In small, often remote, villages scattered across India,
women artisans toil, turning the land's precious resources into clothing,
personal hygiene items, dishes, ornamental pieces and a vast array of products
for everyday life. They work in hopes of making a living to sustain themselves
and their families, and they often face tremendous challenges in their attempt
to reach this goal.
These challenges include domestic and sexual abuse, single
motherhood, being a widow and ostracism from their community. The challenges do
not end once their products are complete; many of these women are unable to
travel beyond their village, and if they do manage to get the product to market,
often, they are not paid fairly for their efforts.
In 2006, Theresa VanderMeer, then a student at the University of Michigan, decided to
apply for one of five $3,000 grants offered to U of M students wishing to study
"I was really interested in
how economic empowerment changes women's lives socially," she says. "If
the female head of the household suddenly started making more than her husband,
how does that change that relationship? What are the consequences on her
children's health? Because they've shown that if a man makes more money, he
spends more money on stuff that he wants to spend more money on, while if a
woman makes more money, in developing countries, she spends more money on her
children's education and healthcare."
VanderMeer received the grant, and left with the idea that
she wanted to study women's empowerment and economic issues.
Working for Dastkar, an umbrella organization providing
marketing and business plan support, bazaars and other business-related
services to women, VanderMeer was exposed to several women and their stories,
as well as the realities of their day-to-day struggles.
The following year, VanderMeer focused her sights on
returning to India to continue the experience.
"I applied for a few more grants, and I thought an
additional way of fundraising for me to go back would be to sell some scarves,"
she says. "So it started with an order of 150 scarves and we just sold
them around campus. They were super popular."
So popular that VanderMeer was left with only one for herself,
which she wore for several weeks before another student approached her and
asked if she could purchase that one right off VanderMeer's neck.
Realizing the potential for a successful business and a way
to help the many women she met during her two stays in India, VanderMeer
started The Lotus Odyssey with partners Jorel Van Os, financial, and creative Puneet Sabharwal in
"To look at how passionate Theresa is about this and how she
can just draw you in," Van Os reflects, "I really did get drawn in. I did my
own research, read all kinds of things and was part of this whole idea. That
said to me, we have to do this. It's not just a good idea, a good business, but
people need this and it's good for society. This could really be something I
could be proud of."
The Lotus Odyssey provides the opportunity for Indian
women's organizations and co-ops to sell their products in the U.S. and to get
a fair wage for their work.
Besides being fair trade, the products are also organic.
Currently, The Lotus Odyssey offers two product lines: a line of scarves, and a
line of home and body organics that includes soaps, body butters, candles and
natural bath items.
When approaching businesses about selling their products,
VanderMeer says, "We look for local businesses that care about the sorts of
issues we care about, or cater to a customer base who are interested in buying
products like these."
In literature about their company, they write, "It can be
difficult for customers to discern which products fit their values – we want
them to trust us to make the ethical decision."
The products are sold in over 20 boutiques, including bath & body boutique David and Bathsheba's in Grand Rapids. Other locations include Holland, Ann Arbor,
Frankenmuth and a few stores on the East coast.
VanderMeer and Ellie Walborn, co-owner of David and
Bathsheba's, agree that the key to The Lotus Odyssey's success is the stories
behind the products.
"People are willing to pay more if they know it's for a
really good cause . . . That line you really have to hand sell, say, 'this is
why its nice to use, and this is what the really great mission is,'" Walborn
Besides the story of the women behind the brilliant scarves
and fragrant soaps, there is another equally important story VanderMeer and Van
Os hope is conveyed through the products: the story of sustainability.
"This scarf is amazing in so many ways," VanderMeer
explains, spreading the scarf out upon the table. "First of all, it provides a
disincentive to deforestation. If a local community sees, 'I can make $50 if I
cut down this tree,' well, $50, that's a lot of money. That's a months worth of
wages. But, if they see, 'oh, silk grows on this tree. We can harvest this silk
and sell the silk, and then we will be paid to clean the silk, dye the silk,
and to weave the silk,' it benefits the local economy in so many ways and it's
great for the environment. They say, 'we have a long-term future here.'"
Van Os adds, "We may buy organic, but they live organic.
It's sustainability in the most real sense."
Even with the best intentions, opening a business in 2008
came with obvious challenges. The Lotus Odyssey is offering a high-end product
with a slightly higher price point than the average consumer is looking to
spend as they try to balance their conscience with their pocketbook in a down
economy. Still, VanderMeer is confident that the quality, combined with the
mission, will overcome any challenges the market has to offer, and that she and
Van Os will be able to spend 2011 focused on the next step in The Lotus Odyssey
Currently, the plan includes launching Work Shelter, a place
for women to come to live and work while they regain their footing in the
community. Work Shelter will be located in a slum neighborhood near New Delhi
and will help offer women a route to a better future.
"The whole concept behind this is if you need a place to
stay, you can come here," VanderMeer says. "So, even if it's a woman
with four children or if it's just one woman, she can come. They can stay if
they want, or just come for a short-term project."
Van Os adds, "When we talk about the Work Shelter, I am
really excited about that, because no matter what happens, we're always going
to have that and that is the core of what we are anyway."
VanderMeer and Van Os are utilizing Kickstarter to
fundraise for the project, and will start work on making their idea a reality
as soon as they raise the necessary funding for the first phase of the project.
The pair also speaks about expanding the product line,
opening a boutique and offering an artist exchange program through Work
Shelter. It's clear VanderMeer and Van Os have no dearth of ideas for where
they can go and what they can achieve through The Lotus Odyssey.
Charlsie Dewey is a professional writer located in Grand Rapids, MI. She also contributes articles to the Windy City Times in Chicago.
Jorel Van Os (3)
The Lotus Odyssey Products (4)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved