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.
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.
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.
There have been growing pains, of course. But Shalit doesn't have time to pay much notice. Traveling back and forth between the company's offices—in Manhattan, Santa Fe, and Kigali, Rwanda's capital—she is taking her vision further. Beginning this fall, Fair Winds Trading will import silk accessories (purses, clutches, jewelry cases) from Cambodia, handcrafted (using ancient techniques) by artisans, some of whom are battered women and land mine victims. Indonesian bowls and picture frames made with seashells, bamboo, driftwood, and coconuts will also be added. "I like to find objects that suggest something about the country from which they come," Shalit says. "The women of Rwanda created their baskets as a way to weave a kind of peace. The people of Indonesia, who have faced so many natural disasters, use pieces of their environment to see meaning in what's happened to their nation. I find that very powerful. Stories—that's what sells these items."
That, and—not to be shallow—good looks. "It would be a different business if the things Willa finds weren't of the highest quality and extremely attractive," Lundgren says. Because they are, Macy's is putting a major push into a new online boutique called Shop for a Better World, in partnership with Fair Winds Trading. "If you shop wisely," Shalit says, "you get to own this really wonderful object and also transfer money to those who need it—in a straight line. It goes right from you to people who may have lived only by barter and never held cash in their hands before. That's a very direct way to effect reform. It's not abstract; it's not a fantasy. It's real. Let's hear it for consumers! You have the power to change the world."