In Rwanda, Shalit, who had at times felt disconnected from mainstream American culture—"as a Jew, as a woman, as someone who obviously wasn't blonde"—discovered a strong cross-cultural kinship. "I'd spent my childhood hearing about the Holocaust," she says, "so I knew something of genocide. Many of these women had been raped. I'd experienced how powerless that can make you feel. I don't want to sound sanctimonious, but we understood one another."
As she met with a group of weavers who were genocide widows, she realized what a natural treasure their handmade baskets were—a tradition that had been passed from mother to daughter (and occasionally son) for generations. These baskets were striking, with natural dyes and quietly intricate patterns. Most important, they were a symbol—and a progenitor—of peace, woven by women from the two once-warring Rwandan tribes, the Tutsi and the Hutu, now working side by side. The single most common pattern, Shalit noticed, was a zigzag of parallel lines, moving across the background like friends companionably walking together. It was called the Peace Basket.
Shalit immediately envisioned a huge market for such baskets in the West and knew that she could shepherd the sales. "I thought, 'If I can sell people on vaginas, I can sell them on these baskets,'" she says. Sitting down with the women, she started drawing up a rudimentary business plan. She'd go back to America and talk to sales outlets. The Rwandan women would work on the baskets. From the first, they discussed such new ideas as livable wages and profits, a concept known as "trade, not aid."
"I did not want to make this enterprise a charity" or a not-for-profit, Shalit says. "All of us, myself and the Rwandan women, wanted it to be a business, with sales goals, quality control, training, all of that. The basket weavers would receive money for their efforts." And the money, with luck, wouldn't evaporate, as purely charitable donations so often do. "We'd be creating something that would sustain itself," Shalit says. "And if it failed, I'd suffer, too. We were all stakeholders."
After working with a small importer for a couple of years, Shalit decided to pay a visit to Macy's. Lundgren, who'd known Shalit's father for years, listened politely. "Willa talked about these women and about Rwanda," he says. "It was incredibly moving. When she stopped, I asked, 'What can I do to help?'—thinking she'd ask me for money, which I was more than ready to give." Instead, she said she'd like Macy's to start selling the women's baskets, dramatically pulling one out of her bag as she spoke.
"I said, 'Wow, we can sell these,'" Lundgren remembers. And a for-profit partnership was born.
Since then, sales of the baskets through Macys.com/rwanda have steadily increased—from $50,000 in 2004 to $1.5 million last year. The number of Rwandan women employed has passed 3,000, most of the full-timers earning close to double the average national income. Fair Winds Trading, too, has grown to a hard-driven team of five and works intensively to help design new patterns, shapes, and colors twice a year that will appeal to Western customers. To further creativity, they have helped their Rwandan partners, Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndungutse, build a training center. And most recently, after collaborating with local textile manufacturers, they're exporting a new collection of vividly patterned bags.
We Hear You!