WORK+SHELTER was just an idea in 2011 – we wanted to create a place where women in New Delhi can come to live and work. And many of you gave to this idea, enough that soon we had the funding to move forward with realizing the vision. After receiving your contributions the real work started. For nearly a year the W+S team laid the groundwork for success in India – we Skyped, made plans, made contingency plans, and fine-tuned the details of launching the W+S New Delhi pilot.A lot has happened that we want to share with you. The most important part?  We were able to successfully launch W+S New Delhi. A group of local women are there working 5 days a week. The word is spreading and we are operating as planned. Details are below:

Shelter Location and Building:

Hardev Nagar is an informal settlement on the outskirts of Northern New Delhi. You can’t see the neighbor name on Google Maps because the Indian government doesn’t acknowledge its existence. Many locals refer to it as a “village,” and until recently the area was almost all farmland. In fact, some of the area is still green despite the toxic waterways and trash laced streets. Access to electricity and water is occasionally precarious. When the lights go out we work outside, and with a couple buckets of water at the ready just in case.Our first challenge was getting the space cleaned up. We started with an empty shell of a building (essentially a large (by NYC standards) apartment) – no toilet, no sink, lots of dirt and trash. Plumbers, electricians, cleaners, and painters were called in to get the space in order. Once clean, we began furnishing. We scrimped and scrounged. Many members from the local community donated basic furnishings, including storage space, a mirror, and utensils for our kitchen. We also purchased a small desk, plastic chairs, cushions for seating, two small space heaters and a few other odds and ends.Finally the space was ready. We held an inauguration with fruit and juice, and spent the morning celebrating. 🙂

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Local Management:

To run the shelter in our absence we hired a local manager. The manager role is meant to be the link between the women and shelter operations and the international management team. We hired Priya*, petite and in her 50’s, with years of experience in the NGO and export world. Further, she could identify with the women’s plights because she herself has struggled to support her child when she was widowed. We thought she was a perfect fit.

We moved forward with training her. Then, once Theresa was back in the U.S. and Namita was back in the Netherlands, Priya suddenly quit, stating that her commute (nearly two hours each way) was too long.

We panicked. How could we reassure the women that they would still have work, and manage daily operations from so far away? Would we have to fly back to India in the meantime? How could we afford this?

Despite the worries, our local resources pulled through. Friends volunteered to manage the shelter temporarily. One of the women, Seema, took the lead to the best of her abilities and kept the other women on track. And now, mostly via Skype and international phone calls, we are in the last stages of hiring a replacement manager.

We’ve learned an important lesson. While it is important to control how much money is spent on administrative costs, we now realize that it’s important not to invest all of our training into one candidate, who can leave at any time for any reason. We can’t afford to now, but in the future we would like to hire both a General Manager and part-time Assistant Manager, so that there are more checks and balances in case something like this happens again.

Legal Organizational Registration:

Thus far we’ve been operating informally, but in order to continue our work we need to legally register WORK+SHELTER both in the US and India. That would be easy if we were working in one country, and had a mission that was reflected by just one legal structure.

In India, everyone had a legal opinion, and after getting the run around for months we have written our bylaws and are finally on our way to registering as a trust.

In the US we’re lucky to have some preliminary advice from a friend who recently graduated from law school. However, if you are or you know someone who is a tax attorney, please please please connect them to us.

Social Enterprise:

If we want to be sustainable we have to create products somebody, somewhere wants to pay for. Further, they have to be high quality and made efficiently. This requires training, setting expectations with the women, creating an incentive-based production system, and obtaining fairly-priced raw materials and equipment.

We have to be super conscious of our costs. If a shawl/bulky scarf takes 3 days to knit, even without material and marketing costs it has to have a wholesale price point of over $20 for us to even break even and pay a fair trade wage. Let’s say that the end cost for us including materials for the piece is $35. Since most retailers double that price (at the minimum) we’re looking at a shawl that retails for over $70. That price point puts us out of the realm for the average buyer.

Having searched all over Delhi for yarn, and only finding synthetic materials like acryclic and polyster, we went on the hunt. Ludhiana, an industrial town in Punjab, is known for being India’s textile center. Road trip! Once there we wandered around from shop to shop, and then into offices, finally meeting a family who owns a small yarn mill. It turns out they actually provide wool to a group Theresa made a field trip to visit a few years back, Panchachuli Women Weaver’s Cooperative. We learned that while cotton is a common crop in India, wool is mostly imported from Australia or New Zealand, and that when you burn acrylic yarn the fiber actually melts like a plastic would.

Beyond all of these production aspects, financial sustainability also requires sales, the next frontier.

Financial Update:

Thus far, the Kickstarter money has been used only for the following purposes: salary for the local manager, salary for the women, cleaning and construction costs for the shelter space, and purchase of basic furnishings.

Moving Forward:

So much to do! Our end goal is to be able to support women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation through job creation,while focusing on the women’s unmet social needs.  A lot of other work you wouldn’t always think of comes along with meeting that goal. We just relaunched our web-sites, are building and improving our product line, planning sales avenues, developing social media outlets, and are collaborating with other designers and organizations to better accomplish our goals.

We still need a lot of support. If you want to do more you can:

  • Like and follow WORK+SHELTER on Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest!
  • Like and follow The Lotus Odyssey on Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest!
  • Volunteer, or get your friends to! Check out opportunities here!
  • Buy The Lotus Odyssey products, carry them in your store, sell them in your community, or encourage your local boutique to give us a call!
  • Financial support – send us a big fat check, or click here! 😉

Finally, thank you so much for your support. If you find yourself in India, please do stop by the shelter. And if you have any questions, please do get in touch.

Much love!
Theresa, Jorel, Namita

*name changed

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