Graduation Day- Looking Forward and Looking Back

by MarketPlace President, Pushpika Freitas

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Recently, I attended graduation ceremonies for both my daughter (Masters) and my son (Bachelors). As I watched them receive their diplomas, I reflected on the path that my own life took after my commencement exercises. It was in 1980, soon after I graduated, that I started to work with the women in the slums of Mumbai.

I come from a family of six girls and society pitied my parents for not having a son. However, my parents were very progressive and firmly believed in education for women. So, although I was not a very good student (I did not have the kind of memory needed for the predominant rote learning method), I had no option but to go to college. I completed my Bachelors in Social Work in Mumbai and came to Chicago to do my Masters at DePaul University, where I met my future husband.

When I returned to India, my first job was to start a leprosy rehabilitation organization in a large slum area not far from my home. I remember being particularly struck by the experiences of the women in the program. Aside from any difficulties arising from their health, they were treated poorly simply because they were women. They, and other healthy women I met, had no control over the money they earned, how many children they had, or how their children were brought up. I was shocked to discover this world of difference only a couple of miles from where I grew up with my broad-minded parents. My sister Lalita Monteiro and I, with the encouragement of another sister, Indira Johnson, started SHARE in order to address these injustices.

It was very slow going – we started with just 3 women. We did not have money to start, and knew nothing about forming and running a business. We knew how to sew, but were totally ignorant about production and marketing.  Although our father was an artist and we grew up with an appreciation of colors and patterns, neither of us had any training in design. But the most important thing was that we knew that we did not know anything! And we began our process of learning by doing. We started with hand work so the women could do it at home while they attended to childcare and other household duties. We originally made quilts but marketing them was not very successful,  so we went into dresses.  Dresses also were a hard sell in India.  We held some home parties in the United States, however, and realized that there was an American market receptive to our style. And the rest is history. We incorporated as a non-profit in 1986, selling at first only through home parties. We participated in our first wholesale trade show in Chicago in 1988 and published our first catalog in 1990.  We now send out catalogs and also sell through our own website and various other retailers.

We are now a little more than One Million Dollars in sales. We work with about 480 families which roughly mean that our sales impact approximately 2,250 individuals.  If we consider the artisans’ involvement in community issues the impact is 100 times more.

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When I began SHARE, the women were only slightly older than I was. Yet they had married very young and already had children.  It was another 6 years before I gave birth to my daughter, Shanti. In fact, our very first MarketPlace: Handwork of India board meeting in Chicago had to be postponed when I went into labor. I also remember nursing my son Ashok during the photo shoot for our very first catalog in 1990. I was a proud mother at the graduations of my children and thought about the pride the women artisans also have when their children graduate and get good jobs, breaking the cycle of poverty. Their kids are engineers, IT professionals, MBAs, accountants, receptionists, nurses, etc. The hard work and dedication to education of their mothers is clearly paying off.

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