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Meet Pushpika Freitas of Marketplace Handwork of India in Evanston

Today we’d like to introduce you to Pushpika Freitas.

Handwork of India grew out of a very small-scale venture organized in 1980 to help three low-income women in Mumbai, India. At that time, Pushpika Freitas and Lalita Monteiro founded the Indian nonprofit SHARE and began teaching the women to sew patchwork quilts by hand, work they could do at home without having to pay for childcare or equipment. This small experiment attracted attention from other women in the neighborhood. The slums of Mumbai are full of women who need to support their families but face obstacles, including poor education, cultural barriers, and religious restrictions. By 1983 the number of artisans in the group had grown to over 75.

Handwork of India was incorporated in Illinois as a nonprofit in 1986. In 1990, we printed and distributed our first catalog of women’s apparel and home decor characterized by traditional Indian hand dyeing and hand embroidery. By 1992, the artisans numbered over 120, and the organization was restructured to encompass multiple independent cooperatives. By owning and running their own cooperatives, the artisans can achieve meaningful and sustainable self-sufficiency and empowerment.

Social programs, developed in collaboration with SHARE and the artisans, help the women reach their full potential. Programs for the artisans’ children also help them succeed in school and beyond, taking the change into the next generation. Currently, MarketPlace works with over 400 artisans organized into 11 cooperatives.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
We first started with home parties because we did not have any capital for marketing.

But this was a blessing as it served as customer research which helped define the line and brand. In 1988, we participated in trade shows and in 1990 we printed our first catalog.

The first 10 years we steadily but in the mid 2000 with market shifts and other factors, we struggled a great deal. In 2010, we decided to concentrate only on B2C and catalog and web marketing and have focused our efforts on that.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Marketplace Handwork of India – what should we know?
MarketPlace is a fair trade, non-profit organization that empowers women in India to break the cycle of poverty. Economic empowerment is one aspect of our mission and we are most proud of the fact that the women have taken opportunities presented to them and have become agents of social change in their families and communities.

We specialize in women’s clothing starting with what the women artisans can do and matching those skills with the needs of the market. We used traditional printing techniques and work closely with traditional fabric suppliers. The rich colors, techniques and relaxed styles is what our customers know us for. We have very dedicated customers. We also challenge creativity by using Chindis – left over scraps from production to train new artisans and create wonderful textures and effects.

What sets us apart is that our model totally integrates social and business development – the two are equally important.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
The Fair Trade movement certainly played a role. We were one of the first in the country and the ones like Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv (besides others who closed) were very supportive mentors. And the movement itself now is educating people about the importance of fair trade and how terribly workers are treated in the apparel business (and elsewhere as well). The strength, wisdom and perseverance of the women artisans is tremendous and they have played a pivotal role in shaping the mission of the organization.

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