Life

How this woman empowered a community of women through fashion

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Hannah Keegan
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Fritha Vincent, this year’s Stylist/Prix Clarins winner, on how she empowers women in India through her social enterprise.

Wayanad is a picturesque rural district in Kerala, in south-west India. But its long winding roads, lush leafy forests and dramatic waterfalls are the backdrop for hardship. More than 30% of its 817,000 inhabitants live in poverty. This is where Fritha Vincent, then a charity fundraiser, found herself in the summer of 2013, travelling around on a motorbike with her boyfriend and visiting local finance charities.

“I visited a women’s group there,” Vincent, 39, recalls. “I couldn’t believe how they made a living. They spent hours upon hours every day tying rose buds together for people to give as a daily offering to the Hindu Gods. They made next to nothing. All that work for the flowers to be discarded so quickly.” Eyeing a sewing machine in the corner of the shack, she asked the women why they didn’t make things to sell at the local market. “You should buy some fabric and make nightgowns,” she suggested. Their response was telling. “We want to,” they said, “but no one has the money to buy them.”

This is what Vincent describes as her “epiphany moment”. A week before her trip to India she had gifted her newly married friend a ‘secret pillow’ she had handmade with brightly patterned fabric that folds out into a blanket. “My friend was so charmed by it she said, ‘Fritha! You really should be selling these.’ I dismissed the idea. I mean, why on earth would I start a homeware company? That’s not going to save anyone’s life.”

However, the thought of her pillows returned as she stood in front of the women, who were desperate to make something people would pay for. “It suddenly seemed obvious. I could teach the women how to make the pillows and then sell them to an international market, making sure they got a good price.” The business Vincent went on to create, Secret Projects, has trained more than 500 women across India to make Secret Pillows since 2014. The women receive 7.5% of the £50 sale price.

Vincent expanded into making Secret Saris, wraparound dresses made from second-hand saris, last summer as a way to help young women escaping sex trafficking. “Once these women are rescued, they’re taken to safe communities while waiting to be sent home to their families. They can wait for years, with nothing to do,” Vincent explains. “Secret Saris keeps them occupied while earning money.”

From the start, Vincent knew she wanted to create a social enterprise, rather than a charity (charities raise funds through donations while social enterprises sell products or services to fund their initiatives). “I run a business but with a social goal: to normalise women working in India,” she says. “I want them to think of themselves as businesswomen, not charity beneficiaries. Because when women have financial independence, they have power.” Here, Vincent shares her tips on starting your own social enterprise.

Secure Initial Funding 

Once you’ve had your “epiphany moment”, the first step is raising the funds to get your idea off the ground. Crowdfunding, through websites such as Kickstarter and Crowdfunder, is an effective way to raise money while spreading the word about your project.

“There are three types of crowdfunding,” Vincent explains. “Rewards-based, donation-based and debt-based. I recommend rewards-based, because you’re not getting into debt with your donors and the people funding your project are getting something back. In my case, they would receive a Secret Pillow,” she says. “You should offer them whatever your business will eventually be selling. People will become invested in its success, rather than simply donating and walking away.” Vincent’s first crowdfunding campaign garnered 500 orders, enabling her to return to India in 2014 ready for business.

Market the Business

Effective digital marketing can be a start-up’s greatest asset. “Utilising the power of social media is always important, but especially so in the beginning,” Vincent explains. “I created promotional videos using footage I’d taken in India to post on Facebook and Instagram, and asked my friends to share them. You have to shout about what you’re doing.”

When it comes to content, Vincent believes there should be a clear narrative for a customer to follow. “You need to create a story around the brand,” she says. “Ask yourself, what was the moment I realised I had found a solution to the social problem I’m passionate about? Tell people that story. Keep it short and, when you tell it, make sure your whole body and heart is buzzing. People will pass on your story if they feel that energy.”

Use Your Time Wisely

Before committing to the project, be aware of the strain it will have on your time. This will be particularly difficult at the start when the project isn’t making money – Vincent worked her day job as a charity fundraiser until the end of last year.

“When I did my first Crowdfunder campaign, I asked a friend to walk my dog for a month, another friend cooked my meals and my mum edited everything I wrote on social media,” she says. “You have to be realistic about how much time the business will take up, lean on friends and don’t make the jump to full-time until you’re ready.”

Grow the Business

Successful applications for grants and prizes can result in a double whammy of publicity and funding, enabling you to then expand your business. By winning 2018’s Stylist/Prix Clarins award – an annual prize awarded to an inspirational woman improving the lives of the next generation through a charitable endeavour – Vincent has received a £30,000 injection for Secret Projects, which she will spend expanding into new communities in India and developing more products, as well as a bespoke mentoring programme. Other schemes offering monetary and business support to social enterprises include Virgin Start Up, The Arts Council, Comic Relief, The Heritage Lottery and Santander’s Changemaker Fund.

“My advice is not to apply for any grants until you are already off the ground,” says Vincent. “You have to invest so much time into winning start-up grants, which is high risk when that time could be spent making revenue instead. Once you have proven to yourself that your idea is workable and worthwhile, you are much more likely to be successful.”

Overcome Problems

Unwavering self-belief has defined Vincent’s approach to challenges. “When a problem arises, you have to become obsessed with it, task yourself with becoming an expert in that field,” she says. “When I started I didn’t even know how to ship the pillows to the UK. You can’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the minute details of the business. I spent hours on the phone with Royal Mail, but it paid off.

“Reaching out to businesses that are similar to yours can be helpful too, as their founders are likely to have encountered the same problems. But remember, advice from other business people is just advice. Nobody knows your business like you.”

With a roster of new products in the works (wrap skirts, kimonos, wash bags) and trips to India with investors lined up, Secret Projects is on the point of transformative expansion. “If you’d have told me all this three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Vincent. “But now I’m ready and I’m so determined.”

Stylist’s Secret Projects Edit

Feeling inspired by Vincent’s work? Well, an easy way to support the project is to simply pick up one of her beautiful, handmade items yourself. Whether it be something for you, or a treat for someone else, take a browse at our edit of our favourite Secret Projects products. 

Cotton Paisley Sari

£30, secretprojects.org

Purple Flowers in the Snow Secret 

£50, secretprojects.org

Tropical Glow Pillow 

£50, secretprojects.org

Synthetic Sari

£30, secretprojects.org

Secret Scarf with Ikkat cream and peach pom-poms

£35, secretprojects.org

Watermelons Secret Pillow

£50, secretprojects.org

Temple Trim Pink

£35, secretprojects.org

You can take a look at the whole Secret Projects collection, which includes pillows, saris and scarfs, here.

Images: Secret Projects