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Inspiring Change Across Two Continents: The Women of Mela

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Throughout this week leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8, Mela Moments will celebrate the accomplishments of women artisans, designers and leaders who epitomize this year’s theme “Inspiring Change”.

“Inspiring change”, an integral part of the Mela Artisans mission. While much of our focus is on the extraordinary women artisans who handcraft stunning home décor and accessories for our collections, the Mela family is also fortunate to have a number of remarkable women on our team. From our co-founder to our chief creative officer to our India country manager, each of these women on our senior management team inspires change, and is in turn inspired, in her own way. Here are their thoughts on being inspired and inspiring women.

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Name: Sonali Mehta-Rao

Position: Co-Founder, Former President, Board Member, Mela Artisans, Mumbai

How do you feel Mela Artisans contributes to this year’s International Women’s Day Theme “Inspiring Change”?

The theme “Inspiring Change” directly relates to my original vision for Mela in many ways. At its core the brand is meant to inspire change all the way from the village to the department store. At the grassroots level, we take great pride in the fact that we are placing orders and increasing international exposure to many groups which are working hard to improve the position of women  in their communities.

At the same time, our brand is all about inspiring change in the retail industry by raising the profile of artisan products and stories, and by helping customers connect with the maker of the product they are buying, even if they are oceans apart. With globalization, the retail industry lost a lot of this storytelling and connectedness, but we see ourselves as leaders in the trend to create more transparency for the end customer.

What are some challenges or obstacles you have had to overcome in your life as a woman?

I think that one of the big challenges that all women entrepreneurs and business leaders face is that there are simply not enough of us. Leadership positions at major corporations and in the financial sector across the globe are still heavily male dominated. It becomes particularly challenging in a fundraising environment, where the numbers of women in angel investing or decision-making positions at funds is still very low.

However, by outlining these challenges I don’t mean to detract from the fact that real progress IS being made and I feel confident that in my lifetime I will continue to be surprised at the strides that I know women will make in business. I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of today’s leaders in inspiring real change in these areas, like Natalia Oberti Noguera of Pipeline Fellowship, and Nicole Schwab and Aniela Unguresan of Edge Certified (formerly the Gender Equality Project). It is hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago, we had just earned the right to vote! The progress since then, which so many women have fought for, has been pretty dramatic. But we still have a long way to go!

Who has been the most significant female role model in your life and why?

The obvious, and perhaps cliché (but honest!), answer for me is, my mom. I’ve looked up to her since day one, as a successful business owner in her own right, as a phenomenal writer and communicator, and of course as a great mother. While she is clearly the most significant role model in my life, there are so many other women who inspire me every day in my work, most notably every one of the incredibly impressive and accomplished women on the Mela team!

I have also been inspired by the women-leaders of some of our artisan groups such as Chanda Shroff of Shrujan and Mukti Datta of Panchachuli, for the strength they have shown to take things into their own hands against all odds and actually make substantial  quality-of-life changes for hundreds and thousands of women at the local level. I always love to surround myself with successful and aspiring women entrepreneurs and business people and through that I have found some truly life-changing mentors and colleagues.

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Name: Dipali Patwa

Position: Chief Creative Officer, New York

How do you feel Mela Artisans contributes to this year’s International Women’s Day Theme “Inspiring Change”?

Being a woman and having seen the cultural gender differences in India, China and other parts of Asia,  I am partial towards women’s causes because I strongly believe that if you empower women, you empower families. Mela Artisans supports and promotes women’s artisan groups like Shrujan, Rangasutra, Panchachuli and Eco-Tussar. By heart, by hand, Mela chooses to support communities, connect cultures and create sustainable channels of livelihood along the way.

What are some challenges or obstacles you have had to overcome in your life as a woman?

I have been blessed to be a part of a quite forward thinking Indian family who supported my dreams. But like any other woman, balancing work and family is always a challenge. You roll up your sleeves and move along and hope somewhere along the line you are lucky enough to have a family that understands and appreciates.

Who has been the most significant female role model in your life and why?

There have been so many women in my life who have touched me and continue to inspire me in many ways: my ‘naani’ for her incredible perseverance in adverse circumstance; my mother, who is an OB/GYN and who taught me to be self-sufficient; my English teacher, Ms. Beaty Fernandes, whose perfect English still rings in my ears; Mallika Sarabhai, who continues to innovate herself; Laila Tayabji, for her dedication to Indian craft sector; Oprah Winfrey for her sheer drive and charm; Hillary Clinton for her smarts and grace; Tory Burch for her style and foundation; Sara Blakely of Spanx; Maya Angelou for her words and I could go on …..

Women Inspire Me!

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Name: Kamal Wadkar

Position: India Country Manager, Mumbai

How do you feel Mela Artisans contributes to this year’s International Women’s Day Theme “Inspiring Change”?

I’m lucky enough to spend my days traveling across India working with incredible men and women artisans. During my site visits to groups like Cute Handicrafts, Panchachuli and ROPE, I’m able to see - at the most basic level - the benefits Mela brings to these communities. Mela works with several women or women-majority groups that offer stable income, a safe work environment, and financial freedom that would otherwise be unattainable. Even beyond the improved quality of life that stable employment brings, when you economically empower women by teaching them a skill that can generate income, they automatically gain power and status in their household and in society in general. This is the best way to inspire change.

What are some challenges or obstacles you have had to overcome in your life as a woman?

Compared to most women in India, I have been extremely fortunate in my upbringing. I came from a very educated background with a family that has supported my personal and career goals. I am allowed to be single (and am not pressured to marry or have an arranged marriage), I have adopted a child as a single mother, and am constantly traveling solo across the country for work.

People often wonder if being female makes my job of working with artisan groups in conservative villages difficult. Although there are some initial challenges of working with male community leaders who do not know me and may not be used to working with women business managers, they can be surmounted. I may initially find some of their expectations and criteria controlling or somewhat limiting to women, but I have learned that if I cooperate and prove myself, I’m always able to bring them around to a new way of thinking, new rules and new rights for women in the community.

Who has been the most significant female role model in your life and why?

I find inspiration in the women artisans I meet everyday in my work – not the rich and famous. I admire their guts, courage and tenacity in overcoming sometimes impossible odds. I have seen them struggle with money, domestic violence, sickness without healthcare, stifling government corruption, and more. But I have never seen them lose hope, I’ve never seen them stop working – whether it’s odd jobs or with a Mela artisan group – and that unremitting will to survive motivates me everyday to push further and try harder.



Mela Artisans is grateful for all the inspiring women on our team.

Boca Raton, FL: Kirsten Gilbert, Marlene Maharaj, Christina Mariconti, Meena Rao, Sharon Ringnalda, Josie Sandoval
New York, NY: Heather Bernstein, Jeanelle Girard, Luz Guillermo, Dipali Patwa, Bhavna Sethi
India: Sonali Mehta-Rao, Svetlana Pereira, Sangeeta Sen, Kamal Wadkar

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