This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
“You belong here,” reads a small, wooden sign in cheerful, all-cap lettering.
At first glance, it seems almost redundant, because everything about this boutique, nestled inside a 1901 Queen Anne home, is warm and inviting: a wraparound porch, wrought-iron fireplaces, sunny rooms with high ceilings, original wood floors with an agreeable squeak.
Smiling portraits look down from the walls, overseeing showrooms filled with handmade jewelry, clothing, and home decor items. There’s a sunroom with self-serve coffee and comfortable seating areas that invite you to sit down for a chat.
Of course you belong here. So why the sign?
“Many of the women who come here don’t feel worthy,” explains Beth Bell. “They feel broken.”
Beth is the executive director of Fashion & Compassion, the nonprofit social enterprise behind this Charlotte, NC, boutique. Everything in the shop is made by vulnerable and marginalized women, both locally and around the globe.
“Our model takes the power of fashion and the power of creativity and uses it to lift up women,” Beth says. “It might be a trafficked woman trying to heal or an immigrant who’s trying to find a new community. It might be a woman who was formerly incarcerated and needs employment experience she can put on a resume.”
Fashion & Compassion works with a half-dozen local agencies – from the Probation Court to the Charlotte Rescue Mission – to identify women who need help in developing job skills and life skills after some sort of traumatic event.
“Women need that primary agency to pull them out of society and deal with their issues, but then they need a way to reenter society, and that’s where we come in,” Beth says.
About 120 women go through the program in a typical year. Half their time is spent on professional development, including hands-on training in jewelry design and production. Artisans earn a living wage – the equivalent of $15 an hour – giving them a taste of financial independence. Every item is signed by the woman who made it, and proceeds from sales are reinvested in the program.
The other half of the program is focused on personal development. Artisans set primary and secondary goals in areas like sobriety, education, or family relationships, then work with a mentor one-on-one to develop concrete action steps they’ll take over the course of 12 weeks.
Beth says the model has proven itself over the years, with more than 500 women acquiring the tools and resources they need to take control of their futures. In 2019 alone, the artisans at Fashion & Compassion logged 4,700 hours in the program, created 11,000 items for sale, and met their empowerment goals 83% of the time.
Beyond the structure of the program itself, Beth believes there’s enormous intangible value in creating a sense of community and belonging. That sign hanging in the workroom is just the visible tip of the iceberg.
“Community is coming together to talk about trauma, hopes, and dreams. There’s healing in that. The community gives them sisterhood that carries them beyond graduation. It’s the relationship piece that is the secret sauce to success.”
Finding a Home
Many artisans come to Fashion & Compassion from institutional settings such as homeless shelters, so it’s important for them to get the sense of being in a warm, inviting home, Beth says. The coffee room and seating clusters aren’t just designed to encourage shoppers to linger – they also encourage artisans to mingle with staff and customers, building relationships outside their normal social circles.
Across from the coffee maker are a pair of message boards where artisans can anonymously share their burdens and customers can offer words of encouragement. The messages often take the form of short prayers, helping the space earn its nickname: the Prayer Porch.
In typical years, all of this work is funded half by donations and half by product sales, but the pandemic cut sales revenue by 29%. With the help of federal PPP loans, the organization has been able to maintain its programming for vulnerable women, and Beth has positioned the organization for even greater sales post-pandemic.
Expanding the product lineup is key. Jewelry still accounts for some 60% of sales, but new categories are coming online regularly, thanks to a growing roster of partner organizations around the world. There are soaps and scrunchies and bags and bowls, all handmade by artisans overcoming extreme adversity such as war, trafficking, and HIV/AIDS.
“I’m partial to our wrap skirts,” Beth says when pressed to name just a couple of her favorite new items. “They’re super versatile, beautiful kitenge fabric, and one size fits all, zero to 16. I love that kind of body inclusivity. Oh, and we have a wonderful line of bags from El Salvador made from recycled water bottles. I’m excited about those.”
Pressed to name a single artisan who best represents what “success” looks like, Beth is similarly pained. “There are like 12 I want to tell you about,” she laughs.
Among the names she rattles off is Sherry, who “spiraled into depression and alcoholism” after being raped and molested as a child. Referred to Fashion & Compassion by an addiction organization, Sherry set four goals around finances and family – and crushed every one of them.
Since graduating from Fashion & Compassion, Sherry has completed her degree at a local community college, supported herself with full-time employment, and reconnected with her children. “Her time here was rich and amazing,” Beth says, and Sherry has stayed connected through the alumni program. “She’s surrounded by the sisterhood and we’re still loving on her today.”
Beth says it’s a pattern she sees over and over again. “It’s incredible to see that kind of transformation and to see the joy that comes through meeting those goals and feeling empowered.
“Sherry is like so many of our women. They come in thinking ‘I’ve got this mini job. I’m going to make jewelry and get paid.’ Then they start to realize this is not really about the jewelry. This is not really about the stipend. It is so much more than that.”
Spend for good: You’ll find hundreds of handmade items in the Fashion & Compassion online store, ranging from their signature, made-in-Charlotte jewelry to home goods and fashion accessories from around the world. Hot tip: Just in time for Father’s Day, the first men’s collection will be making its debut this spring.
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