A pioneer in a growing social-entrepreneurial movement whose mission in part is to provide unique products to U.S. consumers—and, at the same time, sustainable wages to the Third World artisans who make them—Shalit has been collaborating for the past five years with the women of Rwanda. As a result, Fair Winds Trading now imports their handwoven baskets, African-gemstone jewelry, textile bags, and table linens, and this fall will branch out with products from Tanzania, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
All of which makes Shalit a stylish godsend for those of us with inchoate longings to be better people, to do more, to change the planet—without having to join the Peace Corps and relinquish decent plumbing.
If the name Willa Shalit sounds vaguely familiar, that's because her given name pays homage to the novelist Willa Cather, while her family name comes from her father, Gene Shalit, NBC's longtime and luxuriantly mustachioed film and theater critic. With a Cleopatran face and scads of thick, rumpled, curly brown hair, Willa, at 52, looks 30, although I'd bet that at 30, people thought she was older. There's a gravitas to her that would be intimidating if she didn't smile so often.
Shalit's childhood in prosperous, suburban New Jersey was awash with literary, cinematic, and art world celebrities. One of her uncles, Anthony Lewis, was a prominent op-ed columnist for The New York Times; a cousin, Robert Krulwich, is a correspondent for PBS and NPR. Sophia Loren, she says, "made an occasional appearance."
But the bohemian idyll wasn't perfect. When she was barely into her teens, her mother was institutionalized for the first of what would become a lifelong series of visits to mental hospitals, leaving Shalit and her older brother to help raise their four younger siblings. "Having a family member become ill was an early lesson in empathy," she says.
A harsher one, unfortunately, followed. When Shalit was 15, she was raped at knifepoint. "I learned that life can change in the blink of an eye and that security is very illusory," she says with steely calm today. "I also realized there are some experiences that require a lifetime to recover from." It was an understanding that would prove to be deeply constructive, if cruel, training for finding common ground with the women of Rwanda.