Joy McBrien, chief executive of the Minneapolis-based retailer Fair Anita, had a rough start to a sunny day in Peru in March 2020.

She was waiting for a cab in Chimbote to take her to a bus for a several-hour ride to the airport in Lima. From there, she planned to fly home after several weeks of work with a collective of Peruvian women who make jewelry and accessories from recycled, sustainable materials.

McBrien was jumped, beaten and robbed of her passport, money and phone.

McBrien was sheltered after the assault by Anita Caldez, an artisan and social worker. McBrien first worked with Caldez in 2009 to build a shelter for abused women and those shunned for their disabilities.

"I was dragged for about a block during the assault and I was shocked," McBrien said recently. "But Anita, the inspiration for Fair Anita, was with me. She's a superwoman. I stayed with her for about four weeks."

The U.S. embassy in Lima closed because of the onset of coronavirus. McBrien was unable to get a temporary passport until she banded with other Americans on a "Stranded in Peru" Facebook page and finally returned to the United States.

Her parents drove to Washington, D.C., to get her because McBrien lacked a permanent passport that would allow her to fly on to the Twin Cities.

McBrien, the resilient sort who declined corporate jobs after graduating in business from the University of Minnesota, turned the trauma into triumph for Fair Anita. It has flourished over the last 18 months. The company was founded in 2015 as a wholesaler and online-retailer created by members of 19 cooperatives in nine countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa; goods are sold at and through independent retailers.

McBrien was the keynote speaker at the 2021 annual conference of the Fair Trade Federation of more than 750 U.S. member-retailers. And this year Fair Anita will become one of less than 5% of American female-led businesses that exceeds $1 million in sales. That's up from pandemic-suppressed 2020 sales of about $650,000.

McBrien, 32, pays herself under $50,000 annually. I"I'd rather put the money back into growing Fair Anita," she said.

COVID-19 did initially hurt the the artisans who own the cooperatives that supply Fair Anita. Many switched to producing masks.

This year, McBrien decided to remit $117,000 in total mask sales since April 2020, about 10% of Fair Anita's annualized revenue, back to cooperatives in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Vietnam, Ethiopia and elsewhere. It went for food and cleaning supplies, as well as vital equipment for community health centers.

"We are doing what we are designed to do; invest and create a community of change-making women around the world," McBrien said.

And Fair Anita pays the makers in full when it places orders for goods. That's rare in a business world where big retailers take up to 120 days after delivery to pay. Fair Anita generally pays a significant income supplement to several thousand artisans, in the form of minimum wages that are two to four times the community average.

In Chimbote, dozens of women, many caring for children and past victims of domestic abuse, have been assisted by Caldez, but also through the strength, confidence and increased wealth that Fair Anita has provided.

Harini Sekar Usha, an executive at General Mills, was one of 10 Twin Cities customers who traveled for 10 days with McBrien to Peru in March 2020. She wrote a memoir about the experience called "Beads That Lead: About a Week in Peru that had Nothing to do with Macchu Picchu."

Among the stories Usha includes is one about Elena, a house cleaner raising two daughters, including one with a disability. Thanks to Fair Anita earnings, Elena can afford better care.

Usha also wrote about Maritza, a leader of the cooperative and an artisan from Chimbote who uses a wheelchair. "She fought against all odds to achieve what has become this growing women's workshop in Chimbote, which she calls 'The little workshop with the big heart,'" Usha wrote.

"She continues to … teach jewelry-making skills and nurture leadership in others," Usha added. "One of her guiding principles is to prove that [her] disability is not an excuse and we shouldn't allow prejudice to keep us down."

McBrien leads a no-frills life, somewhat in solidarity with the women who fashion stunning jewelry, purses and accessories from used goods, including bullet casings from Ethiopian wars. For years, she ran Fair Anita from a free, cramped space in an Edina church.

However, business has gotten good enough that Fair Anita moved this year to a 2,000-square-foot space in Northeast Minneapolis.