give them a lot of yarn, and give work – I listen to their issues, and encourage them all around. They trust me by letting me come to their homes and meet their families. The trust is mutual. If someone is not the right fit, I let them go gracefully.
What do you find most inspiring about the people you work with?
When I see the way women live in rural areas, it makes me think how easy everything has been in my life. Day in day out, these women do a lot of hard work: they make food from scratch, they milk cows, sweep the yard… What they do is worth supporting.
One of the most inspiring ladies I met was one of my first knitters. It was a winter time. Sitting in front of a small fire she made in a pail, she was knitting socks, at a little stall, hidden away at the edge of a local bazaar. She was very talented. As I started talking to her, I learned she was a 65-year-old Russian teacher, who used her knitting to support her family who had gotten into a big debt. Very graceful, and never complaining, she was full of quiet dignity. I offered to bring yarn to her house so that she could continue knitting from the comfort of her home. She became one of the best knitters on my team.
Do you have days when you just want to drop everything and go back to America?
Like in any job, there are times when you feel overwhelmed. When it happens to me, I remember all the people who rely on me for their income and their wellbeing. I know they won’t necessarily starve without this business, but it does help them with their needs such as supporting their children’s education, etc. I have stopped the production for a few months to focus on selling my inventory, and on developing a strategy for the next year. Some of my knitters are already asking me when we start again.
I had a Mayor of a village in Astara region of Azerbaijan, come to Baku and meet with me. He said his entire village returned to knitting after a 20-year long break they took because nobody was buying socks. If people see a potential for making money even children will start knitting, – he said. I had to visit them. I saw so much talent in those villagers: even the little kids have it in them, passed down with blood. The first round of knitting was not quite to my standards, but they asked for another chance. Who am I to take away the hope and let the craft die?
And to answer your question of whether or not I would like to go back to my life in the US, I learned something about myself in the past 14 years. I am not a girl for an average life of the American dream. Deep inside, I was always looking for something more fulfilling, more interesting. And I have found it here, in Azerbaijan.
Following Azerbaijani Socks on the social media, I felt that at times you had been dealing with an imposter’s syndrome. How did you overcome that?
There were times when I thought that in order to be a successful businesswoman you had to be a lot smarter, and have a lot more degrees. I don’t have a business degree. The world shows us what a businesswoman should look or sound like. It’s hard to block out those images. Especially in Azerbaijan, where it matters if you have a nice looking office with a secretary, glossy marketing brochures and tons of Instagram followers, or if you drive a shiny car and wear high heels. Compared to many businesses, mine doesn’t look very real. I run it from my home office, and I often drive a dirty car because of all those trips to villages. But it’s convenient for me this way and helps me keep it lean. The bottom line is that I do have a business that makes a quality product and provides jobs in rural areas where otherwise not too many opportunities exist.
What is your advice to anyone who wants to start a business?
When my contract in Shahdag ended and people asked me what I did for a living, I would jokingly tell them I was in business for Lezgi socks. People laughed and said it was not a real job or a profitable business. When I took it seriously my business grew. So, when others don’t believe in your idea, you have to believe in it. But a good idea alone is only a half of it. Make sure you are willing to get behind it and work on it. If another person is working harder and smarter on the same idea, they will be more successful. Continue to be positive about it and keep sharing your vision. Know the story behind your business. And above all, don’t only focus on making money, there are other bottom lines as well. To me, success is about helping other people. In this case, I am helping other women to also be successful.
Why should anyone choose Azerbaijani socks and where can we buy them?
There are many reasons. Our products are truly unique, are handmade by people with love for this ancient craft, and are not that expensive. They keep you warm and they make beautiful authentic presents. Beside various socks and slippers, we have other hand-knit products as well. There are three ways to shop with Azerbaijani Socks:
- In person in our Baku location, as well as at Christmas or Novruz bazaars, like a lot of expats do.
- Buy wholesale if you are a store in the US or Canada, or if you would like to become a distributor.
- And finally, through our Etsy shop online, shipped from Azerbaijan, directly to the users. Readers of the Quality In Quality Out blog get 20% off if they order following this link.