Thanks to an innovative microenterprise initiative spearheaded by FIU Business students, an elementary school in a poor Indian village near New Delhi now has drinking water and flush toilets. The donation of a new water pump was made possible from the sale of fashionable bags crafted from repurposed silk sari fabric.
The sale of the eco-friendly handicrafts and the water pump donation are just the latest chapter in an ongoing, six-year-old project, aimed at boosting livelihoods in India, while giving FIU students a chance to apply their business skills in a real-world setting. In spite of the challenges of the pandemic, new partnerships are slated to expand the project's entrepreneurial and educational goals.
The Bandhwari Women's Project was launched in 2016 with the aim of helping a community of poor and marginalized women establish a thriving social enterprise. Under the project – the brainchild of International Business Teaching Professor David Wernick, who serves as faculty advisor – student members of FIU's International Business Honor Society (IBHS) travel to India each spring break for a week of service and business boot camp. They provide the women with designs and fabrics, and guide them in the production of fashion accessories – purses, tote bags, and yoga sacks – that blend vibrant Indian textiles and modern design chic. The products are sold in the United States, primarily online, with most of the proceeds returned to the village through donations. The students also spend time teaching the women basic business skills and tutoring the village children in English and math.
"Thanks to the creativity, hard work and commitment of my students and our supporters, we were able to make great strides."
When the onset of COVID-19 threatened to derail the project in the spring of 2020, close collaboration between Wernick and local partner Incentive Foundation, led by Managing Director Anup Nair, kept the initiative on track. With financial support from FIU's Center for International Business Education and Research, three IBHS students were awarded scholarships to participate in virtual internships. Their efforts included a sales competition in which IBHS students sold face masks and other handicrafts to friends and family across their professional networks. The competition kept the sewing machines of Bandhwari humming during a difficult economic time and raised $4,000 for the village, with the top salesperson awarded a spot on the next trip to India.
Support for the project continues to grow. Alumnus Sean P. Gazitua (BBA '04), CEO of WTDC, a Miami-based global logistics firm, pledged a $1,000 scholarship for the next India trip as part of an essay competition he has sponsored annually. In the works: an IBHS Bandhwari alumni network, designed to help build continuity of knowledge and experience, as well as a strategic partnership with Amity University in India.
"COVID-19 certainly threw us a curve ball," Wernick said, "but thanks to the creativity, hard work and commitment of my students and our supporters, we were able to make great strides."
"What a joy it is," he added, "to be part of a project that touches so many lives."