Issue May 8, 2012

Crafty lending

Microloan program helps refugee women become businesswomen in its first year

On a sunny Saturday, six women who’ve journeyed thousands of miles as refugees gather at a Crescent Hill apartment complex. Seated in plush, orange chairs, two women chat in hushed Arabic as a young Burmese mother carries a restless baby in one arm, a sandwich bag filled with delicate jewelry in the other.

When Surekha Kulkarni walks through the door, toting a bin of beads, wire and clasps, she energizes the room.

“Good to see you,” she smiles, surveying the women. “Are the African beaders coming?”

Kulkarni quickly gets down to business, filling the women in on upcoming sales opportunities.

“We’re going to have two outdoor events, and one house party,” says Kulkarni, the brains behind the Beaded Treasures Project. The program gives local refugee women a shot at becoming independent businesswomen, utilizing a skill many arrive in America with — crafting jewelry.

About a year ago, Kulkarni, a successful bead artist originally from India, heard about a group of talented beaders associated with Kentucky Refugee Ministries. That’s when the idea of expanding a hobby into an entrepreneurial endeavor started taking shape.

Here’s how it works: She buys necessary materials in bulk, making it cheaper for the beaders to purchase from her. She loans them whatever they need to create their product, keeping track of money owed in a pocket-sized notebook. Once beaders start turning a profit, they pay her back. It’s Kulkarni’s take on micro-credit, or microloans.

In 2006, a Bangladesh-born professor of economics, Muhammad Yunus, won the Noble Peace Prize for his work as a micro-credit pioneer, or in other words, a banker to the poor.

Micro-credit grants small loans — sometimes as low as $25-$50 — to third-world entrepreneurs (mostly women) who would otherwise not qualify for bank loans. These are women with no income, no credit history, and sometimes limited education. Yunus has helped millions of women secure the little seed money they need to start a profitable business, helping to elevate them out of poverty.

Several other micro-credit programs have cropped up all over the world and in the United States. Even Louisville Metro government has a “micro-enterprise” program, which is dedicated to low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs seeking a financial boost or business education.

And Kulkarni’s program doesn’t end with beads-on-loan. She teaches pricing and marketing, as well.

“There are many things stopping them from selling their product,” Kulkarni says. “They may be making wonderful designs. But how do they get it to the market? Getting it to the market is a whole different ballgame.”

Especially if language poses a barrier, as it does for some of these women. Also, a small business in its infancy benefits from community connections, and Kulkarni has those. She considers Mayor Greg Fischer a close friend. Last summer, he helped kick off the project with a well-attended press conference.

On this Saturday, Kulkarni weaves helpful tips into the beaders’ monthly meeting. She encourages one woman to keep up with her English classes. In discussing details of their next meet-up, she offers a lesson on the importance of communication.

“You all get email?” she asks the women huddled around her.

They nod.

“OK, no one’s sending me back emails …” she pauses. “What I’m going to do from now on is that if you don’t tell me what you need, I will not bring anything,”

Kulkarni runs the Beaded Treasures Project for zero pay, and she has no paid staff. It’s primarily up to her to post products on the website, organize home parties for the women to sell at, and secure booths at fairs, like the upcoming Buy Local First Fair and Americana World Fest.

In order to keep some money in the coffers for supplies, local, established bead artists, including Kulkarni, donate proceeds made from their sales.

“It’s kind of become indivisible, me and the project,” she says.

So far she’s worked with two groups of about 10 beaders. She likes to keep the groups intimate, allowing for plenty of one-on-one time. Once Kulkarni feels they’re able to sustain a business, she graduates them, freeing up a spot for another participant.

Sally Salin, an Iraqi refugee who lived in Syria before coming to Louisville in 2010, cares for two young children. But when she has a moment to sit, she grabs her wire and clippers and gets to work. The money she earns isn’t equal to a full-time job, but it’s a welcome supplement.

“It’s helped me buy clothes, pay bills,” she says. “(I’ve) sold a lot.”

Kulkarni’s interest in beading was sparked during a long trip to India, where she took a class on a whim.

“I don’t really like wearing jewelry,” she laughs. “Since I don’t wear it, I started selling it.”

Now, with Beaded Treasures, she’s found a way to fuse accidental skill with a greater purpose. In the next year, Kulkarni hopes to organize the project into a registered nonprofit and find avenues to expand sales.

“This is my dream project,” she says. “I’m completely dedicated to it.”