How WORK+SHELTER is Helping Women in Need

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WORK+SHELTER is a promotional products supplier on a mission! Based in New Delhi, India, this fair trade organization manufactures ethical cut+sew merchandise, empowering women in need by paying fair wages and helping them develop the skills to work. Founder and CEO, Theresa VanderMeer is the fearless female entrepreneur making a difference at the head of this great organization.

The Journey to WORK+SHELTER

Theresa knew from a young age that she wanted to see the world, and at 13 on a school trip to Peru, she recalls seeing poverty for the very first time. The experience changed her life. “That was where it all began,” says Theresa. “I didn’t want to return to the life I had before.”Her first trip to India came while she was a student at the University of Michigan. Theresa received a research grant to investigate the impact of economic empowerment on women’s lives. While there, Theresa interned with Dastkar, an organization helping local craftspeople get their product into the market. Theresa discovered the hardships Indian women face on a regular basis. She vowed to do something about it, and the idea for WORK+SHELTER was born.

The Women of WORK+SHELTER

Did you know that India ranks 130 out of 189 on the world’s gender equality index? Indian women typically have fewer economic resources available to them, and thus less power than their male counterparts. “Some of the women we work with were married as children,” Theresa explains. “[Many have been] forced into marriages they didn't want, divorced when they had baby girls instead of boys, or pressured to abort female fetuses.” In many cases, this extreme inequality fosters abuse. “Violence against them is ubiquitous,” Theresa says.WORK+SHELTER provides a safe place for these women to work and earn a living wage. “Our primary goal is to bring dignity to their lives by treating women with respect, and getting money into their pockets,” Theresa says. “Sometimes they are working to buy a home or start a business. Other times they are looking to save money for their children's marriages, or simply to buy food for their families.”Every day at WORK+SHELTER these women are helped through dignified work, and supported and encouraged to follow their dreams.

Artisan Story: Choti Renu

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“When Renu first started at WORK + SHELTER, she had never used a sewing machine before. We called her “Choti Renu” or “Little Renu” because of how tiny she was. Renu is actually a mother of three, whom she always made sure were fed first and foremost - hence her own malnutrition.In 2013, Renu walked through the door to our New Delhi office and inquired about a job. She revealed that she was raising her children alone, having recently migrated from Bihar, one of the poorest provinces in India. I was shocked by this claim, knowing the conditions of that area. At WORK+SHELTER we focus our hiring on women who are struggling financially, so within the first hours of us meeting it was decided that our team would visit her home to verify her financial need.That same day when flying down a dirt road in a cycle rickshaw on the outskirts of New Delhi, we suddenly see none other than Renu herself walking along the side of the road. We greet Renu, asking her to join us for the ride to her house. After much convincing, she finally accepted our offer and the bumpy journey to her home continued. We finally came to a stop outside a concrete building that appeared to be home to many families. We shuffled through the open entrance into a room barely large enough for us to stand in. There was no bathroom or toilet, no kitchen or sink - just one small faucet sticking out a wall, and 3 small girls huddled together on a cot in the corner. The girls were educated, which is a rare occurrence amongst poorer families in India. Many families can’t afford the cost of a school uniform for one child, let alone three. I realized Renu had been skipping meals herself to afford feeding her daughters and sending them to school. I was amazed by this generous, selfless, determined woman; and, at that moment, I decided to hire her as my next WORK + SHELTER employee.Over the coming days, months, and years, Renu always worked hard and gradually learned to sew. She slowly mastered the craft of using a sewing machine and making patterns. She and her daughters moved into a new house with a bathroom, and she started gaining weight, now eating 3 meals a day. Now, Renu thrives as one of WORK + SHELTER’s top seamstresses. She has become so successful that she also owns her own small business: a chai stall in the morning market. Now, at our center we joke that Choti Renu has become “Moti Renu,” a.k.a “Big Woman” in Hindi. She always smiles happily when we call her this.”

Ethical and Transparent Manufacturing

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Despite the global rise in awareness around ethical manufacturing, sweatshops and dangerous working conditions still exist. “If you don't know about the conditions of your production, most the time you can assume that conditions are not good”, Theresa says. “Especially if any part of the production is done in a geography where labour or environmental regulations are weak”.WORK+SHELTER has always been transparent about their manufacturing process, from the treatment of their employees to the materials they use. It’s safe to say that W+S is creating a new factory standard in India, capping work days at 8 hours, offering paid training, fair wages, promotions and chai breaks. They also look to use eco-friendly materials, and when possible reuse fabric scraps to reduce waste.“Supply chains are increasingly complex,” says Theresa. “And while it's challenging to figure them out, as consumers and business folk, we are directly responsible for the conditions and externalities associated with our purchases. Pretending otherwise is like pulling wool over your own eyes.”

Making a Difference

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Though the journey hasn’t been easy, Theresa’s resilience and personal sacrifice have gotten her and her organization far. So far, WORK+SHELTER has supported more than 50 women over the years and currently employ over 30.When asked about the most rewarding part of her job, Theresa says it’s all about making a difference in these women’s lives. “Knowing that I have personally gotten little girls into school, that I've helped people who were hungry gain access to food, that women have stood up to their abusers because of our support.” And that 13-year-old girl who wanted to make a difference in the world? “I live for this,” she beams.

 Do you want to find out more about what WORK+SHELTER make? Ask us about their products! 


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