Many people associate Creative Women of the World (CWOW) with their shop downtown Fort Wayne next to JK O’Donnell’s.
But there’s so much more to their work than a retail operation.
It all goes back to one word: Empowerment. Vanessa Sheckler poses with Kenyan artist Milka. Milka has taken CWOW's business training with several women around her community.
This nonprofit's mission is to equip women, domestically and abroad, with entrepreneurial resources to develop sustainable businesses by harnessing their creativity.
Oftentimes, the women CWOW works with are facing conditions and circumstances like poverty, disease, and cycles of abuse. Their art is an outlet, both emotionally and financially, and what they come up with is unique and one-of-a-kind.
Step into the shop, and you'll find an assortment of handmade jewelry and silk scarves, purses made from pop tabs, handwoven baskets—even journals made from elephant dung. (Don't worry, it's dried and sanitized.)
But why women? Vanessa Sheckler, who acts as the store’s retail manager and assists with product development, says it’s a matter of making the most impact possible.
"Statistics show that 90 percent of what a woman earns goes back into supporting her family and community,” Sheckler explains.
And according to the organization UN Women it’s true. Women are more likely to spend the money they earn on feeding children and sending them to school, as compared to only 30 percent of men who do the same.
The old saying goes: Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you'll feed him for a lifetime.
“At CWOW, we say, “When you teach a woman the fishing industry, she’ll change her community and the world," Sheckler says.
Lorelei VerLee, back right, poses with women who went through CWOW's business training in Malawi.
Thus, teaching a woman the proverbial fishing industry is what CWOW does. Put simply, they help women earn money, which women spend by giving back to their communities, and this benefits the local economy, at large.
Speaking of communities, CWOW is all about keeping it local when it serves people around the world.
By design, it partners with local organizations in each place it supports to make a sustainable impact. While many service groups go into developing countries to serve and leave, CWOW's representatives, known as International Advocates, build lasting relationships.
The International Advocates do this through product development or by teaching women a six-module course of study in business training developed by CWOW's Founder and Executive Director Lorelei VerLee.
Following the training, the women are matched with local leaders to mentor them through the process of starting or growing their own businesses. Then these “Local advocates” serve as CWOW liaisons with quite a bit of freedom to act as needed on the grassroots level where they live.
“After all, they understand their own culture far better than any outsider could, and therefore make a greater impact,” VerLee explains.
Every spring, CWOW hosts a fashion show fundraiser called Empower Her World in Fort Wayne to showcase artisans' work.
This flexibility and advocacy is what makes CWOW's methods successful, Sheckler says.
If a woman creates great products, CWOW purchases their work directly to sell at their store in downtown Fort Wayne, and 100 percent of the profits go back to support training. It costs about $250 to train each artist, Sheckler says.
Over the years, CWOW has worked directly with hundreds of artisans in 11 countries, including the United States, and they have outstanding invitations to work in more countries once they have the resources to do so.
When they select a country to support, they try to be as inclusive as possible in their outreach, VerLee explains.
"CWOW only goes when directly invited, but we always make sure there is a qualified local leader who is a businesswoman herself, has taken our training, and is committed to mentoring other women in her community with our support,” she says. “We utilize the 'Train the trainer' model." Vanessa Sheckler donates her artwork to fund her travel on behalf of CWoW.
Sometimes CWOW's work hits closer to home, too.
They have offered local business training twice a year for a few years now, and last year, they started partnering with the Fort Wayne Lehman YMCA to offer a six-session workshop led by VerLee.
The topics ranged from identifying assets and managing finances to the importance of a business plan. The CWOW shop also sells work created by domestic artists, who make pieces like jewelry and pottery, including some of Sheckler's own designs, called Intertwining Journey.
"Vanessa was one of the first people to take our business training locally and has turned her successful business into a means of support for her work in Haiti," VerLee says.
As a curator for the shop, Sheckler has gotten to know many of the women and their stories over the years, and she is often awe-struck by their handiwork and ingenuity.
For example, one Haitian artist makes metal art pieces out of 55-gallon oil drums for indoor and outdoor decoration.
“For me, it’s absolutely incredible to see this oil drum turned into a beautiful piece,” Sheckler says.
Whatever the end product, it often represents something more than a physical artifact. It is an opportunity for a relationship between the producer and consumer.
“Even though we sometimes have a language barrier, working through that by creating with our hands is so powerful,” she says.