Changing the Lives of Women One Box of Aprons at a Time

June 13, 2024  |  By Peg Kern
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Hema, one of the WORK+SHELTER employees, modeling The International Kitchen's apron.Today we’re featuring an interview not with one of our chefs or tour guides, but with Theresa VanderMeer, the founder of the company that makes our aprons, totes, and document holders.

If you’ve traveled with us on one of our multi-day cooking vacations, you’ve received one of these textile goods with your documents package, and we hope you noticed the tag on it that explains that your item was made by the women of WORK+SHELTER, an ethically-minded company that employs and empowers women in New Delhi.

Sharon in Paris with her TIK tote, made by the women at WORK+SHELTER.When you head to India on one of our cooking vacations, you can even stop in the New Delhi factory to meet the women!

We are happy to partner with WORK+SHELTER in this important work. Please read on for more on the company’s history, practices, and aspirations for the future.

Changing Lives & Empowering Women in the Textile Industry

More employees of the WORK+SHELTER factory in Delhi.What is WORK+SHELTER, and what made you start it?

I’ll never forget Poonam, the woman who inspired all of this, and who I only met once. I met Poonam over a decade ago in Delhi. Poonam was a seamstress who casually showed me the cigarette burns on her arm from her ex-husband. She explained to me that her work sewing had given her the freedom to leave her abusive relationship.

I founded WORK+SHELTER to help women like Poonam. We are an ethical cut, sew and sourcing manufacturer located in both Delhi, India and Chicago, IL. The way we work is by getting orders for tees or totes or other items from organizations mostly in the US, and then those orders are sewn by the women we help in India

Enjoying a break from the sewing at the WORK+SHELTER factory.By employing women at WORK+SHELTER and paying them fair wages, many have become the #1 breadwinners in their households, some have been able to send their children to school and some finally have funds to allow them to pursue bigger dreams that at one time didn’t seem feasible.

How many women do you employ in Delhi? How do you find the women that work for you?

We currently employ 40 women in Delhi, but we’re constantly growing! The women hear about us by word of mouth. They usually just show up on our doorstep, and we typically stop our day to talk to them right then and there about their needs. If we have an opening they are invited into our paid training program, but oftentimes we have a waitlist because there are so many women that need support. Every order helps us bring on more women.

Sewing at the WORK+SHELTER factory in Delhi.How did COVID affected your work?

Back in March + April of 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak hit us hard. India was on a very strict lockdown for the months of March + April. Because the W+S women cannot work from home as easily as our U.S. employees, we lost a full two months in production time. With that, many of our clients either paused or cancelled orders due to the horrendous state of the U.S. economy.

Once the ladies were back to work safe and sound, they started making masks for their families out of fabric scraps, this then sparked the idea for us to start selling face masks to our client partners. Because of this, we managed to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Working at the WORK+SHELTER factory in Delhi.I read about your commitment to environmental sustainability in the textile industry. Do you accept donated fabric scraps?

We only accept donated scraps within India. We have been getting more + more creative with our uses for them though. And we try to turn all of our fabric scraps into usable items including:

  • Rugs (given to the women as holiday presents)
  • Kids tees (donated to orphanages)
  • Face masks (Sold at cost)

 Darlene with her TIK tote, made by the women at WORK+SHELTER. What was your favorite or most unusual order?

I love seeing the creativity flow throughout our client partners + their product ideas! One of my favorite parts of the business is the type of client partners WORK+SHELTER attracts — all of our clients have missions of their own that they’re trying to gain support for through use of our products. For example, our client partner, Cooks Who Feed sells WORK+SHELTER made aprons that highlight celebrity chefs, while also donating healthy meals to people in-need for every apron sold. CWF does a really great job connecting chefs to positive social impact.

More of the women employed in Delhi by WORK+SHELTER.Along with the social impact piece, many of our client partners come to us looking for sustainable options in the promotional product space. We are currently working on a line of dopp kit bags for our client partner, Kinship using all sustainable materials — recycled bottle fabric for the interior + exterior fabric, recycled zippers, even FSC certified paper for the packaging. Being a scuba diver myself, I love knowing that our use of recycled bottle fabric is diverting plastic waste from the ocean and turning it into useful products!

The women of WORK+SHELTER enjoying a break.What is your hope moving forward with WORK+SHELTER?

My hope is for WORK+SHELTER to transition into being a zero impact factory, meaning all aspects of our business including materials, product lifecycle, factory operations and end-to-end logistics are entirely eco-conscious. This past year alone, we’ve been focusing on materials + sustainable sourcing to ensure we have a variety of certifiably environmentally friendly fabrics to offer to our client partners.

Does your business need textile goods? If so we encourage you to reach out to WORK+SHELTER to join their growing list of partners.

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By Peg Kern

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