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Stephanie Woollard : Founder of Seven Women

This is the story of Australian social entrepreneur,

Stephanie Woollard : Founder of Seven Women

Empowerment is not expensive — Stephanie Woollard

By Orsi Parkanyi

Stephanie is not an ordinary 27 years old woman. Her passion to make this world a better place and her strategic and smart approach in doing so serves as a great example to anyone. Steph Woollard is a social entrepreneur, the founder of Seven Women, a fair trade wholesale and retail business that sells handmade felt and knitted items as part of a grassroots development project that empowers women through income generation.

“Giving makes people happy. Gratitude and giving is my formula for happiness. I don’t know about anyone else but I think that’s what makes people happy, being grateful for what you have and giving to others.” 

Her story started with a trip to Nepal, where Steph met seven women with disabilities who were operating out of a tin shed and experiencing harsh discrimination. Having witnessed the stark contrast between her quality of life and that of many women living in the impoverished country, she felt she had to do something to make a difference. Together with the seven women Steph created a women’s skills training centre, where women learn skills that empower them economically.

Fast forward to today and the initial seven women have now taken on managerial roles at the centre, which now employs over 450 women, and are keen to pass on their skills to others.

So, Steph can you just tell us a bit about your not-for-profit business in a nutshell?

“My business began with seven women that I met in Nepal three years ago who were operating out of a tin shed at the time. They were selling soaps and candles to the local market and finding it very hard to sell these products because of the stigma that comes with being disabled in Nepal. All these women had physical disabilities and were finding it hard to rent a place in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, no house owners want to rent to a disabled person because they feel like it will bring bad luck to their building and that they won’t be able to clean up after themselves properly. I invested in training for these women; so they received training and gained skills in hand making craft items. So, that has begun a social enterprise in Nepal and we’ve registered as a charity in Nepal where these women can receive skills training and employment and I’ve been selling the goods here in Australia. I’m also getting trained in public speaking, so I’m going to be doing public speaking events and taking trips to Nepal at the end of each year.”

“So, it’s a not-for-profit model – there’s a group of students at La Trobe University who sell the goods every Wednesday and I’ve been selling the goods at markets all over Victoria. I’ve also started to wholesale to shops around Victoria and we’ve just got a new State Manager in Sydney, she’s going to be selling the products to different places.”

So, what personally drives you to do what you do?

“I went to Nepal about ten years ago after high school and I had a craving to find my niche where I could help in some way to make the world a better place and a bit more equal. I was aware of these inequalities in high school, going on exchange to France and then living in two Aboriginal communities, I knew then that this was an area that I wanted to work in.”

“In the Indigenous communities when I stayed there it was very overwhelming and I desperately wanted to get involved, but I couldn’t find an inroad. I couldn’t see a way in which I would be able to make a difference, because it was a very complex issue what was going on in those communities.”

“I also wanted to go to a third world country, to see how poor people lived over the other side of the world. I got a world ticket and I went to Sri Lanka and India – where I stayed with quite wealthy people overlooking a poor fishing village. That got me interested the difference between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. After this I went to Nepal and saw a lot of poverty there. In seeing the divide between the extremely wealthy and the people living at the other end of the spectrum, I was shell-shocked! I then went to New York and worked in an organisation and met a few friends who had been involved with gangs and got exposed to that type of lifestyle.”

“I did a yearly trip and I saw different ways that people lived around the world and I felt a special connection with the people of Nepal. I went back there and really wanted to give back to the people that I had experienced such huge generosity from.”

“So, that’s my motivation as every day I am so grateful for the life that I live and I definitely want to work in this sector for the rest of my life.”

Can you tell me how you are changing the lives of women around the world and how it is beneficial to people in Australia?

“So the women’s lives in Nepal have changed by being socially and economically empowered. Disability in Nepal, as mentioned previously, is being seen as a person being evil in a past life and so they experience a lot of discrimination in this life. When visitors come to the house they are put in another room. The normal ‘life cycle’ of a disabled person is that they are born in the village, they are not sent to school like their siblings, they get put in charge of looking after the livestock; they do work around the village every single day of their lives. Their self-confidence as a result of this is severely diminished.”

“At the centre they were able to develop skills in a craft, skills to earn them an income and also gain confidence through meeting the other women at the centre. They now have options for the future; some of the women have started their own businesses, some have gone back to their village to train other women, some of the women have become trainers at the centre, and some of the women have gone on to simply receive employment at the centre or through other companies that the manager of the centre has linked up with.”

“The second part of the question; how does Seven Women benefit people in Australia – people love to help, people love to contribute to a cause greater than themselves and it gives a lot of happiness to people when they do that and they feel like they’re contributing members of society.”

“People here are becoming more aware about fair trade through Seven Women having the stalls and telling the story of the women in Nepal. They become aware of how lucky they are to live the lives that they do when there’s other people doing it tough in places like Nepal.”

“It’s also beneficial to them because there are beautiful crafts that they can buy. They can do good and buy a nice present at the same time.”

“Giving makes people happy. Gratitude and giving is my formula for happiness. I don’t know about anyone else but I think that’s what makes people happy, being grateful for what you have and giving to others.”

Can you give an example of your greatest business challenge to date?

“The greatest challenge I have found is working in a different culture, where the mentality of the people is completely different to ours. The quality in the products and the different colours used is extremely different over there as compared to in Australia. As a result, it is hard to operate a viable business here when the quality is not up to scratch. In Nepal the women are the poorest of the poor, so quality is not seen as a priority. The focus, to them, is on whether a bag functions or not, not whether it looks good. As a result, some of the products the women were making were of outrageous colours and fibres, such as knitted bags that would not sell here.”

What are your top three tips for non-profit businesses?

  1. First would be to get a good team who share your values, have a very clear vision of what you’re doing and why you are doing it, and make sure it’s financially viable
  2. Second, you need to make sure that you are able to attract people to fill your gaps because you can’t be good at everything
  3. Third, make sure that you are good at finding people who are skilled at what you need skills in

What’s the most rewarding experience you have had with Seven Women?

“The most rewarding thing is going to Nepal and visiting the women and seeing the impact that it has had on their lives. It’s also very rewarding seeing the self belief and self confidence in the women increase through them getting trained in skills, and meeting other women who have experience similar hardships due to their disabilities. They have developed a lot of strength within themselves that they’re not as weird as they thought they were.”

“Having an amazing team of volunteers here that help the project run and continue to be funded every week and the type of people that this kind of work attracts are things that are so helpful and rewarding.”


How is your business making a difference?

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2 Responses to Stephanie Woollard : Founder of Seven Women

  1. Pingback: Founder & CEO of Seven Women Social Enterprise, Steph Woollard, Fairly Educated Speaker Profile | Fairly Educated Conference

  2. Jo says:

    Are metal knitting needles still being collected.

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