By Kelly Wickham
A little over a year ago I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia visiting on-the-ground initiatives that helped improve our globe, our people, and humanity in general. On that trip, I got to meet Ian Bentley and his family as they showed us around the FashionABLE factory, a place where artisans create scarves for a fair wage and as a chance to change their lives. Ian agreed to give us a behind-the-scenes look at that work.
How It Started
For those who don’t know, FashionABLE is the client/buyer of scarves that works closely with Women At Risk (WAR) which is the main organization on the ground here in Ethiopia. It is an NGO or non-governmental organization that is, in fact, the magical part of this all. WAR started about 17 years ago and has been working to help women off the streets here in Ethiopia through counseling and rehabilitation work. Ian told me that it is one of the most incredible and selfless groups of people he has ever met.
Then, 3 years ago, a local company named Ellilta Products was started when Barrett Ward, founder of the Mocha Club, came to Ethiopia to discuss the concept of a work program with a woman named Cherry Teketel, the founder of WAR. At the time, Cherry was finding it difficult to place women in jobs after their rehabilitation programs were completed. The idea was born to create FashionABLE as a US business that would purchase these scarves from Ellilta Products to create opportunities on both sides of the ocean. Today, Ellilta Products is the supplier/producer of scarves for FashionABLE and a handful of other clients around the world. Profits from Ellilta go back into WAR to help rehabilitate more women as well as grow their weaving business to bring more women into the work.
Ian answered some more questions for me to get a sense of how he got involved in this work and what his family is doing now as they continue to work.
Kelly: When did you begin working with FashionABLE?
Ian: It’s been about 2 years since we partnered with FashionABLE here in Ethiopia. It’s a partnership with FashionABLE on the US side and Women at Risk/Ellilta Products in Africa. They are the ones doing production here to help women off the streets. FashionABLE is the international brand and distribution network that is purchasing the product from Ethiopia. It’s been an amazing partnership for all organizations to grow and ultimately see the women thrive.
Kelly: Did you decide to move there right away? How did you end up in Ethiopia?
Ian: Back in 2011 my wife and I were in Ethiopia adopting our little girl (their adoption story can be seen here) and our time here had a significant impact on us. We traveled around the countryside of Ethiopia and saw such beauty but you also couldn’t ignore the daily challenges people faced. We quickly realized that the impact on us was much greater than just adoption and we started to really consider how to help address some of the issues we were seeing. As we started to dig into those issues we found that it’s really not about focusing on the problem but flipping that around and focusing on the potential. We believe that God has given each person purpose and potential and we wanted to bring that out of people to see them empowered to change Ethiopia.
So, I flew back a few extra times after we finalized our adoption to hear from more people on the ground in Ethiopia about the needs they had. During almost every conversation I kept hearing the same thing: don’t come and be a burden, come and create opportunities. We also connected with Women at Risk and the work they are doing with women in prostitution and how they were taking them and giving them skills to weave scarves that would be produced for FashionABLE. At the time, FashionABLE was looking for someone to help them expand their production at Ellilta so it was a perfect partnership for me to come with my background in business.
Kelly: How does the company find the women who end up working there? Do you have connections that have led you to getting them to the point where they find you now?
Ian: Women at Risk is the main place from which we hire. The trauma that most of the women experience requires some intense counseling and rehabilitation before going into the workplace. WAR does an amazing job at this and they focus on each of them for about 6 months to put them through a skills training program. Just about a month ago, we opened up a new training facility with 13 new women who will be trained. We spend a lot of time at Ellilta Products not just running the business, but also focusing on the women by helping them grow personally and professionally. We also hope to promote some of the women who have been with us since the beginning to more manager levels.
Kelly: How did FashionABLE get to where it is today? Did you foresee this?
Ian: I think in any start-up it’s always the entrepreneur dreaming about the potential of the idea. While I wasn’t personally there at the start of FashionABLE, I can certainly speak from the Ellilta Products side and say that because the partnership that was formed with FashionABLE in helping us grow the business in Ethiopia to employ these women, it’s been amazing. The exciting thing is that I still see a lot more potential ahead of us for the women here in Ethiopia and for the partnership with FashionABLE to continue to grow and ultimately impact our ability in a positive way by employing more women.
Kelly: What does the purchase of a scarf mean to you?
Ian: It’s dignity and empowerment. When you buy a scarf, it sends a message to the women we work with every day that they have something special to offer and it gives them the confidence to change their life and their future.
Ian and his wife are now a family of 6. Since moving to Ethiopia, they have adopted another little girl. They have 2 boys and 2 girls. Prior to his work in Ethiopia, Ian worked as a Vice President for a real estate development company in Southern California. In his words, his wife is “Super Woman” and he’s convinced of this due to all her work in freelance graphic design while at home with the kids. Ian and Brittany have curated a personal website called Steadfast Love that is set up as a non-profit to help fund their family to live in Ethiopia without being a burden on the local business. They view their role in Africa as capacity development to help Ellilta Products expand their business and help strengthen the work that WAR does every day.
How You Can Help
Little Pickle Press hopes you consider the purchase of a scarf or leather good as your make conscious purchasing decisions this Christmas season. You can further the mission and vision of FashionABLE and buy here.