Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Licensing tribal art globally, to support creativity close to home

Rebecca Hui, MCP ’17
April 24, 2019
Photo of Rebecca Hui, MCP ’17
Photo of Rebecca Hui, MCP ’17
Photo of Rebecca Hui, MCP ’17taylor weidman

In rural communities around the world, art with deep tribal roots—matrilineal tattoos, indigo scenes on clothing, stories drawn onto a mud wall—is a way of life. But it’s no way to make a living. Rebecca Hui, MCP ’17, is changing that.

As a UC Berkeley architecture student, Hui (above, center) traveled to India to study urbanization. She was powerfully affected by the disparity she saw there between urban and rural communities. A lack of access to education and jobs pushed many residents away from their homes and into urban areas, in search of opportunities those congested cities often couldn’t provide.

“I thought, why can’t we create prosperous villages as an alternative to migration?” she says.

The most significant resource for those in rural communities, Hui realized, was creative talent. She saw that villagers had artistic skills, but their creations had little monetary value in nearby markets. Convinced that wider demand existed for this art, she launched Roots Studio.

Hui and the Roots Studio team work with indigenous artists to digitally capture handmade art and license it to global brands for use in everything from fashion to home decor. Roots Studio artists earn royalties that can amount to 20 times the local value of a piece, and they have access to workshops on subjects like pattern design and financial literacy—all while preserving cultural traditions.

Roots Studio is now marking its fourth anniversary, and Hui credits MIT with helping the endeavor survive after its first year left her drained of energy and funding. Having struggled to secure grants for Roots early on, Hui decided to tap into MIT’s culture of supporting entrepreneurs with “moonshot ideas” like hers. Pursuing a master’s degree in city planning at the Institute, she learned more about the long-term impact of development initiatives, which helped her think through her approach.

By pitching the venture at competitions around MIT, Hui secured the funding to keep Roots moving forward. “I applied to everything I could,” she recalls. She also found support among fellow social entrepreneurs. “MIT and the people there gave me the courage to think I could do this,” she says.

Today, Roots Studio has a team of eight full-time employees who make connections to artists around the globe, while Hui is based in New York to pitch the art to brands. As Roots grows, she is most proud to see creatives of all types “supporting their communities in ways that go way beyond me,” she says. “It’s given me a lot of life and hope.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.