WORK+SHELTER (W+S) started after co-founder Theresa Vandermeer traveled and worked in India on women's empowerment issues. She saw a huge gap in getting marginalized women’s goods to larger, more profitable markets and wanted to do something about it. At the same time, Theresa’s co-founder, Namita, who is of Indian origin but grew up living abroad most of her life, wanted to use her years of corporate experience to give back to something more meaningful – and sustainable. After meeting through a mutual friend from Delhi, Theresa (who lives in Brooklyn, NY) and Namita (who lives with her husband and three children in Amsterdam) decided to join forces on their overlapping passions and lay the groundwork for W+S.
In November of 2011, Theresa quit her fulltime job in New York and hopped a flight to New Delhi. With money from a Kickstarter campaign in her pocket and the plans that she, Namita and their third co-founder Jorel had laid out the year before, Theresa was finally on her way to India to launch W+S.
Shortly after she arrived, she rented a commercial space and met Seema, the neighbor woman across the street. Seema of course brought chai like any good neighbor would do, and exchanged small talk (in Hindhi!). After a couple days of this, Theresa watched as Seema picked up a set of needles and yarn, and started knitting. She realized this was an opportunity to realize what she had come to India to accomplish. Seema came on board and quickly helped recruit other women in the community who needed work to provide for their families and taught them to knit.
What started as one woman walking through the door that fateful November day has turned into six fulltime women that W+S has trained and still employs for an above-market wage, as well as provides basic education and medical services.
Theresa gives us a little more insight on her journey below:
Why does WORK+SHELTER work with women artisans in India?
I first went to India on a grant from my college (the University of Michigan) in 2007 to travel and study women’s empowerment issues. I ended up working for a large Indian-based NGO working with artisans and saw that there were still large barriers for getting products to market. I thought design and managing the production process to meet international standards would help ensure success for the artisans wanting to sell abroad. Also on that first trip, I met my husband, who is Indian, and although we now live in Brooklyn, we go back regularly.
What is the process of accepting women into W+S?
Our mission is to provide the women in this tiny community of Delhi a safe place to live and work. The first thing that we look at is the economic conditions of the woman’s living situation. If she needs a job because she lacks basic things like food and shelter to sustain her family, that is enough to be accepted. If she can afford to not have a job but is still interested in participating in W+S, we look at things like location (is she likely to drop out because her commute is too far?), and social services (would the education and health services that we provide help her attain more security)? Many of the women we work with need jobs because they are the sole provider for their families. Each woman has a unique story, but the most important takeaway is that the women we employ are strong, determined, creative, and have the capacity to learn and become highly skilled artisans.
How have you seen the women refine their craft and business skills during their time working with W+S?
Our project manager in Delhi, Anjali, took them to Dastkar, a popular fair where traditional artisans from all around India come to show and sell their goods. Seema, who knits and helps train the other women for us, noticed the high level of quality and has since taken a leadership role in improving the quality of our own products.
Have you had a mentor through the process of starting W+S?
I would have to say my co-founder, Namita. Although we are learning together, she's always there and willing to talk things through.
What is your biggest challenge right now?
My biggest challenge personally is juggling everything. When I got back from India after launching W+S, I went back to work fulltime. I realized we had a long way to go before I felt comfortable drawing a full income from it. And I’d rather focus on building a sustainable organization, meaning we need to invest in training, quality control and design so that we create excellent products and build a brand. My main goal is to ensure long-lasting jobs for the women, and all of this goes into it. Our global team pitches in, and we have an excellent project manager on the ground in Delhi who goes in every week to keep up with projects. So it’s getting there.
What’s next for W+S?
We would love to get to the point where we are generating enough revenue to really grow W+S Delhi into a solid operation that we could then replicate in other areas of the country. (We get emails on a daily basis from women all over the country wanting to come to W+S for various reasons.) To build that strong foundation at our Delhi location, we intend to expand our education and health programs for the women and their children. It’s not just about giving jobs; it’s the entire ecosystem around that job that we want to support. Eventually we see ourselves partnering with other local NGOs to focus these programs on specific demographic groups, like women who are HIV-positive and have been out-casted by their communities. Our goal is to work with the most marginalized as possible.