International Women's Day, which was marked on Friday, often leaves me with mixed emotions. Part a celebration of the advances of women, part a litany of the many inequities and challenges still facing them, it can be both inspiring and dispiriting.
Instead, let's focus on the many creative female entrepreneurs who are are fuelling fundamental changes in the lives of women around the world – especially in developing economies – giving them financial independence and a confidence in their future.
An entire family, for example, can be lifted out of poverty thanks to the purchase of an evening purse. That's what happens when social enterprise intersects with the world of high-end fashion.
In 2010, Torontonian Mehrak Mehrvar launched NiNi Boutique, which sells luxury handmade purses (prices start at $1,000) that she first spotted in Cambodia a couple of years ago. The purses, woven from sterling-silver threads, are made by female artisans in a country where economic opportunities for women are scarce.
Dek Khunneary is one of women who make the beautiful purses sold by NiNi. The 41-year-old mother of three lives in a slum of Phnom Penh, where she struggled to provide for her family.
She said her life changed completely when she met Ms. Mehrvar, whose company pays the women a steady, fair wage. It is slightly more than they would get working in a factory, but the important part is that they are paid consistently, even when there are no orders for purses in the pipeline. The ultimate plan is to make them shareholders in the company.
"Since NiNi ordered my production, I found that my life and others is much better," Ms. Khunneary said through a translator. She uses the steady income to buy more materials for her work, she said, and to pay off some bank loans.
"I feel that NiNi will bring us good life," she added. That "good life" means being able to send her children to school regularly, eating better food, and learning English. Along with greater financial security comes increased self-confidence, and greater pride in the skilled artisan work.
"It's not about aid, it's about empowering people," Ms. Mehrvar said.
That sense of empowerment is crucial for women in Cambodia. It ranks 96 out of 128 on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Women's Economic Opportunity Index, a gauge of countries' laws and attitudes toward women in the work force.
"Enabling the economic empowerment of women can lessen, or even solve, a lot of difficult problems that women face globally, like sexual assault and access to education for girls," said Lisa Hickey, president of the board of directors for The International Alliance for Women (TIAW), a Washington-based organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women around the world.
"Once a woman has money or can earn a living, she has standing in the community and can use her power to effect positive change. More often than not, women who enable these profound changes do so in total anonymity and with negligible resources," Ms. Hickey added.
TIAW recognizes 100 of these "unsung heroines and heroes" annually through its World of Difference 100 Awards. Ms. Mehrvar has been honoured, as has Zolaykha Sherzad, an architect and entrepreneur based in New York.
Ms. Sherzad fled Afghanistan with her family when she was only 10, but wanted to give something back to her native country. So she created Zarif Design , a Kabul-based company that trains women (and a few men) in clothing design, pattern making, cutting and sewing. It presented its first collection in 2005.
Zarif Designs offers jackets, clothes and bags, bringing a modern twist to Afghan style. The jackets retail for $220 to $350 but embroidered items cost more. The company hosts fashion events around the world, such as a fundraising gala in Toronto last October with the charity SOS Children.
Ms. Sherzad said that along with learning an occupation, and earning money, the women employed by Zarif also gain confidence and garner respect for being a productive member of the work force.
Ms. Sherzad, who now divides her time between New York and Kabul, also sponsors training and literacy classes for the women.
She said that when she started Zarif Designs, she only meant to test the concept but the idea took on a life of its own.
"The project became something more important – a vision to revive the traditional skills and create a modern design, reviving the tradition and shaping the future."