When Sarah Aulie traveled to India seven years ago, she learned about Kantha, a Bengali quilting tradition that involves stitching together discarded saris. “Women who aren’t rich can make this beautiful product that keeps their families warm at night,” she says.
Her resulting venture, Hand & Cloth, began in India but now partners with local organizations in Bangladesh. “We’ve had a lot of traction in the marketplace because Kantha has become really trendy,” she says. “It’s been organic sales growth.”
The business provides dignified work opportunities for women on the streets, Aulie says. “We saw that a lot of the women in Calcutta’s red-light district are from Bangladesh. It’s a preventative measure against trafficking. If women can have a job in the first place that’s dignified, they’re less likely to be trafficked.”
Aulie’s inspiration came from meeting a girl who spoke a little English while volunteering at a safe home. “She was so bright, and she helped me to understand that she didn’t have a lot of options ahead of her,” Aulie says. “Her mother worked in the red-light district.”
Although Aulie had built a successful social enterprise in Hand & Cloth, she wanted to return to the U.S. for a master’s degree, partly out of a desire to better understand trauma—since so many of her micro-entrepreneurs appear to have posttraumatic stress disorder—and partly because “I kept getting advice that if you want to work internationally, get a master’s,” she says.
While Hand & Cloth does its work in Bangladesh, the organization is now based in Chicago, where Aulie also works with Catholic Charities developing Loom, a social enterprise of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program, which provides refugee women with similar opportunities here in the United States. “I felt like it was God’s timing,” Aulie says. “I wanted to be doing something here locally.”
Loom’s tagline, “Woven Together,” encapsulates both the nature of the work and the nature of the bonding among the women who have worked for the venture since it launched in November 2013. “They’re very talented,” Aulie says. “It’s neat to see them being able to showcase these techniques they have, and that there is a market here that appreciates that.”