Fair Winds Trading: Helping Rwandans Build Their Lives

No ordinary businesswoman, Willa Shalit helps the impoverished women of Rwanda turn their traditional folk art into a source of profit and pride.
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Bringing Smiles to Rwanda

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.

Continued on page 2:  Supporting a Cause, Helping Real People

 

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