Although dismayed by the living conditions of many people, she was also touched and inspired by the spirit of generosity common among the Nepalese.
Returning five subsequent times as a co-leader for Duke of Edinburgh, Stephanie became familiar with the corruption rife among some aid organisations, and witnessed first hand the unsustainable effects of unchecked welfare.
“There are a lot of well-intentioned Westerners, and I was certainly one of them and definitely made mistakes. But it’s really damaging to just go there and start something without understanding [the country] because it further creates that mentality that Westerners have all the power and money, and we’re just going to give and the locals don’t have to do anything to get it,” Stephanie tells Dynamic Business.
At the end of her last trip for Duke of Edinburgh, Stephanie learned of seven disabled women who were living in exile together in a tin shed. They were to become the namesake of her organisation Seven Women.
Together with a local friend whose sister was one of the women, the pair visited the shed several times before deciding on a course of action. “We decided that the best thing would be to get in a trainer, and I had about $200 left so I hired two Nepalese woman to come in and train them in [knitting].”
Stephanie envisioned a model whereby women in need would be taught a skill such as handcrafts, and be paid a fair trade wage for their efforts. In turn, the women who had experienced hardship and marginalisation would grow to become self-sufficient. With the products then sold in Australia via an online store and a network of retailers, the profits would be reinvested in Seven Women to continue the cycle of empowerment.
“Even in the very beginning with the initial seven women – what really inspired me was when they said ‘Maybe we can go back to our village and train others, because there are other women who are even worse than us here,” Stephanie says.
In taking the first batch of twelve handmade products back to Australia to sell at a market stall at uni, it wasn’t the easy sell Stephanie imagined. “At the time I couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to buy them, I was thinking these are so beautiful and I’ve seen the women who made them, but I look back now and I had a florescent pink poncho, and things like that, which Westerners really wouldn’t want to buy. That made me realise we needed to simplify the products.”
With all of the initial setup financed entirely out of her own pocket, the model of Seven Women has grown to an extent Stephanie never anticipated. Now with two centres in Kathmandu, the first of which is fully self-sufficient, the focus is on opening more Seven Women centres in areas of need. The focus is firmly on minimising her own involvement and empowering Nepalese women to run it locally themselves.
“When some women come to the centres, they literally have nothing except the clothes on their back. So that’s when we provide them with accommodation for three months, and then once they’re capable, we help them find accommodation outside of the centre,” Stephanie says.
“It took a while for me to understand that there is actually quite a huge stigma against disabled people, even in their own family. A lot of the women who come to the Kathmandu centre have experienced social isolation their whole lives, and they really believe they can’t add anything, and they’re even hesitant to be trained. So it’s a big step for when they actually do get trained, and they gain a skill. They’re very proud that they’ve made something that can be sold, and there’s a lot of empowerment that comes when the women meet others who have had the same experiences.”
For this reason, in the early stages of their arrival a centre, the women are assisted with the everyday essentials. “There’s always a little bit of welfare in the beginning that’s needed to get them up on their feet, so that they can get training. We provide them with some food, and the skills-training is a way that they can start to earn their own money once they’re employed. The deal has always been that we will pay fair trade wages, and they can earn their own money to pay for their food, their children’s education, and things like that,” she adds.
The organisation has expanded with the help of an intricate network of support. Run as two entities, (Seven Women Nepal and Seven Women Australia), the Australian arm is entirely not-for-profit. “It’s really grown through support from amazing and really generous people who have given a lot of time and their skills where needed. So many people are willing to help out and they don’t expect anything in return,” Stephanie says. Locally as well, seed funding support from Cooper Investors and Cooper Family Trust meant the plans to open the second centre in Kathmandu were greatly accelerated.
Seven Women Australia has a team of volunteers including sales, logistics, marketing and finance. With a manager at the helm of each department, there are also teams of volunteers who work up to 30 hours each per week. Additionally there’s also a group of university students who work weekly shifts, and a board of directors who oversee the organisation. Everyone who works for Seven Women Nepal is Nepalese, and the staff there are all paid.
Without the support of her family, Stephanie says Seven Women would not have been happened. “This whole time, the only reason this project has been possible is because I’ve lived at home, and my family has been very supportive. We’ve even had the entire ‘warehouse’ in the garage.”
Refusing to profit from Seven Women also led Stephanie on a number of entrepreneurial pursuits before settling on the creation of her tour company – Hands On Development – which was started in 2012. Now running study tours twice per year, Stephanie showcases the work of her organisation, and others, to those wishing to see the unglossed version of Nepal.
The future of Seven Women is what most excites Stephanie. While there are lots of stories of the ‘Westerner who went to a third world country and did x’ – the true story is what the women themselves are achieving. “Our vision is that if they can work and earn their own money there are amazing ripple effects,” Stephanie comments. From the woman who went back to her village and created a mother’s group, to the next who went on to run her own beauty salon, the future is looking that bit brighter.
Following the completion of her masters next year, Stephanie intends to grow both her tour company, and continue the success of Seven Women.
“With Seven Women, we will continue our model of seed funding a centre in an area of need, and then equipping them with the resources they need initially before it then becomes self-sufficient. That’s the plan for this year, and it’s already happening. We’ve got some great partners in rural areas and we make sure there’s no other operators or organisations in the area who are already providing assistance, and these villages are quite off the beaten track, but it’s really important for us to work with the people who need it most. It’s a big target.”
“Now it’s working really well in having the tour company – I go there a bit before the tour and stay later, so now I’m there about 2 months a year, and hopefully that will become less and less over time. The team there is extremely capable, and that’s the whole point.”