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Rwanda, 2003. Willa Shalit -- artist, entrepreneur and daughter of longtime Today movie critic Gene Shalit -- is visiting a group of female weavers, survivors of the genocide that devastated the nation nine years earlier. She's there with a delegation from the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which promotes women's empowerment and gender equality across the globe. The weavers, who come from both sides of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal conflict, show off their delicately patterned baskets to the group. Shalit is particularly drawn to the zigzags decorating the "peace baskets," so named because they represent healing and friendship between the former enemies. The women smile and laugh, thrilled that they might sell their crafts and put some desperately needed money in their pockets.
One of the weavers, a genocidal-rape survivor, embraces Shalit in a sudden burst of excitement. Shalit, herself a survivor of a rape, hugs her back.
At that moment six years ago, Shalit knew, she says, she had to do more than simply buy some baskets. The weavers lived in abject poverty, making just pennies a day; handing them a few dollars wouldn't change that. But if there were a way to bring their folk art to a much larger audience in the United States, she thought, the women might have a chance to earn a living wage and begin rebuilding their lives. "The minute I hugged that woman, I knew I had to help," she says.
In 2006 Shalit turned that "if" into reality by founding Fair Winds Trading. The company imports handicrafts from Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Indonesia, then partners with retailers like Macy's to sell them in the United States. So far this "trade, not aid" business plan has generated $3 million in sales with potential for more. "Instead of going to a country once, bringing aid and leaving, we stay in the community and use part of the proceeds to help it grow," she explains.
Shalit's latest high-profile partner is Starbucks. This summer the coffee giant will sell tote bags, cell-phone charms, and plastic drink tumblers decorated with colorful cloth -- all handmade by Rwandan women. The Starbucks order from Fair Winds Trading is the largest single export of textiles from Rwanda in that nation's history.
The two companies are a perfect match, says Julie Felss Masino, Starbucks's vice president of merchandising. "The wonderful thing about Willa is that she doesn't pitch the item, she pitches the idea of helping the women who made it," Masino says. "We knew we had to get on board."
Depending on how quickly they work, Fair Winds Trading's weavers can make the equivalent of about $6 to $8 per day in a country where the normal wage is $1 or less. Those few extra dollars make a huge difference in their lives, especially in rural communities where work opportunities can be scarce. "Lives are really depending on these sales," Shalit says. "When women are able to afford to feed and clothe their children and send them to school, those kids can grow up healthy, educated, and able to raise the next generation."
Shalit hopes that bringing Rwandan art to America will help bridge the cultural and economic gaps between the two countries and their people. "When someone holds a basket or bag in her hands, she may think of the woman who made it on the other side of the world. You realize that you're not just supporting a cause -- you're helping a real person."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.