Theresa VanderMeer Provides Work+Shelter for Women in India

 In Entrepreneurial Women, Entrepreneurs, Sustainable Products & Services, Sustainable Startups, Thinking About, Walking the Talk

Theresa VanderMeer is the founder of WORK+SHELTER an ethical, hybrid profit/nonprofit social enterprise located in the heart of New Delhi, India. WORK+SHELTER is a cut-and-sew factory that has been in operation for seven years. The organization’s mission is to support and create meaningful, regular employment for women in need.  We want to get money in women’s hands.   


How did you embark on the path that led you to found WORK+SHELTER?

I first went to India over ten years ago. I was 21 years old and a student at the University of Michigan. I got a small grant to perform research there. I visited different tailoring and embroidery centers in India and also interned with a nonprofit that works with artisan groups in India. While there, I fell in love with both the textile process, but also the women that I met on my visits to some of the artisan groups. During the trip, I did a series of interviews with these women. Many of them shared their personal struggles.

For example, one woman was widowed and then her in-laws kicked her and her two children out of their home because her husband was no longer there to help pay their way. Another woman I met was raped and abused by her husband. When she finally left him, she was cast out of her community. I heard many stories like these and really became passionate about wanting to do something to support women in similar situations.

What were you studying at university that brought you over to India?

At the University of Michigan, you could build your own international degree. My major was anthropology and my official minor was international studies. I also dove into three other topics: economics, gender and Asian studies.  

When I got back from India, I gave a talk about my research, then received a new grant and went right back to Delhi. While there, I interned at Amnesty International.

Where did you get your grant funding?

A couple had anonymously donated money to the Univers of Michigan South Asian Studies Center to encourage people to visit and do research in India. They gave a $3,000 grant to five different students that year and I was one of them. I was so ecstatic to get the grant; it was a real luxury to go. 

What did you do after university?

After I graduated (I was the first person in my family to go to college), I started building WORK+SHELTER at the same time as working full time. I’ve worked on an off since college until three and a half years ago. I’ve worked in client management for a pharmaceutical company, for Google in digital advertising management, and my last corporate job was running an offshore team in India for a French agency who had offices all over the U.S. That was perfect! It was corporate pay and month-long trips to India. Offices were only an hour commute from our WORK+SHELTER factory.

Tell me about WORK+SHELTER.

WORK+SHELTER is a cut-and-sew factory where we make accessories and simple apparel. We primarily source organic and up-cycled materials. We make a lot of tote bags and t-shirts and are adding sweatshirts and zip pouches as product lines. We’ve also started making organic drawstring bags – to be used as packaging for a vegan shoe line. The t-shirts and tote bags are the bread-and butter of the business.

We were a nonprofit operating in two different countries. In India, it’s hard to get the special status needed to receive funding from abroad. The Indian government has extremely tight and lengthy regulations and approval processes, in part to prevent terrorist organizations from receiving money. It took three years before we could even apply for the status required to receive money from abroad. It was quite a challenge

Sounds complicated…

Very!  We were forced to open a business in India. We set up in the U.S. as a nonprofit and sent money to a business in India. I bankrolled everything aside from the KickStarter campaign we ran and a small amount of sales. It took a lot of capital to get this thing off the ground. When I finally quit my corporate job and started working on WORK+SHELTER full time, I cashed out my first and second retirement accounts, used all my savings, and went into debt. It was a stressful time. We are now a hybrid business and nonprofit in both countries.

Who is we?

I own 96 % of the LLC (Limited Liability Company) and I have one investor. The LLC in the U.S. owns the factory in India 100 %. This legal structure is allowed because the Indian government encourages the creation of manufacturing jobs.

In the US I have a financial director and two client managers that often have a hand in production; all are living in the U.S., but most of the team visits India regularly. We’re hoping to hire one more full-time person later thisyear. We trade off in certain capacities. When I’m in India, I focus on production; when I’m in the U.S., I focus on sales and client management. When my other teammates are in India, they go to work at the local India factory just as I’m going to bed here in Chicago. It works well because we can get back to clients with urgent needs.

Can you explain how WORK+SHELTER works as a mix between social enterprise and business.

The nonprofit portion of the organization sets up eye and other health-related check-up camps for the women of WORK+SHELTER and their families. It’s fairly limited currently because we don’t have much funding. It’s an important work-in-progress.

The for-profit entity involves custom production for designers in addition to our already designed items that we customize with a brand or nonprofit logos. We print many t-shirts with a nonprofit’s logo. When a customer approves our quote on an order, they pay a 50 % down payment, which allows us to purchase materials and produce the order.

Our employees are full time – they are paid whether we have work or not. One challenge is trying to balance times when we have too much work and too little work. 

How is business going?

This is the fourth year in a row where we have nearly doubled our sales. Ultimately, my goal is to go from being a place that employs women in need and sources ethical materials, to a positive-impact factory. Since I began, my paradigm has shifted to think also about the environment. The fashion industry can be so destructive and harmful to the people who are in production affected by environmental consequences like poorly disposed of dye water or pesticides used to grow non-organic cotton.  I think one of the best things about being an entrepreneur, is that there are one million ways that you can make the world better.   

How do you select the women that you hire? 

We seek to hire women who are “niraashrit”, which is the Hindi term for destitute. We have sometimes turned away women who are not niraashrit and then we started to be a little more flexible. You don’t always know someone’s real background, or the reasons why someone wants or needs a job.

For example, we initially didn’t give a job to a woman, and then decided to give her a chance because she was so persistent. A few weeks after she started working with us, we found out that she is in a relationship with an abusive, alcoholic man. Just because her husband earns a decent wage doesn’t mean her needs are being met.  We do perform interviews and home visits during our hiring progress. Realistically, most of the women who seek or want the jobs we offer are in need.

How many women do you employee right now?

Right now, we have about 25 women and anywhere from three to five trainees at a time. Our trainees are paid to learn. If they come to learn and work for us for a month and eventually leave, that’s fine. They learned something while they were with us and they can then use that skill somewhere else. We are happy to be a stepping stone.

Can you talk more about the area in India that you are located?

We are in Delhi, smack in the middle of a coal plant, a dead river, and a landfill that’s always on fire. The landfill is always on fire because they incinerate the trash in India. Luckily, this year the coal plant was shut down, but it’s still a toxic waste land. We are near the Yamuna River, technically a “dead” river, which comes down from the Himalayan Mountains and into the city. There is so much sewage that the river doesn’t flow. It’s basically an open sewer. Air pollution levels are very high. When I’m there for a few days, if I blow my nose or cough, black stuff comes out. I am fortunate enough to know that I can leave to go back the U.S. For the women there, it’s part of their daily existence.

For our workspace, we bought air-filtration systems. So that way, at least when the women are working, they have clean air. I’m excited about creating green walls and turning the entire factory into a positive, beautiful space that adds to the environment in a positive way. That is the transition that I am most excited about. We have a long way to go, but that is the vision. 

Are most of your clients/customers overseas or mostly in the U.S.? Where are most of them located?

Most of our clients are in the United States, about 85% of them. We have a small but growing segment in Australia, and those folks are usually just finding us. We have had a few leads due to our Instagram account. We have had other companies find us just by a googling, using search terms like “ethical factories” or similar language. We also have worked with designers in London and with buyers in places like the Netherlands and Germany.

What is a challenge that you have you had to deal with?

There have been many challenges. In the early years, people like my family and my then partner didn’t believe I could do this. There was discouragement everywhere. People said things like, “You’re too young”, “you’re not Indian”, “it’s not safe in India”, you shouldn’t be focused on this right now”, or “you should make your own money before you decided to give back”. And, I still get these comments. But I feel like I have enough. I have food, shelter, and an income. This is organization that really matters to me. 

Of course, there have been problems with institutions, the Indian government, and people trying to take advantage of us, but I think those influences made me quietly determined and insulated. For many years I didn’t have a mentor, I just went and did things. I just went and rented a place in India for $250 a month.

We didn’t make any money for a long time, but I had what I wanted which was a safe space for women to come to. Things started happening little by little. It was hard personally, to work full time and run WORK+SHELTER on the side, but I made it.

Are you making salary now with WORK+SHELTER?

Yes, I am! Last year, I was able to start earning a salary. Or course, it is 1/4 of what I would be making in the corporate space. A year ago, I was also able to start paying myself back from all the money I had invested into the actual business. It was a pretty steep hill of debt. From all the money I put into the nonprofit initially, none of that is going to be paid back to me, but I’m okay with that.  

Recently, I got an evaluation for WORK+SHELTER and learned that it’s a valuable organization to other people. My perspective until then had been that I had to be willing to suffer in order to give back to the world. I now believe we all have to earn our place here on Earth and this was the way I was going to do it. All of the extra hours, money I spent, and pain in my relationships. I had a terrible break up over my commitment to my organization with someone I was with for seven years.

But, now I am in a place where this work is considered valuable to me and to others and I have the potential to make a good sum of money. It’s very positive, but also deeply confusing. It’s a huge paradigm shift.  

Are you thinking about, can you do well and make money? Is that the hard question for you?

Yes, and it feels very weird. Currently, I am trying to read this book called, “You’re a Badass at Making Money”, by Jen Sincero. It makes me question my own belief systems and structures. It’s helpful, that is something that I am working through.

What advice do you have for someone like you? Or for someone who is not quite clear yet about what they want to go? For an entrepreneur who wants to do something good, but don’t know what to do or where to start?

 My first piece of advice for someone who is interested in doing work that is positive and helps the world, is to find an organization that is already doing that and offer to help, even if they can’t pay you or, perhaps not pay you very much. Most of the US team started as volunteers.

The other thing that I often think about and had to learn the hard way is that people don’t always know what is best for you. Everyone is limited in their imagination and if you can see a different vision of the future where your business or idea exists, then you have a gift to imagine that. If people don’t support you, you can tell them to get lost. But you can also have compassion for them. It’s sad that they don’t live in a world where dreams are possible. You have to ignore a lot of voices; everyone will have a different opinion. At the end of the day, its your intuition and passion that matter the most.

Where do you think you interest in this work came from? 

When I was 13, I went on a trip to Peru and that was with a nonprofit called, The Children’s  Environment Trust, which is now defunct. They wanted to encourage kids to become advocates for the rainforest. They wanted to introduce kids to nature so they fall in love and become activists when they are older. I would say that was the first time I saw artisan work and poverty. Growing up in rural Michigan, in the middle of nowhere near a cornfield, it was a sheltered, yet safe existence. We didn’t have keys to our home. When I went to Peru, my sense of possibilities and the world expanded exponentially. That changed everything.

Second, my father is an entrepreneur whose fortunes rose and fell over the last two decades. So, he and my mom worked full time and, after work, started a tool and dime manufacturing shop. My dad built that company to almost have 120 employees.  During the recession, it closed, and he lost everything. But I was able to see my Dad as a person who had a vision and just did it. I don’t think I realized how much that impacted me until I started to reflect on, why I thought that I could start WORK+SHELTER.

Thank you so much, Theresa for your good work and this inspiring interview. I wish you the best of luck with WORK+SHELTER!

Here is WORK+SHELTER’s website

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