Inspiration: Theresa VanderMeer & WORK+SHELTER


(Photo taken from Theresa's blog on the WORK+SHELTER website)

About a year and a half ago at my old job we had an opening for a junior position, with the idea that the person who would fill this position would work directly with me, and would eventually take on all of the day-to-day tasks on my biggest client, so I could move on towards something that would be a little more interesting to me. Managing people at that company was a nightmare, just because my workload was so intense that I didn’t have enough time to look after that and make sure my team were doing OK at the same time. In any case, Theresa VanderMeer was one of the candidates to apply for the position, and when I interviewed her I knew that I didn’t want anyone else to work with me. It wasn’t really the fact that she was obviously extremely resourceful and smart that pushed me to hire her (although they did help), but mainly because she brought up the fact that she was working with women in India to create a haven where they could live and learn how to become financially independent by learning a craft. The fact that Theresa not only had this vision in her mind, but that she also actually went out and accomplished it makes her one of the most inspiring people that I have had the chance to spend time with over the past few years. While Theresa was in India late last year putting the final touches to the first implementation of the WORK+SHELTER project she took some time out in her busy schedule to answer some of my questions (in her usual insanely meticulous and organized manner), so that I could write a piece about her on my blog. I’ve been sitting on this for a while but with all the talk about activism and Kony2012 going on in the world of social media right now, I really think it’s time to talk about one of those people who uses hard work and devotion to create something from the heart that not only REALLY helps but that is also economically beneficial to the country and the women she is helping. Women’s rights and human rights in general have come a long way over the past century, but they still have a long way to go, and it is thanks to people like Theresa that we can hope to see more changes in the future.

I was going to combine Theresa’s responses together and summarise for this piece on her, but after reading her responses several times I think they really speak for themselves, so I have posted our interview, including clickable links, below. Read through to see how Theresa is constantly working on making her dream come true, and how she is going about it. By trying to accomplish her dream she is also empowering others to do the same, and so on and so forth. I can’t repeat enough how inspiring this lady is and how inspiring she is to others. Once you have finished reading check out the WORK+SHELTER website for more information. I would love to be able to join Theresa on one of her next trips to India to volunteer in the shelter and help in other ways too.

Interview with Theresa from late 2011:

Jade: When did you first get the idea for WORK+SHELTER? What was the main trigger that made you know that you had to build this?

Theresa: When I went to India for the first time almost 5 years ago (in 2007) I desperately desired to be a positive force in the world. But before you can act you have to learn and understand. I was doing research (sponsored by the University of Michigan) on how economic empowerment impacts women’s lives in India, and an internship at a really great organization that supports craftsgroups’ access to markets (Dastkar). For me this basically meant I was spying on different women’s craftsgroups and livelihood creation projects, and meeting individual women trying to make their way in the world by producing some sort of garment, accessory, or handicraft. I interviewed women (with the help of a translator) who were raped by their husbands, widowed with no way to care for themselves or their children, or physically ravished by harsh living conditions at a very young age. I had never before faced this sort of suffering.

In 2008 to raise money to return to India I started selling hand-woven silk scarves from one of Dastkar’s craftsgroups to fellow UM students. It resulted in generating a pretty significant amount of income in a short period of time – so I decided to move forward with selling products from other eco/people friendly groups. Further, it felt good to be able to provide a market link to the craftgroup in India who struggle with finding buyers for their goods.

I then did an internship at Amnesty International New Delhi, but still felt like I wasn’t really making a positive impact in the world. So many women had shared their suffering with me, but still I wasn’t doing anything direct in return. It began to really bother me. The idea for WORK+SHELTER began to form. I hadn’t seen or heard of any organizations that offered women both shelter and a livelihood. Also, from my experience working with Dastkar and selling products abroad, I was fairly confident that we could create a product that people would be interested in buying abroad.

Jade: Tell me more about The Lotus Odyssey and what the inspiration was and what your goals are.

Theresa: The Lotus Odyssey is an eco/people friendly social enterprise (i.e. business) that exports products from various non-profits, women-owned business, fair-trade certified organizations, etc (including W+S). The goal is to positively impact producers in India who don’t have access to markets, and then use any profits to fund the operations of WORK+SHELTER.

My goals for The Lotus Odyssey as a brand are to sell super gorgeous high-quality products that people want to buy because they are attractive, not just because they are fair-trade. You get a lot of organizations that have the export arm and the social missions, but sell products that are very “Indian.” (e.g. http://www.rupalee.com/). That’s fine if the Western consumer wants to wear Indian-style clothes, but we’re not looking to sell just to that person. My goal is to produce beautiful pieces that stylish, beautiful women across the world will want to wear. I envision it being something of a marriage between Anthropologie and People Tree (Fair-trade British company http://www.peopletree.co.uk/).

We’re doing a super-big trade show at the Javits Center in August, so that will be a really big launch for us. It’s a significant investment, so my goal is to really take The Lotus Odyssey products lines to the next level, and maybe even collaborate with people in the fashion scene in NYC.

Jade: What are your current aims for W+S?

Theresa: My immediate goal for W+S is to make the Delhi branch sustainable. We have to. It’s critical. Within the next four to five months we need to be able to sell enough products to be able to support ourselves from now on, or we’re going to run out of money be forced to close. We need to sell about $2,500 a month worth of product to do that. So the basic goal is to make products that people love and want to purchase so that we can keep the women employed.

Also, as an organization we want to source raw materials that are good for the environment and be a positive influence in our community. And we want to expand capacity building and educational initiatives for the women – we’re always looking to improve their lives.

Jade: What are your future aims for W+S?

Theresa: The big dream is for W+S is to expand within India and eventually around the world. We’re in the preliminary process of brainstorming about where that would be. I really want to open another shelter in Fall 2012, and one every year for the next 5 years. That’s my goal.

Further, I want to really see the W+S scalable model be realized. See below:

The model above includes all of the key component of our operation:
W+S: That’s me and the management team
Markets: Whoever buys our products
Stakeholders: The women
NGO Partner: ???

So the NGO Partner may come as a surprise to you. Who are they? What do they have to do with us? Can’t we operate without them?

Here’s an example. Say that there is a need for HIV+ positive women to have shelter and work. But it’s a struggle for W+S to find these women, and to understand their specific health needs. We could team up with an NGO that is already working with HIV+ women, and ask them to identify candidates who would be a good fit for W+S. We could also rely on that NGO to provide us guidance on how to support the HIV+ population effectively.

Or, what if there is a need to support women with domestic abuse issues in South India? I barely speak Hindi, and most people I know are from North India. How can we expand if we don’t know anything about that region, or speak their local language, or have an expert on abuse issues on staff? The way we can do that is by teaming up with an NGO who is already working with that community, but doesn’t necessarily have the resources to provide them with work or a place to stay.

The thinking is that in order for us to be able to scale quickly and effectively, we need to team up with NGOs already doing work in India who don’t have the resources to do what we’re doing – which is offer a full-scale WORK+SHELTER program. In sum, benefits of teaming up with another NGO are as follows:

- increases our ability to quickly and effectively scale

- allows us to work with diverse populations all over India (and potentially someday outside) since different communities have different needs

- streamlines our process - we do what we do best, the W+S component

- allows/encourages buy-in from local stakeholders (local NGOs)

- means we don’t undermine or replicate existing organizations

- for organizations that are not full service we supplement what they’re already doing and strengthen their role within the community

- the model is adaptable and mobile, so we can get involved during times of disaster recovery

·

I would also like to see the additional shelters fit into an integrated supply chain system. So if, for example, we could source raw material from East India, and spin it into a usable thread in nearby Varanasi (on the way to Delhi), and then knit, weave, or finalize the thread into a finished product in Delhi, then we could create a series of micro-enterprises that efficiently work together.

That’s my hope anyway – does that make sense?

Jade: You recently left a stable corporate job in order to work fully on W+S. What are the positives and negatives of this move? Basically I want to be able to portray the human side of you too, so please don’t be afraid to tell your fears too!

Theresa: Positives – Definitely a sense of confidence and agency. Even more, freedom, which I cherish. My work is my life – I love my work, so I love my life - there is no separation (though that can be a negative as well). And of course the feeling that I really have made an impact in at least a few lives is the number one plus. There are so many positives – I would have to write a book. J

Negatives – To be honest, the number one thing that bothers me about the departure from my job is being alone. As I write this, my apartment is totally silent except for a creepy, howling wind. I largely live inside my head. I really miss the community that an office offers.

Also, you never forget that everything is on you. At a corporate job we may like to think that we’re needed or indispensable, but really we’re all replaceable. For W+S and The Lotus Odyssey, everything is on me. These projects will die if I can no longer forge ahead with them, and if I don’t act or push forward initiatives, nothing will get done. It can feel overwhelming.

The other negative of course is lack of income. It’s a sacrifice and a struggle.

Even more, since my previous job gave me exposure to the corporate world and technology, I was always learning – it was really good for me in a lot of ways. So stepping away from that can be a little scary – I no longer passively learn because a new project came my way that utilized X, Y, and X technologies. I have to actively pursue things on my own.

Jade: Your main focus is India, however, many countries would benefit from the same type of development for women. Do you have ideas for expansion, or maybe joining hands with other organizations?

Theresa: Right – I touched a little bit on this above. I really do think the W+S model is scalable on an international level – we just have to find the right partnerships, and be able to fund the ventures.

Jade: People probably call you an idealist (I get the same all the time), but without living with hope I feel that we cannot expect anything to change. Can you explain in more detail first why India, and then why you are so passionate about helping women in this way?

Theresa: First, I have a really deep-rooted feeling that I am taking up too much space in this world, and that the pleasures of my life and much of the developed world rest on the backs of the poor in the Global South. I think a lot of what I do/try to do is catalyzed by this feeling of debt. It also makes me feel like I’m never doing enough. The more I have, the more I owe. And really, any impact I’ve had so far is so miniscule that it doesn’t really relieve any of that indebted feeling. All the work I put into planning WORK+SHELTER was necessary, but planning doesn’t help anyone. It will only be helpful when we’re actually able to provide a sustainable route for women to be able take care of themselves and their community. That real impact part has just started.

Growing up in the mid-west my world was pretty small. At the time my home town had one red light. My father worked in a neighboring town, and we travelled a little bit (to Florida, to other places in the mid-west), but I was pretty sheltered, mostly because everyone else I knew was too. But I did have the opportunity to go to Peru with a small group of students while in middle school. I can’t really tell you why I was so motivated at that age, 13, but I saved my baby-sitting for over a year and participated in countless other fundraisers in order to pay my way. The 9 day trip to Peru, where I first saw poverty, really changed me. I suddenly understood that the world was infinitely bigger than I had imagined.

Back then everyone told me, “This week-long trip is a once-in-a-lifetime” experience for you. You are so lucky.” I knew I was lucky, but I didn’t want to accept that this would be the one big adventure of my life. So, I guess the other big thing that happened is that this deep wanderlust rooted and settled into the core of my being. I went anywhere I could afford, with anyone.

So now, why India? On a very practical level, it’s India because this is where I have experience, knowledge, resources. The reason I have those things is because a philanthropist couple funded a program at the University of Michigan for students like me to go to India. Like I said, I was desperate to go anywhere. They gave 5 undergraduate grants per year, totaling around $3,000 each. At the time there was no way I could afford a trip like that on my own. I largely supported myself in school with student loans and part time work, so I just didn’t have the money to go anywhere. Hearing about the grant opportunity I went crazy coming up with ideas, doing research, picking people’s brains. At this time I knew nothing about India. I was interested in women’s issues and microfinance was really on my mind at the time, having recently discovered Mohammad Yunus. So I wrote a grant proposal to study how economic empowerment changed women’s lives socially in India. I spent a lot of time refining my proposal, and ended up being one of the lucky few to get the grant. That’s how I first ended up in India.

But why women? I don’t know why I’m drawn to this work – being a woman, maybe I just am? I do think it’s interesting that there is no country in this entire world where women are equal with men. Think about it – if women were equal to men would rape exist? If women were equal to men, then why are reproductive choices still constrained everywhere? If women were equal to men then would the majority of the poorest people in this world belong to one gender? I’m also really interested in economics, and capitalism (to be kind of broad about it) so I really like looking at the intersections between poverty and inequality. My understanding is that men and women have equal capacities but because women give birth and tend to spend more time raising children they have less access to the public sphere, where income is generated and wealth is acquired. Thus, because they have less access to economic resources they have less power – men have more resources – men have more power. It’s pretty simple, and that’s why the core belief of W+S is economic empowerment (but it a way that makes sense for women).

We’re already seeing impact at the New Delhi shelter. One local woman found out that we had work available, and just started showing up to knit. We told her we weren’t sure if there was a position for her – she lived in a rental accommodation nearby and her husband was making enough to pay for the rent of their small one room apartment – I had been looking for women who didn’t have the support of family. She has a great personality and was really motivated so we decided to bring her on anyway. Only after we hired her and she had been working for many weeks did we find out that her husband actually regularly beats her, and now that she has an income she feels strong enough to tell him that if he tries to beat her again, she will leave him. That’s her choice, and I’m so happy that we can provide her with the work that allows her to make it.

Jade: Do you have investors? How have you gone about fundraising in the past? Tell some positive stories and some pitfalls about your experiences!

Theresa: We don’t have official investors for WORK+SHELTER. Start up $ for The Lotus Odyssey has thus far come from myself or from my partner and close friend Jorel VanOs. We are, however, trying to make ourselves investor-ready, though I am hesitant to give away any control of the company – we would need the right match to move forward with traditional investment opportunities.

A large portion of our fundraising for WORK+SHELTER has come through a Kickstarter campaign that we did last fall. We also did a benefit show, where bands played for free at The Pyramid Scheme, a venue in my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the cover charge was donated to us. Now that we’ve successfully launched our pilot project, W+S New Delhi, and been good stewards of the money that was given to us, I hope it will be easier for us to find funding in the future either via crowdsourcing, sales of our products, or grants or donations.

Pitfalls – We definitely had one really big “failure,” but I stand by my actions, and don’t regret what I did.

In the fall of 2009 I wanted to get a retail space to sell The Lotus Odyssey products. I was really enamored with the idea, and I still play around with the idea of having a brick and mortar retail space someday. I was familiar with a mall in Michigan, and had actually worked at a kiosk for a brief time in that mall, so I decided to move forward with renting a kiosk and selling the products there. We had sold the products at small boutiques in the area, and I had family and friends to help support the venture – my mother’s house was less than a mile away. It seemed like a really good idea. Nevertheless, the kiosk was a major bust (we didn’t make any $ and it was a HUGE time investment). Major reasons are as follows:

-Mall crowds DON’T CARE about fair trade. Customers frequently confused “fair trade” with “free trade.”

-Our price points were too expensive. Mall consumers were ultimately looking for the cheapest products. If our hand-made scarf was retailing at $30 - $50, that was just way beyond the $15 or so that Kohl’s was charging.

-I didn’t have enough stock (poor planning).

-I didn’t have enough $ to invest in stock and ship in advance. Thus, we had to ship everything by air, which was a lot more expensive.

-I wasn’t at the kiosk to manage it full time. I was in a graduate program in NYC at the time, so was commuting back and forth to Michigan to manage the space (what was I thinking?).

One week I worked over 80 hours without pay at the kiosk. I was exhausted and broke, and my husband, who hadn’t supported the kiosk idea from the very beginning, was really unhappy with me. To this day when I am thinking of taking big risks he reminds me of the kiosk failure. But in the end, even though the kiosk wasn’t financially successful, I really loved being able to see part of my dream come alive. Ultimately I can’t regret the experience since I gained so much from it. I’m very lucky to have been able to take a risk with my first business venture and escape relatively unscathed at such a young age - I was 23.

One more thing:
W+S ultimately relies on a model for existence that I think in some ways is fundamentally flawed. I know that I can be hard on myself, but really I think it’s true. Our model relies on the wealthy in developed countries buying products from poor people. The last thing wealthy people need is more stuff. The thing is, I really like stuff. Ultimately, I’d like to create another project that doesn’t rely on selling to the rich, but for now WORK+SHELTER is how I’m able to make my impact.

Links:

WORK+SHELTER official site

WORK+SHELTER on Facebook

The Lotus Odyssey