“I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
—Madame C.J. Walker
Here at The Glow Up, we’ve made it our mission to empower and inspire all iterations of black women. But admittedly, we can sometimes get a bit myopic and materialistic when covering fashion shows and the latest looks on the red carpet. That’s why we’re grateful that International Women’s Day exists, to pull us out of our own beauty- and fashion-obsessed heads, for a least a day.
But we’d like to make that broader focus last more than just today—and last at least all month, since it’s also Women’s History Month. When we thought about how we wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day, we thought we should focus on something that has an ongoing positive impact in women’s lives. Fittingly, we settled on something that also happens to be one of our favorite activities: shopping.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Time Is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives.” Notably, there are fashion brands and entrepreneurial initiatives around the world doing the work of supporting and empowering women around the world. So don’t just drop a dollar; drop gems by spending your money with female entrepreneurs who are trying to turn the world around, one thoughtful purchase at a time.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the planet, where only 33 percent of school-age children ever attend school. In Chichewa, Malawi’s native language, tiwale means “let us shine/glow.” This youth-led, community-based organization, founded by DJ, artist and one of Forbes’ Africa’s 30 Under 30 Ellen Chilemba, has a stated mission of “empowering women to develop sustainable ventures that transform our communities from poverty-stricken to entrepreneur-vital.”
Tiwale runs programs providing school grants and mentorship, training, microloans and even a blog featuring African female writers. The goods produced are for sale on its site; 40 percent go back to the participants of the program, while the remaining 60 percent support Tiwale’s programming.
This charity and brand creates ethical and sustainable womenswear and lifestyle items, produced in the Mayamiko Fashion Lab in Malawi by the team of tailors, pattern cutters and seamstresses the label trains and employs through fully funded workshops. Founded by Paola Masperi, the Mayamiko Fashion Lab “was designed to provide training, education, nutrition, sanitation and fairer trade practices to all of those involved ... many of whom are affected by the HIV pandemic or who are carers of HIV orphans. After their training all trainees receive a recognized qualification as well as mentoring, guidance and access to a microfinance scheme, enabling them to start their own business.”
And for those who choose to stay on with Mayamiko, the label pays living wages “so that more people can be employed and lifted out of poverty.”
Wouldn’t you love to start a business doing something you love that, in the process, takes care of black women and their families? That’s exactly what Liya Kebede, the Ethiopian supermodel, actress and mother of two, did when she founded Lemlem, a handwoven-clothing brand for men, women and children with fair-trade production headquartered in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Lemlem means “to bloom and flourish” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. Lemlem is committed to elevating artisanship and expanding production and jobs across Africa. In a quote from Kebede on the brand’s official website: “By employing traditional weavers, we’re trying to break their cycle of poverty, at the same time preserving the art of weaving while creating modern, casual, comfortable stuff that we really want to wear.” Access to education, health care, fair wages and safe working conditions, and you can get this in exchange for wearing some really cool-looking comfortable clothes? That’s smart shopping.
In Africa, shea butter is called “women’s gold.” Why? Because 16 million women make a living in West Africa picking the nuts that become shea butter. Shea Radiance, founded in 2010 by a Nigerian-American mother on a quest to treat her kids suffering from eczema, embodies the phrase “charity begins at home.” By taking care of the needs of the few, she created a means to take care of many.
By March of 2013, the company website reports, Shea Radiance had trained more than 300 small businesses to “Think Global and Act Local” through a selection of workshops, including soap making, formulation, access to finance, business plan development and marketing.
Shea butter is an incredible gift to women on so many levels: from the shea producer in the village to the small-business owner who manufactures products for the local market.
Leila Janah’s mission is “to give work.” As a self-taught skin-care aficionado and founder and CEO of the global poverty-fighting nonprofit Samasource, Janah’s latest venture is LXMI (pronounced “luxe-me”), a skin-care company based on the rare nut butter (and relative of shea) nilotica, which is available on LXMI’s site and QVC and at 300 Sephora locations worldwide.
Janah first encountered nilotica while visiting Uganda, and immediately saw its potential. With sourcing from the banks of the Nile, and by employing local harvesters and fair-trade practices, this skin-care brand is great not just for your skin but also for your ethical impact, as its website states:
In fact, we promise that for each of our primary ingredient harvests, our producers earn at least 3x the local average wage. These living wages will help chip away at some of the world’s most serious problems, from childhood malnutrition to human trafficking.
Global Goods Partners launched in 2005 as a not-for-profit social enterprise with a commitment to providing sustainable jobs for women. Since that time, it has partnered with women-led, community-based organizations and over 60 artisan groups in more than 20 countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Its products are handcrafted by artisans who make a fair living wage for each product they produce, as well as have access to training and funding to sustain their own enterprise. The company has also awarded more than $150,000 in financial grants to its partners around the globe.
Shoe designer Aurora James is a darling of the business of global luxury fashion accessories, and she did it by helping black women in Africa live and work with dignity. James earned her stripes in the fashion world traveling the globe with her mother, who sourced hard-to-find, unique artisan fashions for wealthy clients in New York, London and Paris.
Brother Vellies—which comes from the South African slang term for a man’s flat shoe, a stock staple of her collection—employs weavers, cobblers and Maribou feather-makers from one end the African continent to the other. James’ commitment to fair-trade practices and using African artisans proves that while most of us don’t know the struggle that our African brothers and sisters face on the daily, we can help change their lives by walking a mile in their shoes.
Clothed in Hope’s mission is “to empower women in Zambia through education and economic opportunity.” It does that by helping women create sustainable businesses through offering a yearlong life-skills-training program in sewing and entrepreneurship; development focusing on women’s empowerment; education to vulnerable women in health, disease prevention and nutrition; providing microloans to assist in launching independent, sustainable businesses; and marketing and selling Zambian-designed and -produced accessories and home goods to help women generate income.
Since its launch in 2012, more than 254 women have joined its life-skills-training program, over 75 have received microloans to start businesses (with a 100 percent repayment rate), and over 888 children have benefited as a result of the empowerment of their mothers.
Able is a lifestyle brand that promises “beautiful products by women who have overcome.” Its mission is “focused on ending generational poverty by working with women who have often overcome extraordinary circumstances. [It] manufacture[s] directly in the communities [it] wish[es] to impact, both locally and globally, creating jobs and ending the cycle of charity dependency.”
Understanding that the fashion industry is the third-largest industrial industry in the world, and that of its 60 million employees, over 75 percent are women, Able began while founder Barrett Ward was visiting Ethiopia and saw the effect of generational poverty on young women, often forced into prostitution to support themselves and their families. Able now prides itself on disrupting that cycle through its empowering and transparent business practices, saying:
Whether your purchase is produced in Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru or at our headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., each item has one thing in common: through working with women, it is leading all of us a step closer to the end of generational poverty. With your help, we are working each day to give opportunity to women in a safe and healthy environment and encouraging our peers to do the same.