Being HIV positive was not just a diagnosis for three women in Kenya—it was a label that stuck with them, making their desire to have their own business nearly impossible due to customers refusing to buy from them.
With training materials in hand, former Kokomo resident Lorelei VerLee made a trip to Kenya to teach these women firsthand that they can have their own business despite their HIV status. She taught the trio basic business principles and how to make their products marketable to customers worldwide.
“It was pretty incredible because they’re now able to get their business going,” she said.
Before that, she worked in Tajikistan with Asira Nazarova Mathew, a Tajik civil war survivor, to start her own business. And before that, she worked with tsunami survivors in Japan, women rescued from sex slavery in Central Asia, and survivors of the Haitian earthquake all as part of her 501c3 nonprofit, Creative Women of the World, a venture she started just a year-and-a-half ago.
The goal of Creative Women of the World is to give women in third-world countries who are living in desperate situations, such as extreme poverty, enslavement, or devastation, the foundation they need to start their creative business, with the ultimate goal of empowering them and helping them rise from their situation.
“Simply put, our purpose is to empower women through the power of creativity,” she said.
Choosing to help women isn’t a political statement, she said. It’s simply based on the fact that they’ll get their income to their families.
“We really find that when we give women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs they really take care of their family and take care of their community, and that’s why we choose to work with women,” she said.
Since July 2011, VerLee has worked directly with six countries and indirectly with 28 countries to help women get their art-based businesses going.
The training principles are based on the triple bottom line—protecting the people involved, protecting the planet, and protecting the artisans’ profit.
“We’re talking basic business principles to sustain a business,” she said. “It’s a learner-specific training program, and it’s really been an awesome thing.”
In addition to providing training, Creative Women of the World also provides a market by giving the owners the opportunity to sell their products in the United States.
“We show them how to design their products in such a way that they’ll appeal to the American market, and then we give them a direct entrance into the market here,” she said.
The products are sold at VerLee’s store in Fort Wayne, online at www.CreativeWomenoftheWorld.com, as well as Artworks Gallery, located at 210 N. Main St., until March 15.
While VerLee has a store, the proceeds go toward the training program and into providing grants for the women to start their businesses.
“They’re not huge grants. You think of thousands of dollars here in the states, but really, a $300 grant can do a lot in those countries to get them started,” she said.
As quickly as the women get a viable product put together, VerLee said Creative Women of the World orders from them, giving the artisans 50 percent up front and taking the other 50 percent at the nonprofit’s own risk of selling it.
“That way they don’t have to wait for things to be sold. They get their money up front, and then we take part of the risk,” she said.
Eventually, VerLee said she hopes to open up Creative Women of the World stores across the nation.
“I believe that we’re probably going to have stores all over the country eventually. But right now we’re new. We’re only a year-and-a-half, and we want to do it right. We’re being really, really careful about every step we take so that when we duplicate ourselves we can do it well there as well,” she said.
Currently, everything from primitive art, children’s dolls, hand-embroidered cards, journals, scarves, jewelry, and purses are being sold, with new items being added regularly.
VerLee, who was raised in Japan as the child of missionaries, said she always had a desire to do mission work combined with art in some way. After coming to America, VerLee earned a degree in art education and taught for 10 years in the public schools.
Once her children left home, she decided it was a good time to get into mission work. Creative Women of the World was exactly what she had in mind.
“It’s just amazing how this has grown and how many women and countries are involved. It’s phenomenal,” she said, adding that it wouldn’t be possible without all of the artisans who are involved.
Last week, Kokomo photographer Sherry Temby shopped the Creative Women of the World exhibit at Artworks Gallery, pointing out items she’s already purchased and items she’s going to purchase.
“There are so many neat things,” she said. “I think this is just really great. I really like it, and I really like that I’m helping people who are trying to better themselves.”