Boston Bombing Nightmare Leads Survivor to Dream Startup

Hours after the blast that ruptured an eardrum and left a 9-inch gash in one leg -- but spared her life -- Amanda North knew it was time to stop waiting and get to work on her dream company.

North, a Silicon Valley marketing specialist, traveled from Woodside, California, a year ago to cheer on her daughter at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. At 2:49 p.m. she was waiting near the finish line when the first bomb detonated about 15 feet away. Seconds later, North found herself gripping the hand of Erika Brannock, a preschool teacher from Baltimore, who lost her left leg in the explosion.

“I held onto her hand and said, ‘Look at me -- I’m not going to let you go,’” North said. “We couldn’t hear each other. It was eerie silence. I didn’t find out until later that our eardrums had been perforated.”

The tragedy was a turning point for North, 57, who is back in Boston today to again see her daughter, Lili, run the marathon and to visit with Brannock, who continues to recover. North is one of many people returning a year after the double bombing, which killed three and wounded 264 in the first deadly terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

Much is different for North and others who sought new directions after the incident a year ago. North’s hair is shorter -- she had to cut it after the right side was singed in the blast. She was also inspired to make a drastic career change, ditching her job at a communications technology company to create Artisan Connect, an online marketplace designed to help craftworkers in developing countries reach U.S. consumers.

Global View

A marketing executive with 30 years of experience at companies including Apple Inc. and Splunk Inc., North’s passion is traveling to faraway lands and purchasing indigenous items along the way. She’s been to 27 countries and returned with crafts from India, Morocco, Bolivia and elsewhere. Her wanderings have influenced her children: her daughter, a student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is fluent in Mandarin, and her son, who studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, speaks Arabic.

As much as she loves decorating her house with unique collectibles, North learned in her travels that the artisan lifestyle is in trouble. The globalization of business is pushing call centers across the world, giving more people the opportunity to work in offices. While the new jobs may provide a consistent income, they are removing artisans from the work of making handcrafted products.

Leaving Villages

“The artisans and I would talk and they’d say, ‘We may be the last generation doing this because we can’t make enough money,’” North said. The call center jobs “mean leaving villages and doing things that don’t really bring the dignity or pride that they’ve had in their work.”

North wanted to help, but she didn’t know exactly how, and she was reluctant to leave her comfortable job with benefits at AOptix Technologies Inc. for the risks of entrepreneurship. That all changed on April 15, 2013.

After the first explosion, North was surrounded by devastation on Boston’s famed Boylston Street. She saw Brannock lying a few feet away in obvious trauma. As she grabbed Brannock’s hand and sought help, the second bomb detonated nearby. North knew then that Boston was under attack and did all she could to focus on Brannock instead of the surrounding pandemonium.

Wrong Names

Unable to hear one another, Brannock thought North’s name was Joan. North thought Brannock’s name was Irene. A man told North to take off her belt so he could use it as a tourniquet on Brannock’s leg. North wrapped her jacket around the girl.

“She didn’t seemed panicked and yet urgent,” Brannock, now 30, recalled in an e-mail. “I remember we held hands so tightly they had to pull us apart when the EMT and medical workers took me away to get to the hospital.”

Lost in the mayhem was North’s daughter. She’d escaped uninjured, but was without a mobile phone while competing in the race. North’s phone was in a side pocket of the jacket that was now with Brannock. They had no way to connect.

Hours later, after North had been stitched up at the hospital and had explained her story to numerous law enforcement officials, Lili arrived, guided to the right location by a series of phone calls with family members. They embraced, and then her daughter uttered the words that would lead North down her current path.

“She said our lives will never be the same and we need to think about our passion and purpose,” North said. “I’d been waiting for that moment to do something important that mattered to me.”

New Venture

Two months later North was out of a salaried job and working on Artisan Connect from her home in Woodside. She soon raised $750,000 from investors, including Serious Change LP, a firm that backs companies focused on doing good while making money in the process. North has spent much of the past year connecting with artisan groups across the globe to reach a vast network of crafters, who are creating a wide variety of home-oriented goods.

She recently moved the company upstairs into a second-floor studio that was previously rented by local technology workers. The startup has 10 contractors, most working remotely.

On April 8, North opened Artisan Connect to the public, promoting home decor items from artisans in Latin America, India, Africa and Southeast Asia. The site features Cambodian silk pillows for $85, Bolivian Alpaca blankets for $175 and woven grass baskets from Swaziland that sell for $75.

Artisanal Goods

To show the challenges she faces in building this kind of business, North keeps a cardboard box shipped from Swaziland in southern Africa that’s plastered on top with more than 50 postage stamps.

“Stuff gets stuck in customs, diverted by typhoons,” North said. “It’s very difficult to buy this stuff as a consumer in the U.S. Most countries don’t accept credit cards so you can’t do a transaction even if you felt comfortable giving that information in these countries.”

For artisans in the U.S., there’s Etsy Inc., which serves as an EBay Inc.-style marketplace for vintage items. Artisan Connect is aiming to give U.S. consumers the opportunity to buy goods they otherwise wouldn’t have access to because the logistics are too complicated.

North is purchasing enough items at a time to justify the shipping costs. The site currently features 17 products, with a description of each and the artisan group behind it, and more goods arrive each week.

Long Road

Artisan Connect plans to generate revenue by marking up the items, a model that North says benefits the artisans because they’re reaching new customers who can spend more than buyers in their local markets.

“The whole artisanal business can really bring significant value to people in developing countries,” said Josh Mailman, managing director of Serious Change.

It will be a long road for North to evolve Artisan Connect from its current incarnation into a successful company, as e-commerce businesses are hard enough without the international hassles the startup is tackling.

North has an extensive cast of supporters that includes the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise at the Aspen Institute, a membership group of companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s West Elm that’s working to integrate artisans into global commerce.

Finish Line

Among North’s biggest emotional backers is Brannock. The two have stayed in touch as Brannock adjusts to life on a prosthetic leg while dealing with an increased dependence on friends and family for mundane activities like driving her places and carrying her books up the stairs.

North visited Brannock last June after she entered rehabilitation. They saw each other again in October, when Brannock was honored at the Baltimore Running Festival. North even went to the school where Brannock teaches. Last week, on the anniversary of the bombing, North and her kids walked with Brannock across the marathon’s finish line in the driving rain as part of a tribute event in Boston.

“I hope that I help her like she helps me,” Brannock said, by “just checking in and seeing how she is doing and giving her support.”

North will need the help today as she returns to the scene of the bombing, surrounded by spectators. She admits that in the past nine months she’s been consumed with Artisan Connect and that Boston “feels like a different world” from her perch 3,000 miles away in Silicon Valley.

“I think that the memories suddenly will come back flooding for me,” North said.

As for where she’ll be standing, North said she doesn’t anticipate being in the exact same place, “but I do intend to be near the finish line, cheering on my daughter.”

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