From Madison Avenue USA to Rau Village, Tanzania

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Within two months, Sinead Fyda traded a Madison Avenue office for a classroom with a dirt floor, no water, no electricity — and six desks for 80 kindergartners.

She had quit a stressful job at Ralph Lauren in New York to embark on a three-week volunteer teaching trip to Tanzania — a refreshing break, she hoped, from a seven-year career as a buyer in the demanding fashion industry.

Yet, in the rural village of Rau near Mount Kilimanjaro, sleeping under mosquito nets and bathing with cold water were proving to be more overwhelming as a lifestyle.

She would try to teach math by counting rocks and tracing numbers in the dirt, frustrated almost to tears as she flipped through a book of Swahili phrases.

"Three weeks," she initially wrote to family members, "feels like three years."

Then, on a safari her first weekend, Fyda saw giraffes and elephants as well as sunsets that filled the entire sky.

Looking out the window of a Jeep, she was struck both by the beauty of the east African country and by the glimpses of villages where poverty seemed inescapable.

I'm meant to be seeing this, she thought.

Fyda asked for an extension of her trip when she returned to Rau, where she was greeted with smiles and hugs from her students. At the end of the three months, she moved back to her hometown of Powell but knew she wouldn't stay long.

"I couldn't even imagine going back to what I'd been doing," she said. "I felt a sense of obligation to do something about what I had seen."

Four years later, Fyda lives in Tanzania up to eight months at a time while developing Jishike Social Couture, a business in which 21 women — many of them mothers of her former students — create handmade purses and bags that she sells when back in Columbus.

With partial proceeds going to the women, Fyda, 32, wants to instill in them the skills and confidence to make their own living. Many are single mothers with multiple children. At the time the business began, most of the women had little income or education.

Jishike (pronounced jee-SHEE'-kay) means "Hold onto your strength" in Swahili.

After her initial trip in 2007, Fyda spent the next 18 months traveling from Columbus to Tanzania and back to work with the students.

Meanwhile, she researched social entrepreneurship — the concept of using business strategies to achieve societal change — and tried to think of ways to help the families she had grown to love.

Fyda spent hours interviewing the women about their lives, thinking she might help them grow vegetables or raise animals for profit. But none owned land and few had skills, spending much of their time traveling to fetch water and cooking over fires for their children.

When she asked them about their dreams and ambitions, they stared at her blankly.

"I didn't know how my skills were going to make a difference," she said. "If you go over to Africa as a doctor or nurse, it's very obvious how you can help. How do you go from fashion?"

As the head women's accessories buyer for Ralph Lauren, Fyda had grown tired of the hectic lifestyle: 14-hour workdays, hundreds of daily emails, last-minute assignments that forced her to cancel plans and trips with friends.

She knew that the career she once enjoyed was no longer satisfying when she canceled an interview for a job that would have been a promotion.

"I was thinking, 'If you don't want that — and that's what you're working for — then what are you working for?'" she said.

Her mother was initially alarmed by the decision to leave her career: Sinead, after graduating from Boston University, had worked her way to the respected position through jobs at Neiman Marcus and Christian Dior.

But she also knew that her daughter's career-driven determination could apply elsewhere.

"She was the one who taught her older sister how to climb out of the crib," said Mairead Fyda, an Irish native who lives in Powell. "She was always ready to be adventurous, making an impact at every turn."

The idea for Jishike stemmed from a visit to the mother of Sinead's boyfriend, a Tanzanian who owns a safari company. When Fyda saw a doily she had made, she asked whether she would teach the women — and her as well — to sew and crochet.

Since the fall of 2009, the women of Jishike have been making pouches, clutches and bags from African fabrics, beads and stones. Fyda designs the accessories, provides the materials and pays the women upon the sale of their pieces.

The startup process has been slow — for one, Fyda realized that the women didn't know how to use scissors or a tape measure — and logistically difficult amid her trans-Atlantic travels. She can't oversee production while in Columbus and can't work on sales and marketing from Tanzania.

Although Fyda has sold about 500 bags through trunk shows and the website she launched in March, the business, not yet profitable, continues to drain her savings.

In Columbus until mid-August, she's redefining the business model in hopes of making Jishike self-sufficient, thinking of the families who are dependent on earnings from the program.

"That makes me sick, sometimes, to think about the fact that it's not paying for itself," she said.

To date, the top earners in Jishike have made up to $3,000 — when, in jobs such as selling fruit at the market, their weekly income might have averaged $10.

On the company website, customers can read about the women and learn how far their money can go: By selling a $45 pouch, for example, Mama Naomi can send one of her children to school for a year.

Fyda has helped the women open their first bank accounts, wanting to protect their earnings from theft and also from their husbands, who aren't used to women controlling the finances.

One member of Jishike used the profits to replace the dirt floor in her home with cement; two installed electricity for the first time in their lives.

Another gained the courage to leave her abusive husband, having realized through her Jishike experiences that she didn't need him, financially or emotionally.

The women see Fyda as a friend but also as a messiah, said her Swahili tutor, Ali Skandor, who visited the Jishike members last year during a trip with his students from Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware.

"They had no bearing of where they were going in their lives, but Sinead was able to give them hope," Skandor said from his native Kenya.

"She's going to leave behind a legacy that no one has ever done in that village. ... She has given up her life for them."

Despite the success of her previous career and comfort of her American lifestyle, Fyda finds her new purpose in Tanzania much more fulfilling.

"To see the difference you're making and that it's actually changing someone's life," she said, "there's nothing more rewarding than that."


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