In 2012, Melissa Moriarty, CCAS BA ’07, was living and working in Medellín, Columbia, and in need of a wedding present for her best friend—that’s when she stumbled upon a family-owned shop in the nearby small town of El Carmen. She fell in love with the gorgeous, hand-painted blue and white pottery at first sight, and the dream of Azulina was born.
Melissa saw an opportunity to bring the town’s beautiful, handcrafted wares stateside, and in May of 2013, after months of research and testing, Azulina’s first container of product was shipped to the U.S. The former communications major describes Azulina as a home goods company built upon the foundation to supporting and maintaining artisanal traditions with everything 100% artisan made in Colombia, and as she likes to say, “made with mucho amor.”
The company—which was featured in 2015’s GW Gift Guide—started with ceramic tableware and servingware, but now sells linens and prints and has plans to expand into bags as well. Melissa took some time away from her growing business to discuss what the experience has been like, reflect on her time at GW, and share some advice.
Did you ever think you would be an entrepreneur?
Yes. I always dreamed of starting something and being my own boss, I just never knew how or in what industry. I love coming up with ideas for new businesses or products, and in a place like Colombia there are opportunities everywhere you look. In the case of Azulina I was in the right place at the right time.
What is the most interesting part of your day?
The most interesting and exciting part of my day is when I am in the artisan workshop seeing new designs come out of the kiln. It doesn’t happen every day, but it’s the coolest feeling. I used to work in technology consulting on projects that I still can’t describe—frankly, I don’t know what I really contributed. I certainly didn’t feel like I was making anyone’s life better or richer. Today, I have a plate in my hands that I helped to design. I’ll also be there when I sell it. Being present during the whole value chain is really meaningful and even more so because I know how my prior job felt.
How has running an international company changed your life?
Running Azulina has totally changed my perspective on American consumerism. I now look at mass-produced clothing and products and it pains me. It hurts to know that all those dollar savings are made at the expense of someone else making unlivable wages. We Americans have so much stuff we simply don’t need. My job has also made me aware of the endangered art of craftsmanship. A hand-painted plate will always cost more than a machine-made plate, and that’s great for cheaply filling your cabinets, but over time it erases an artistic tradition because the buyers are more interested in the cheaper plate. As such, the artisans stop painting plates.
That’s what I am trying so hard to fight. I talk to people every day who think Azulina’s ceramics are too expensive, at $15 a plate, and I’m like, “this was hand-painted without a photo or stencil, hand-dipped in glaze, taken down the stairs by a guy on a 2 x 4, placed into boxes made by Claudia from down the street and shipped to the U.S. It was made by real humans who get three weeks paid vacation!” With Azulina you’re getting a plate and simultaneously investing in an artistic tradition.
In what ways, if any, did your time at GW impact your current focus?
GW was crucial in my being where I am today for two primary reasons: the first being the easy access to internships. I had a job or internship six out of the seven semesters I was on campus. Through those experiences I quickly learned what I liked and most importantly, what I didn’t like when it comes to choosing a career. Secondly, I was greatly impacted by the drive of my peers.
Until GW I had never been around so many driven, future-focused people in my life. My peers were working in the White House, scheduling informational interviews with foreign Ambassadors and acting like…working adults. I feel like I had a measurable advantage above other college graduates because I had kind of already been in the working world and knew what direction I wanted to take upon graduating.
Have you stayed connected with GW friends and classmates since graduation?
Yes! I was a member of Delta Gamma, where I held several leadership positions, and my closest friends continue to be the girls I met during my time at DG. I first came across the ceramics town because I was on the hunt for a wedding gift for my best friend, a sorority sister, the first people to purchase our ceramics were Delta Gammas and their families, and whenever I travel stateside I’m usually staying on a DG’s couch!
If you could tell “GW Junior” Melissa three things, what would they be?
1. Take every public speaking opportunity or activity you can (I’m scared of speaking in front of crowds)
2. That first job out of college can be a very important foundation and they’ll mostly pick you based on your GPA, so study harder.
3. Make an effort to maintain and nourish every meaningful relationship you have. Your network is everything.
What advice would you give alumni looking to start their own venture?
Start as soon as possible and don’t wait for everything to line up perfectly—nothing will ever line up perfectly. All that time we spend wavering is because we’re waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay to start. Let me tell you now, it’s okay to start.