Social Entrepreneur Gives Rwandan Women a Boost

An artist turned social entrepreneur, Willa Shalit was determined to help African women sell their beautiful baskets in the U.S. Now, thanks to her tiny trading company, thousands of them are living better lives.

By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Willa Shallit sits, draped in a red scarf, with maser weavers at Gahaya Gifted Hands training center
Photograph: Photo by: Dean Ericson

How an Artist Was Born

Willa Shalit is rushing between appointments along West 57th Street in Manhattan when a passerby stops her and fingers Shalit’s shoulder bag, a three-tone cotton sling patterned with Barack Obama faces. "I love this," the woman says. "Where did you get it?"

Shalit just happens to have the company card, which specifies a Web site (obamabags.com) that sells not only this particular item but also a range of others made from Obama-print fabrics. "This is fantastic," the woman says. "You wouldn’t have a few more of these cards, would you? I want to give them to my friends."

Shalit gives the woman a handful, then takes off, not once mentioning that she arranged for the bags’ manufacture back during the presidential campaign, and that she imports them from Rwanda. In fact, her company, Fair Winds Trading, also imports non-Obama tote bags, baskets, place mats, tablecloths, ornaments, and jewelry, thus providing employment to thousands of women in Africa, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Shalit came up with the idea for the Obama bags in February 2008, during one of her frequent trips to Rwanda. "I was there at the time of George Bush’s visit to Africa, and I noticed fabric with his face printed on it everywhere. I thought, if they can do that with Bush’s face, we can do it with Obama’s."

Voila: Obama handbags, shoulder bags, bandannas, tablecloths, and sarongs.

Voila: Art meets business meets social activism, the driving force and inspiration behind Shalit’s many enterprises.

Shalit, 53, a thin, fidgety woman with tight brown curls who often punctuates her conversation with a warm hand on her listener’s knee or forearm, has spent the past three decades reinventing herself through four different careers. One of Today show film critic Gene Shalit’s six children, she cut her entrepreneurial teeth at the ripe age of 19 with a vintage clothing store she owned and ran in the summertime on Martha’s Vineyard. She would purchase her stock during the school year on trips through the Midwest. ("People have attics there, with a treasure trove of antique clothing.") After graduating from Oberlin College in 1978, she became a life-cast sculptor, making three-dimensional plaster likenesses of human faces and bodies, using molds and casts. Living "very simply and frugally," Shalit supported herself on her artist’s income and money earned from seamstress work, with occasional help from her family. In 1989, she became an artist in residence at the College of Santa Fe, in New Mexico. By age 37, she’d made life castings of numerous celebrities, as well as five presidents — Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and the elder Bush — and she published a book about her sculptures. Two years later, in 1996, PBS aired a documentary about her work, titled Willa: Behind the Mask.

Finding a Cause

By the time she turned 40, Shalit was looking for a new mission. A writer friend introduced her to the emerging playwright Eve Ensler, who invited her to attend a reading of her latest project, The Vagina Monologues, then a work in progress. Shalit was bowled over by the play’s message of spiritual and creative empowerment for women. "I thought Ensler was a genius, an incredible writer and visionary," she says. "I resolved to help her get her voice out into the world." Despite daunting challenges, Shalit eventually guided production of Ensler’s groundbreaking show into more than 100 countries.

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