The University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service recently surpassed the milestone of 1,000 field service projects. Clinton School students have combined to produce 367,535 hours – or more than 42 years – of civic engagement. Throughout the year, the school will take a look back at some of the long-term impacts its field service projects have created in Arkansas, across the United States, and around the world.
In 2008, Julie West traveled to Kathmandu to work with Rural Education and Development (READ) Nepal for her International Public Service Project. She had no idea that a decade later her career would still be connected to the region.
Less than a year after the project’s conclusion, West formed a social enterprise, The Red Sari, that takes recycled saris – those that are damaged and would otherwise be discarded – and transforms them into gorgeous, wearable accessories.
The Red Sari provides employment to Nepalese women who work in all aspects of the business, offering economic opportunities while preserving important textile traditions. In 2014, West expanded her business into India, working with Craft Resource Center, an International Fair Trade-certified organization.
Since the business’s inception in 2009, it has purchased more than $300,000 worth of designs from artists in Nepal and India, supporting a culture of entrepreneurship in the handicraft industry. It was announced as the recipient of the 2019 Community Impact Award at the International Folk Art Market dinner in July.
The business is thriving as it approaches its 10-year anniversary. But the challenges in starting the enterprise – from getting the operation off the ground, to being committed to working with local artisans, to finding new and innovative ways to impact the community – helped it reach the point it is at today.
Upon leaving Nepal and her international project in August 2008, West filled her suitcase with handicraft she had acquired over the summer, bringing it to the United States with the intent to test the market. She sold all of her items in a single day.
That fall, using the money she made from her first sale, she bought a plane ticket and returned to Nepal to design new products with handicraft groups there. Along with creating good product designs, she realized she needed to educate herself, quickly, on the nuts and bolts of starting her own business.
“After more than 25 years in health care, I had lots of skills but owning my own business was not one of them,” West said. “I had to learn how to navigate the choppy waters of fashion merchandising and enter the wholesale market. I was learning about the balance of supporting people but also working with groups who were willing to develop their capacity.”
One challenge she faced early was applying tough love – “removing the emotion” when dealing with the artisans. With time, West said, she learned to hold them accountable for their quality and timeliness.
“One of the hardest things I did was to return part of an order that was substandard,” West said. “But I knew that to do anything less only set them up for failure in the future.”
As her business grew, she ran up against the limitations of a one-person operation. She was doing everything, from marketing and communications to supply chain logistics. Pivoting away from retail events and learning the intricacies of the wholesale market changed everything.
“The thing that I didn’t realize is that if you don’t do wholesale and you only do retail, and that’s what I did for the first two years, it all runs through you,” West said. “And that’s just not sustainable. You can’t scale it.”
With time, West learned her ideal customer and how it could fit into her wholesale strategy. For example, museum stores have some local business, but they bring in a tremendous amount of business from tourists. That’s good for someone like West, whose products can be regularly displayed to new sets of the type of customer interested in her items.
“There are lots of museums with small stores, and some of them may not have big orders, but they’re going to re-order three times per season,” West said.
In addition to the challenges of being a first-time business owner and operator, her obstacles were amplified by the difficulties of learning on the fly in a foreign environment. She had to establish trust in an economy that elevated immediate money opportunities over long-term investment. She learned a new language, Nepali, on the job while living with a local family.
Most significantly, as a woman entrepreneur in a historically patriarchal society, she was constantly challenged as a leader. She had to break ties with one supplier because they repeatedly failed to complete her orders.
“When you’re in Nepal, even if you’re not from there, the questions are, ‘Are you married?’, ‘Do you have children?’, ‘Do you have a son?’” West said. “Women are treated differently. I have some status as an American, but they don’t take me as seriously as if I were a man.”
Since day one, The Red Sari has worked alongside the women artisans in the Sindupulchok and Dolakha districts north of Kathmandu. Many of the women are young mothers or widows, some of whom lost their husbands during Nepal’s civil war, which lasted 10 years and ended in 2005. Widows are banned from public ceremonies and forbidden to speak to men outside their family. Many lose their inheritance, land, or property.
The name of the business is a nod to the celebration of the dress of the women in Nepal. The color red is meaningful for married women of the region as the sari and other adornments convey their cherished status. Because of the enormous significance the color red holds for a woman, losing the privilege of wearing it when her husband dies can be devastating.
“In countries where the cash economy is shallow, other things are transactional and have status,” West said. “In America, a lot of the status is tied to money. In Nepal, there’s status in the color red.”
Owning a business in Nepal means operating within the realities of the region, a patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal society where women face disadvantages from birth. The female adult literacy rate is 44%, significantly lower than the rate for men (71%). Nearly half of the female population is married before the age of 18, shortening their educational lifespan and limiting their opportunities for income.
In Nepal, The Red Sari has created and sustained work for more than 35 women each year. Yet, for many of these women, working means more than money. It liberates them from lives of isolation, creates confidence, and bestows status within their families and communities.
“I never knew I could make something so beautiful with my own hands,” said Pushpa, a local artisan and mother of two children. “But now that I make the felt sari, I feel pride and know I can make anything.
The Clinton School Speaker Series not only enhances the education of Clinton School students, but also provides a venue for the public to engage in intellectual discussions on the issues of the day.