How do you empower women, up-cycle waste into functional gifts, and weave social impact across continents? You create an ecosystem of women entrepreneurs, sustainable farming to uplift the lives of marginalized women, and complete the cycle of cause and effect to amplify the ripple effects of economic impact.
When Renu Rao, founder of Hyderabad, India-based Deckle Edge customized stationery design studio, met serial entrepreneur and civil engineer Abhinav Gangumalla with expertise in organic waste composting and recycling–they shared a vision. In 2014, the two co-founded Women Empowerment Through Recycling–WE Recycle™ to create functional designs by reconditioning recyclables into eco-friendly products, plant the seeds of social reform with ecological living and environmental sustainability, while empowering marginalized women.
The co-founders hired and up-skilled women living in the slums of Hyderabad–the largest and most-populous city in south-central interior of India. A team of 15 mothers and widows between ages 18-45 trained at the company workshop with option to work from home to earn wages and financial independence.
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“Once we hired one woman, the word spread to friends and relatives. Since the pandemic’s start, our women work from home–and they all have a unique story to tell,” Co-founder/CEO Renu Rao shares stories of the women staff earning funds to afford university education for their children, providing better education for their daughters, and younger women saving for their weddings.
With design concepts initiated by Rao, the women have converted over 700 tetra-packs (food package) and glass bottles and nearly 900 pounds of deal wood, newspapers and magazine waste into a wide range of sustainable products. Used glass is repurposed into decorative lamps and candy holders; deal wood into paper lamps, stands, shelves, key-holders and door chimes; newspapers and magazines into photo frames, dry snack bowls; bamboo waste into coasters, boxes and pencil holders; tetra-paks into bags and accessories; and handmade paper waste into candle holders and more. With stores in Hyderabad and Bangalore (nearly 10 hours south), WE Recycle products are also on display in regional consignment stores.
Financial Independence For Marginalized Women
With her mother instilling in her daughters the importance of financial independence, Rao sought a Masters’ degree in Fine Arts at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, USA. Her entrepreneurial independence, fully supported by her family, husband, and mother-in-law–led the pursuit of her passion of design and traditional crafts as an empaneled designer with the Indian Government’s Development Commissioner for Handicrafts. She also established her own sustainable farm–Beyond Organic.
“Our organic farm started simply to have access to safe food–to grow food for our families,” Rao who shares produce with the farm’s caretakers saw an increased preference for organic food during the pandemic, and a decline in WE Recycle sales. To maintain income flow, she engaged her staff in processing farm fruits into jams.
Following that success, Rao now plans to establish a certified food processing plant to manufacture larger volumes of jams. Post-pandemic, her jam processing will continue alongside WE Recycle up-cycling.
A Commercial Bridge To U.S. Market
Finding the American market receptive to aesthetically pleasing recycled products during her two NY Now show attendances, Rao was encouraged by family friend, Govi Rao, managing partner of the global sustainable development holding company, CAЯBON –to scale operations into U.S.. WE Recycle joined CAЯBON as a corporate partner to create 4EvrCarma extending its proven model of sustainable, up-cycled handmade goods focused on women empowerment and social impact.
“Under this umbrella, we created a commercial bridge to enhance the materials, and establish inclusive capitalism–whereby funds flow back to the people making the products,” Govi Rao explains CAЯBON’s mission of making “global copies of proven profitable solutions to social and environmental challenges.”
Since last January, 4EvrCarma, led by veteran retail marketer Liz Hodges as CEO, has extended Renu Rao’s entrepreneurial tentacles into the U.S. market. Focused on the 4 E’s: educate, engage, enable and empower–4EvrCarma wraps social impact shopping with the cause-and- effect cycle theory of Carma’s guiding light that humans are rewarded for spreading goodness.
“Women’s roles as chief caregivers have been exasperated by challenges of Covid-19–from home-schooling to managing domestic chores and finances–informal economies present a great opportunity for women to become financially independent and generate income from home,” Hodges along with her team of 24 in the U.S. found and partnered with vendors in Kenya, Thailand, Nepal and India who shared the mission of up-cycling products while empowering women.
4EvrCarma offers up-cycled Sari Pocket Bags from India’s Matre Boomi, WE Recycle’s pre-consumer recycled cloth wine bags, handcrafted felt trivets from Nepal’s Global Groove women’s cooperative, soapstone hearts from Kenya’s SMOLArt, scarves from Sevya, accessories and more. Amidst the pandemic, the company moved into the PPE space with sustainability at the core of its business strategy. To meet the needs for PPEs, 4EvrCarma sourced biodegradable and compostable materials and leveraged their network to empower local distressed communities while supporting the supply chain.
Weaving Women Empowerment With Social Impact Circular Economy
In importing the vision into small towns, women-led groups and trauma centers in the U.S. Hodges hopes to “hyper-localize the way business is done.” Engaging women in social entrepreneurship empowers them to actively rebuild their communities.
“Setting successful women as role models to provide the wind beneath wings of the underserved women, we import solutions to empower struggling women in the U.S.,” Govi Rao explains how tapping New Jersey wineries to offer wine bags made from recycled products, and has brought value in collaborations with the New Jersey-based Center for Great Expectations (CGE)–creating a safe place, presence, and path for homeless pregnant and parenting women and adolescents, their children, and men.
Post-pandemic, Hodges will leverage Rao’s business model to scale and replicate the ecosystem nationwide–engaging displaced workers and integrating distributorship using the circular economy model to build lives with dignity. She plans to focus on affordable, sustainable products to provide jobs for the society’s underserved and challenged members while establishing ties with retailers to replicate a national and a global model.
Through digital marketing and social listening, Hodges and her team will zero in on top-selling products to direct production based on market needs. While bootstrapping with CAЯBON, 4EvrCarma paves a path for future, financially independent women leaders to realize profitable social enterprise business models to help lead productive lifestyles.
“Entrepreneurship is not easy–it’s a constant struggle. You must have perseverance, passion, patience and in the process make a difference in the lives of others,” Renu Rao’s dream of going global by tapping the U.S. market is already fulfilled through 4EvrCarma.