As International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020 approaches we are thrilled to have had the opportunity interviewFritha Mason, CEO of Secret Projects and winner of Prix Clarins 2018 a truly inspirational lady on a journey to empower women in India.
Secret Projects is a Community Benefit Society that empowers women in India through the making and selling of clothing and homeware. Their vision is a world where women have the ability and opportunity to earn an income to support themselves and their families.
What was your inspiration behind Secret Projects Fritha?
‘Having travelled extensively in India, through many isolated communities, I learned of an issue that affects many women throughout the continent. The women that I met in these communities had been taught to stitch at home and school as girls and could produce the most beautiful clothing and homeware. What they lacked, was the knowledge needed to sell their goods either at home, in India or on the international market and earn an income from their expertise to support themselves and their families. When I learned of this problem, I felt compelled to solve this selling obstacle and, in 2013, Secret Projects was born.
Is Secret Projects the umbrella that Secret Pillow sits under?
‘Yes! The Secret Pillow was the very first product that we produced with our Maker Groups and bought to the international market. It’s a very special product for us. Please learn more about the Secret PiIlow HERE
Once you had the idea of the Secret Pillow Project were there many challenges getting the idea underway? Was help readily available to you?
‘There was an enormous amount of challenges to get Secret Projects underway, from navigating the law in India for businesses, so we could operate in the country to learning how to be an online retailer in a hugely competitive and changing retail world.
What wasn’t a challenge? Working with the women in our Maker Groups, all of whom were completely behind me and committed to producing Secret Products to sell worldwide.
I was fortunate to have had so much support along my journey, from the Directors of Secret Projects, Nirmala and Banke, to backers who not only support Secret Projects financially but by providing expert business knowledge and mentorship.
The ladies you are inspiring in India, has sewing been passed down from generation to generation, or have they all had specific training?
‘In India, girls are taught to sew from a young age, both at home and also at school. Sewing skills are certainly passed down from generation to generation. It is a fundamental skill that the majority of Indian women have.
How is the training implemented?
‘The women who join a Maker Group start a journey of empowerment with Secret Projects. This is a 4-stage programme:
Stage 1: Training – Makers learn how to make foldable Secret Products, e.g. Secret Pillows
Stage 2: Professionalism – Makers are supported to produce products of the highest export standards
Stage 3: Enterprise Development – Makers are coached to uncover local opportunities to generate an income
Stage 4: Leadership – Emerging leaders are encouraged to develop their leadership skills and grow their confidence
Every woman is given the opportunity to develop their skills from making to leadership. Some women are happy to sit nicely at stage 1 and 2 and others are keen to develop their entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Each woman makes their own decision and we support them.
If you started the project in 2013 has it exceeded your expectations?
‘Yes and so much more. We started in 2013 working with just one Maker Group which has grown to 14 groups throughout 5 Indian states comprising of over 200 women. Please see the fuller details of our Network of Indian Producers here.
We have developed our product lines significantly and now manufacture shopping bags, children’s clothing, accessories, our famous Secret Sari Dress and other homeware.
My dream to empower women in India through the making and selling of clothing and homeware has become a reality.
How does it make you feel to be inspiring so many women to be financially independent?
‘Amazing! It’s been a dream of mine from a young age. Putting together a process that allows marginalised women to earn an income to support themselves and their families and reduce their risk of becoming entangled in the web of human trafficking has fulfilled me beyond words.
For the time and effort to make the Secret Pillow are the ladies making a fair profit for themselves?
‘Yes, definitely. For every Secret Product made the Maker receives 70% of the profits. We pay double minimum wage per hour and we are also registered with the World Fair Trade Organisation. We are about to start a process of certification with the women, so all our products will be produced with the Fairtrade label.
Where is the fabric sourced and made?
‘We work hard at Secret Projects to ensure that we make as little impact on the environment as possible.
Our materials are sourced as close as possible from each local community.
We buy our fabric largely from organisations that purchase ‘end of line’ fabrics from large corporates, that otherwise would be sent to landfill.
The wadding we use in our Secret Pillows is made from 80% recycled polyester fibres, meaning that fewer PET bottles end up in a landfill.
Fabric scraps left over from production aren’t thrown away but used to make other Secret Products, such as Mini Secret Pillows, Secret Bunting and scrap bundles. Nothing is wasted.
As we grow, we will continue our quest to use more Fairtrade, organic cotton to make our Secret Products.
‘That’s a good question! I believe firmly that we are teaching the women the joy of working with other women as a group towards a common goal and that they do have the capacity to support themselves and their families. The women do not want hand-outs and we support them to bring out their own gifts and talents to move forward in their lives.
What other projects are you running for the ladies?
‘We call the women we work with ‘Makers’. Apart from our Training For Empowerment Programme, we are not running any other programmes. Our Makers receive life- long membership to this programme and can stay with us as Secret Projects Makers for as long as they desire.’