While standing in a remote mud-hut village in Timor, blooming with a vision of beginning Ibu, I peer admiringly into an open air workshop built by women in order to weave and dye and spin together. I feel the arms of children around my legs whose brothers and sisters headed off to college on their mother’s dime. I enter a new home built by the Ibu (chief weaver, alpha female) for a home-cooked lunch and touch the walls which shelter her family - a far cry from the huts down the dirt road. I know, at that moment, that I want to get money into the hands of women. So much good blossoms from that beginning. And I know, too, as I look at their exquisite skirts woven in ageless ikat techniques and dyed with the leaves of local trees, that I want to help preserve their extraordinary textile language, their local slant on beauty, by and for women.
Those are still my two goals for the work of Ibu: putting money in the hands of women and doing so by elevating their under-appreciated, under-paid skills of hand-crafted beauty. I chose to create a business rather than a non-profit to accomplish this, because women do not need hand-outs; they need work that pays. I want them to grow wise in the ways of business - learning to price their work and value their time, learning governmental regulations in order to export, figuring out quality control, starting credit unions to safely store their savings - to be savvy and strong and endure long after my work is over. And why not jobs which honor and utilize what they do best? Jobs which allow women to stay in their communities rather than be dislocated to work factories in over-populated cities; jobs which allow them enjoy their children as they weave, to belong to their larger families and tribal traditions as well? Just as I had always wanted work that grows organically from my very being, I want the same for them.
What percentage of your sales go back to the artisans? I’m asked more than once by new friends and allies introduced to Ibu. People accustomed to non-profits offering wares to fund charity are so right to ask the question.
I quickly correct the misperception. We are not a non-profit; Ibu is a business. We collaborate with artisans to create products, provide upfront money to purchase materials, and then buy the finished product outright at the artisan’s asking price. Far above fair trade, it is a price that will move a woman toward freedom, toward autonomy, choice. If a product doesn’t find a soft spot in your hearts, we take the hit, not the women who made it.
Ibu applies a traditional wholesale/retail model to the product purchased, doubling the wholesale cost to cover our expenses of showroom and website merchandising, staffing, designing, marketing, PR.
I hope to also go home with a paycheck one day. I hope to pay my remarkable team what they are worth one day. I want to see all women thrive. For now, I am happy to give this young movement my own resources and watch it spread, see money get into hands of artisans, and daily thank my team for their incredible loyalty and dedication as we grow.
Money is one form of power, flowing through us and between us. As women in developing countries touch that power, they grow also in leadership and stature, in self-respect and voice. They pass that power on to their children in the form of school, medicine, food, health, happiness. With the power of money, they change lives.
And that is the business of Ibu.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker