Women Empowering Women: One Woman's Journey From Humanitarian Aid Worker To Socialpreneur

 
Balakot, Pakistan - photo taken after the Kashmir earthquake of 2005.

Balakot, Pakistan - photo taken after the Kashmir earthquake of 2005.

It's Fashion Revolution week. Millions of people around the world are at this moment raising awareness for greater transparency and ethics in the fashion industry. To celebrate this movement, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share the inspiring story of Katherine Neumann - Founder of House of Wandering Silk and our social enterprise partner.

Katherine's journey encapsulates so much of what Fashion Revolution is about. It's a story of empowering yourself and others and being mindful of the environment and those who create your products. It's also a way of us showing you our customers, just what amazing people we have behind our products. I hope this inspires you to feel empowered enough to find out more about Fashion Revolution and ask your more questions about where your clothes come from.


This is her story. 
 
Born to immigrant parents in Sydney, Australia, by the age of nineteen, Katherine was studying International Relations in Japan. Here she lived for almost six years where an interest in fair trade inspired her to move to London and work in the development sector. Throwing herself into internships and volunteering, Katherine eventually began her almost ten-year career with a Paris-based International NGO. Based in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, she spent her time dodging land mines, eating cardoman ice-cream and getting to grips with the vagaries of International Development.

Katherine then moved to Mansehra, in the former North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, in the wake of the catastrophic Kashmir earthquake of 2005. She spent two years here, deciding one day, she would set up her own fair-trade business.  In her spare time, Katherine began to meet  with women artisans in northern Pakistan, making connections and learning about traditional textiles. Juggling this with her position as an Aid Worker, Katherine continued to work in conflict and disaster zones. From Iraq to Kenya, Kyrgyzstan to Myanmar, (to name only a few), she managed to keep one eye open for beautiful textiles and artisans. It's with these same artisan communities that House of Wandering Silk still works with today.

Overlooking the Swat Valley - Northern Pakistan

Overlooking the Swat Valley - Northern Pakistan

As with many young people, Katherine's choice to work in humanitarian aid and international development, was based as she says "on an irresistible blend of wanderlust and a deep (and rather naive) idealism".


"At that time, in my early twenties", I wanted to work in a field that would allow me to directly and positively impact the lives of people who had far less opportunities and much greater challenges in their lives than I had ever had to face". 

Working with an international NGO, Katherine told me how she witnessed a huge amount of positive social and economic benefit for the people and communities she worked with. However, noticing that the industry was heavily skewed in favour of the donors, rather than the beneficiaries, Katherine's idealism slowly turned to cynicism.  
Programs were often designed with the priorities of the donor put before the needs of the target community. Watching hundreds of millions of dollars flowing through a system that talked a lot about "sustainability" but which more often than not, did not actually achieve any level of sustainability through the projects implemented. 

Jamma Masjid - Lahore

Jamma Masjid - Lahore

Even though Katherine continues to believe that NGOs carry out extremely necessary work, she became convinced that the best way to serve impoverished communities and affect social change in a truly sustainable and meaningful way, was to shift the means for their development away from development organisations and directly into the hands of the communities themselves.


"In my view, for economic development, this means generating fairly-paid and dignified livelihood opportunities that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable over time. For social change, this means empowering women. It's been written about in study after study, that the empowerment of women as opposed to men has a proportionally greater impact on the health and education of children. Meanwhile, women in particular, continue to suffer massive social and cultural injustices. So it was a logical decision when setting up my business to focus primarily on generating livelihood opportunities which empower women. My experience of running House of Wandering Silk leaves me in no doubt that this is the most singularly efficient and fair means to achieve sustainable development and positive social change".

After six years of living in Delhi, Katherine now divides her time between her  home in Berlin, her studio in Delhi and exploring the world for authentic textile stories.  
 
All photo's by Katherine Neumann.