Photo: J Muckle/Studio D
I remember my first meeting with Willa very well," says Terry Lundgren, the CEO, chairman, and president of Macy's, Inc. "It wasn't a meeting I'd be likely to forget." Their conversation would soon change the way he, and others within his enormous corporation (more than $26 billion in sales last year), viewed what shopping can accomplish. It also swept Lundgren himself into action. "I had no idea how involved I, personally, would become," he says. "But Willa is hard to resist."
That was in 2005. By then, Shalit had cycled through several different lives. For a while and quite successfully, she'd been a sculptor, her subject the human body. In the '80s, Shalit had practiced "life casting"—creating plaster impressions of living people. Many of her subjects were famous, including Sophia Loren, the Dalai Lama, Paul Newman, Sting, and five U.S. presidents (Richard Nixon, whose facial mask is poignant, lonely, and sad, being a noteworthy achievement from a lifelong liberal like Shalit). The finished pieces, among them full-body casts of the lithe, muscled, and quite naked dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, appeared in multiple museum shows and toured the country in an exhibition called Please Touch! targeted to blind art lovers as well as the sighted.
It was thrilling work, Shalit remembers, allowing her to showcase raw, unvarnished human beauty (you can't wear makeup under a facial cast) and to get her hands gratifyingly dirty. But the project ran its course, and Shalit, wanting to do something different yet still artistic and meaningful, moved into theater. In the late '90s, fiercely concerned with women's issues, she was drawn to Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues and, as its co-producer, mounted the work off-Broadway. In 1998, with Ensler, she also began a series of V-Day events to raise awareness of violence against women. The events garnered not only global attention for the cause but, to date, more than $50 million to fund women's programs around the world. "Willa is a wildly creative and passionate woman," Ensler says. "Her faith, vision, and commitment were hugely important to the birth of V-Day."
Increasingly, though, Shalit became convinced that real change hinged on income generation—anti-violence programs offered feeble protection if the women couldn't make money. Which is how, in 2003, she found herself saying goodbye to her husband, Michael Schneider, and their 14-year-old daughter, Natasha, in Santa Fe, and arriving in genocide-ravaged Rwanda alongside members of the UN's Development Fund for Women. They were there to explore how the country's surviving female weavers might start businesses. And it was on that trip that Shalit's life was completely recast.
We Hear You!