Be INspired: Jaclyn McCosker and Saheli Designs

Saheli logo

Starting up a business sounds hard, right? Starting up an ethical and empowering organisation, a little tougher even? Now let's throw in a language barrier for good measure, and here we have it - Saheli Designs. A non-profit organisation working with women in India to empower, create and teach in order to combat inequality. All started by one Jaclyn McCosker.

Jaclyn, originally from Queensland and now living in Melbourne cast a stone 18 months ago and is creating a ripple effect in the world by changing the lives of Indian women. The cornerstones of Saheli Designs ethos, are "creativity, integrity and equality and that is exactly how they do things. Living up to its name, Saheli Designs provides beautifully crafted fashion whilst educating and empowering a community.

Saheli Fashions - Top

So, tell me, how did you get the idea for Saheli Designs and what is it all about?

After I graduated in 2014 all I knew was that I was heading to India to figure out what to do next. While there, I found a small development organisation to intern in women's economic empowerment. With the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development, I worked with Madhu Vaishnav in her adopted village, the town of Bhikamkor, Rajasthan.

My intention was to connect women in the village with some kind of funding and leave, but two weeks in, I recognised a need for steady income into the village and figured nobody else was going to provide it. So with the little I had in travel savings and around $2500 raised through a Crowdfunding campaign I ran embroidering training and began stitching fashion products to sell on Etsy in Australia.

I named it Saheli Designs, Saheli meaning female friend, as a way of allowing women around the world to band together and support women in India through the power of socially responsible commerce. Then through the power of storytelling, I bought together a group of like-minded women around the world on Instagram.

Saheli Centre

How does Saheli work to empower the women in India?

Firstly, I co-founded the Saheli Centre which is our hub of women's empowerment from where all our gender based development activities in the village occur. This centre is a safe space where women can gather socially without having to cover their faces.

In the centre, Saheli Designs employ 16 girls and women by paying them by the product. With [the] complete flexibility to work when and where they want, we provide them with a fair price and allow them to work as little or as much as they need. This allows them to tend to their family duties but also make some extra money when things are tight.

Traditionally, women aren't allowed to complete their education or hold jobs, so allowing women to earn an income from home brings value to female family members the village has never seen before. Having a steady income allows mothers to make better choices about the health, education and nutrition of their children. And daughter-in-laws or widows being able to bring home an income and pay for their own expenses awards them a higher status in the family home and reduces the chance of family violence.

The devaluation of girls and women because of their inability to contribute to the economy is a huge driver in gender-based violence and oppression, so making women the income earners changes attitudes, and we've already seen husbands and fathers allowing the women in the home more freedom than they had before Saheli Designs.

We also provide additional support, such as donated washable sanitary pads and educational workshops. We have run classes on topics such as English, health, human rights, nutrition and menstrual hygiene.

Education with Saheli Designs

Was Saheli difficult to set up, and how much time commitment does it take to sustain?

It's a never ending challenge to operate out of rural India. There are language barriers, cultural differences, large overhead expenses, and worst of all 10,000km between myself and my employees. But we get through it.

I've spent 5 months in India to organise the supply end of the chain, and will be returning every 6-12 months to make sure things are running smoothly and see what I can do to provide for my women. At home depending on the volume of orders and whether I've just had a shipment the daily upkeep is minimal and I just spend a few hours a week on marketing and business development.

Saheli Designs

How did you end up here and did you have prior knowledge in this area    before  you started this?

I found myself in this business because I knew working in development in South Asia was my chosen path. With a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and Conflict Studies and plenty of experience volunteering and fundraising for poverty organisation, I was extremely well versed in issues os poverty and economic development.

For this reason, the humanitarian side was a piece of cake for me. I deeply understood the issues of extreme poverty and the steps needed to develop and empower a community. Without that education, I probably wouldn't have ended up at the Institute in the first place.

But that wasn't everything. What I had was a knowledge of gender and development. What I didn't have was knowledge of fashion or business, yet I started a fashion business.

I do believe now that the best way of learning is doing. Degrees are important and usually essential to even get a callback for a job in this day and age, but throwing yourself into the deep end and having no choice but to swim is how you can make real change straight away. If I'd one home and studied the correct skills before I had even started, I don't think Saheli Designs would ever have come to life. And if it had, it would have lost its soul and wouldn't be the close-knit community I grew out of solidarity with my friends that it is today.

Jaclyn McCosker

Jaclyn is happy to answer questions from people directly about any aspect of Saheli Designs.

Want to know more or get involved?

Questions @ jaclyn@sahelidesigns.org
Shop @ Saheli Designs
Read more @ Jaclyns blog
Volunteer @ Email Jaclyn
Donate @ Saheli Centre

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July 22, 2016