The past few years have been full of setbacks, particularly in the area of ââglobal poverty reduction. The pandemic has had devastating effects specifically in Africa, where decades of progress have been undone. More children died of starvation last year as 20 million additional people live in crisis levels of food insecurity compared to the previous year. Millions of people who were considered middle class before the pandemic now live in extreme poverty.
This is why organizations like The Adventure Projectwho were already working on the ground in countries like Togo and Uganda, are stepping up their efforts to reduce poverty and create jobs in 2022.
In November, The Adventure Project launched The Women’s Fundwhich is committed to supporting women-led organizations on the ground in the countries where they work. This month they announce this longtime partner mocking cat is committed as a founding partner of the Fund, in a collective effort to help millions of people out of extreme poverty.
I spoke to Adventure Project founder Becky Straw and Catbird founder Rony Vardi about their big announcement and the impact they hope it will have.
Amy Shoenthal: Tell me about The Adventure Project and how the organization has evolved over the past (tumultuous) years.
Becky Straw: The Adventure Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating jobs in developing countries. Instead of offering one-time help or handouts, we focus on supporting local organizations that create jobs for people in need. The jobs we focus on all revolve around child mortality prevention.
One of our biggest initiatives is to train women to become community health workers. Once trained, they can care for pregnant women and children while earning an income. Donations go further when you stabilize a family by creating long-term livelihoods. This is what breaks the cycle of poverty.
What keeps our team motivated is the realization that the jobs we’ve created over the past decade have really helped during the pandemic. The workers we created jobs for have become the essential workers on the front lines.
Our role has also changed a bit during the pandemic. For example, hospitals in Ghana were reporting that because they were overwhelmed with patients, they couldn’t afford to buy water, so in some cases we just paid the electricity bill. We heard horror stories of patients having to fetch water from rivers, even in maternity wards, and we desperately wanted to prevent this.
We were able to get special permission from the government to provide health services to pregnant women during the lockdowns â all we had to do was send in gloves and masks. The infrastructure was already in place because for years we had created jobs, a supply chain and an ecosystem of healthcare workers.
Which brings us to today – these specific programs were made possible through our partnership with Catbird. They have been giving to The Adventure Project for years. 9,600 people are currently benefiting from health services in Uganda and Togo due to their impact.
Shoenthal: Why did you decide to create the Women’s Fund?
Straw: I have worked across Africa for the past 15 years. I’ve seen so many amazing organizations founded by women doing truly transformative work, but they seem to struggle to get the same level of support as their male counterparts or the white, expat founders, if I’m being honest.
A few years ago, we realized that most local organizations that focused on helping women in need were actually run by men. As a founder myself, I think it’s important to make sure we consciously help women lead, but our own portfolio didn’t reflect that.
We realized that we ourselves had barriers in place that prevented us from doing that, certain criteria that we set that ended up preventing small women-led organizations from getting funding from us. So we fixed that. We have decided that 50% of the grassroots organizations we support in Africa should be founded by women. It’s been like that for a few years.
I wanted to create a Women’s Fund because I feel like a lot of brands and individuals want to uplift women and end poverty. It’s a way for them to do both, while joining a community of like-minded visionaries who want to align their gifts with their values.
Shoenthal: Rony, why did you choose to partner with The Adventure Project?
Rony Vardi: Sustainable impact through job creation is something we deeply believe in and are committed to as a company. I also love that The Adventure Project operates with such a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground mentality. This type of efficiency and investment in real, lasting and long-term change is extremely important.
Shoenthal: This year has been difficult for small independent businesses. How did you get out?
Vardi: It was extremely difficult but, in the end, we were built to withstand some of the main pitfalls. I started Catbird as a small boutique around the corner from my apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2004. We have grown into a global jewelry brand with a focus on beautiful, durable and easy to wear solid gold jewelry that we make ourselves themselves. Brooklyn Workshop.
Even as we’ve expanded, we’ve remained fairly nimble, which may have saved us over the past two years. We do not rely on overseas manufacturing. We are still very local. I’m talking about the Brooklyn Navy Yard, our studio is here, our warehouse is on the other side of this wall. When we were hit hard, we didn’t have to worry about sourcing from different countries. It was still a nightmare, don’t get me wrong. Manufacturing was halted, but when things started to pick up we were able to restart as we have full control of our own systems.
That said, it was by far the most difficult and stressful period of my professional life.
Straw: Rony was the first person with whom I shared our idea of ââthe Women’s Fund. Catbird has been a major supporter for years and they are one of my favorite partners.
I pitched my idea at a meeting in their office. I think I said, “We would be honored if you would consider joining us with a gift of, say, $20,000?” Rony’s team called me a few days later and said, âOkay. We like that idea. But we don’t want to give you $20,000. We want to give $500,000 over the next decade. I was speechless and cried a few tears of joy, honestly. It’s really rare to have a partner who understands the importance of providing long-term support to communities.
Vardi: It was actually Dan, our sales manager, who came up with the idea. Catbird was built one step at a time. We focused on slow growth and tried to be really thoughtful in all of our decisions. It wasn’t about being big or splashy and we certainly weren’t just throwing money at something. It was just another decision that made us think about how to build something thoughtfully. How can we have the greatest impact?
Becky’s entire mission is to create jobs and support local economies. It’s less about, here’s a problem, here’s a thing that will solve it. Throwing sacks of rice from a truck is useful, but temporarily. For me, it’s a different approach. You are not only helping them today, but building for the future.
Shoenthal: What are you most excited about after this announcement?
Vardy: I found an email from 2017 when we started partnering with The Adventure Project. In it I wrote: âI’m so excited about The Adventure Project. I see a serious future in this partnership. It’s amazing to see this come to fruition.
I would love to see this partnership inspire other companies to be a force for impactful and meaningful change. Even if you start small, make giving part of your business DNA from day one. I recommend designating a portion of sales (not product) for ultimate transparency.
Straw: I have already been amazed by the outpouring of support and interest. I see the need for the Women’s Fund firsthand when I am in the communities. The idea that others can understand and support this vision is therefore exciting.
Our hope is that other partners will consider joining us. Catbird is our founding healthcare partner, but we are looking for partners in the areas of environment, water and hunger. We’ve made so much progress, but there’s still a lot of work to do.