The Journey of the Lotus Odyssey

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 in India.


"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 2008.


"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 says.


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 journey.


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

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