In today’s global economy, almost everything is connected in one circuitous way or another. So here’s a riddle: What connects the following things?
- a $500 pair of sunglasses for sale at a boutique in China
- an economic slump in Croatia
- a pair of white inspection gloves in Berlin
The short answer to the riddle: A woman named Nadja Tobias. Let me explain.
Tobias works at factory in Berlin, in the Quality Control Department. She controls the quality of high-end eye glasses frames, produced by a company called Mykita. Motto: "Hand Made in Berlin."
When Tobias runs her own hands along the frames and stems of the hundreds of glasses produced in this factory every day, feeling for imperfections, she wears a pair of white inspection gloves.
“So I don't leave finger prints,” she explained when I visited the factory recently. She raised a gloved finger and slid it along the stem of a pair of glasses the color of chocolate chips. “For example—here,” she said, pointing to a spot.
I tried to find it with my own finger. I couldn’t.
Tobias reassured me. Over time, she said, “You develop kind of like a micro way of looking at these small objects.”
And that micro way of looking at things—that attention to detail and quality—is part of why Tobias’s employer, Mykita, can charge $500 for a pair of sunglasses.
“That's what makes a Mykita frame a Mykita frame. Why it's worth the extra cost,” explained Chris Leicht, Mykita’s Head of Global Sales.
Of course, until recently, you couldn't sell a pair of $500 sunglasses just anywhere. These days though, Leicht has customers in countries all over the world who can pay that much. Even, say, a boutique in China. Leicht attributed that fact to the country's rising middle class.
“There is growing opportunities for us that made it possible in China for us now to be present,” Leicht said.
So that’s how the white inspection gloves in Berlin connect to the $500 pair of sunglasses in China. What about the final piece of the riddle: the economic slump in Croatia?
That brings us back to Nadja Tobias, the white gloved glasses factory worker. Tobias is originally from Croatia. She lived there until a few years ago, when she was finishing a Masters in Literature and Croatian Language. “And then,” she said. “I couldn't find a job.”
In Croatia, Tobias spent a lot of time beating herself up about being unemployed. It influenced her “everyday existential life,” she said. “I and a lot of my friend had this problem, thinking, ‘I could do more! I could work more!' And you start to blame yourself that maybe you're not doing enough.”
Like many well-educated young people in the economically depressed parts of Europe, eventually she decided to move to Germany, where she heard the economy was doing much better. “I just totally changed my life. I came with one suitcase and I said, ‘OK. Let’s do this now.’”
And it worked. Tobias found a job; first as a bar tender, then at the Mykita glasses factory.
Once she was in Germany and employed, she saw her existential problems differently. “When I came here, I realized it's not a problem in me,” Tobias said. “I realized I can do a lot. It’s not just about you; it’s about society and how society is built.” In other words, it’s about where you happen to find yourself in the global economy.