Social entrepreneur and artist Willa Shalit believes that the solution to poverty is not aid, but rather empowering women by providing sustainable, meaningful work. So when the CEO of Macy's offered to write a check to help women in Rwanda, Willa declined the offer and instead proposed an international business to distribute intricate, hand-made artisan baskets through the 810-department-store chain.
Since 2005 when Willa founded Fairwinds Trading, their partner organization in Rwanda, Gahaya Links, has grown from employing 50 weavers to over 3,000 weavers in the Rwandan countryside. They've also expanded to women in Indonesia, and began making other products like jewelry and textiles.
A life-long fighter for women's rights and empowerment, Willa embodies the strong and colorful spirit of the baskets. With a visceral love for and appreciation of art, she describes the quality craftsmanship and pragmatic production chain: "The initial design concept comes directly from the women in Rwanda. Women from all over the countryside travel to our center in Kigali for two weeks of training, then go back to their respective villages to teach others and produce the baskets at home. This way, rural communities remain intact."
While this is the first time Willa has focused on the Majority World, she has been empowering women for years. While serving as the co-producer of the infamous Vagina Monologues, she co-founded the non-profit V-Day, that distributes funds to grassroots, national, and international organizations that work to stop violence against women and girls. The common thread among her endeavors is providing women with tools to be healthy, happy, and independent.
When I asked her what it takes to be a successful social entrepreneur, she advised: "Don't be afraid of failure. Be proud of failure. To be an entrepreneur, you have to fail 99 times for 1 success. We all have ideas, and a lot of time they're crazy, but you can't be afraid to put them out there."
Fairwinds Trading baskets are available online here, or at 30 select Macy's department stores.