THE OUTNET’S Head of Content, Claudia Mahoney, spent some time with Executive Director of Women for Women UK, a charity very close to our hearts at THE OUTNET, and one of the most inspiring women on the planet, Brita Fernandez-Schmidt. In case you missed their incredible live conversation, we made sure to save some of the best bits…
Claudia: And there she is! Welcome to Brita to In Conversation with THE OUTNET! I wanted to tell the followers or the viewers this evening that may or may not know you, a little bit about who you are and what your job involves.
Brita: Women for Women International is an organization that helps women in countries affected by conflict — countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Rwanda, etc. And what we do is we help those women who are particularly marginalized and excluded with a year-long program. Here they learn about their rights, find their voice, learn about nutrition, and then obviously, really importantly, learn skills that will enable them to earn and sustain an income. Because a lot of the women we work with earn less than a dollar a day, which often means that they might be able to feed their children once a day, maybe. And actually, the training program is really practical and at the end of the year we see a significant increase in their confidence, in the way they kind of hold themselves, the way they use their voice and also the money that they earn. Which ultimately means that they can sustain themselves but most importantly also their families.
Claudia: It really puts everything into perspective, and very humbling all the things that you’re achieving. Where did your journey start with Women for Women?
Brita: For as long as I can remember, I was really passionate about helping women in particular. That was really, when I was about 14, I moved from Germany to Venezuela and I remember seeing poverty and seeing how it disproportionately affects women and I wanted to do something about it. I had this instinct of ‘this is not right this is just not right and I’m going to have do something about it.’ I obviously had no idea what I was going to do but I kept that in my heart. Then I got to Women for Women International about 11 years ago and I genuinely think it was meant to be. I remember reading the book of the founder and it’s called Growing Up Under the Shadow of Saddam Hussein and it’s an incredible story. She talks about how she was compelled to set up the organization because she wanted to reach out to women in countries that were affected by war to say, ‘the world hasn’t forgotten about you.’ And when I read that, there was just something about that humanity, that sense that you can connect and you can use your own voice, your own support to help another woman believe that change is possible, that she isn’t alone, and it just touched me so deeply in my soul and I thought ‘this is what I want to do.’ And then a few years later, I was approached by them to see whether I would set up Women for Women International in the UK and the rest is history! So, here I am!
Claudia: I wanted to ask you if you could give people some information, if they wanted to get involved with the charity, what sort of things could they do to be of help?
Brita: Obviously, you know, at the end of the day, particularly right now, we’re working with women in countries affected by conflict and crisis and they are also affected by lockdown, but for them it means they can’t go out and have their daily earnings. And so, Women for Women International are appealing to our supporters to give whatever you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s £10 or whatever it might be. One thing you can always do, you can sign up to sponsor a woman, and this is something that I love! You can write to her, and you can really establish a relationship and she will get the letters and our teams in the country translate them so there is this connection.
Claudia: Is that the Sponsor a Sister program?
Brita: Exactly! It is Sponsor a Sister, and I have been doing this for years, it’s incredible. Whether that’s the car boot sale that THE OUTNET have supported and that’s been a community effort, in fact, we’re going to do another car boot sale on the 7th of November.
Claudia: Getting it in the diary early!
Brita: Right! So, individuals who either want to shop, it’s always great to shop, because 100% of the proceeds go to Women for Women International. But also, any brands who want to get involved, any fashionistas, anybody that has beautiful clothes that they want to get rid of, this is the way to do it! Because it’s super, super fun and you get really actively involved, because it takes a community to raise awareness.
Claudia: And it really is SO chic. The things that you can buy there are amazing!
Brita: I mean, the stuff is just amazing. But, also what’s really cool is obviously Alice Temperley will be there selling dresses or Charlotte Olympia selling her shoes, but there will also be independent individuals emptying their wardrobes, so it’s very personal. It makes a huge difference. Last year we raised £250,000, in one day! Obviously now with this, we were going to do it in May and then Covid happened and we thought ‘ok.’
Claudia: But you were so clever, weren’t you?
Brita: Right! Because you know what, we were inspired by the women in the countries where we operate. Did they let themselves be beaten by Covid? Oh, no! They stood up and they said, ‘ok, what can we do?’ Alex (Eagle) called me and said ‘you know what? Just because of Covid doesn’t mean our women don’t need us, if anything they need us more! Right?’ and I’m like ‘right! Ok, so, what can we do?’ This is the magic question. What can we do? Rather than ‘oh, what if this, what if that,’ No. What can we do? And that’s how we settled it, take it online, let’s take it online. So, we did the virtual car boot sale on the 16th of May and it was amazing and we raised like nearly £100,000. Absolutely exceeded any of our expectations. So, we’re doing it again, 7th of November.
Claudia: So, you’ve mentioned a couple of the ambassadors, how did that start? How did you find these relationships?
Brita: It was really organic. I always had set the intention that I wanted to have a really diverse group of individuals involved in Women for Women and really create an inclusive movement rather than an exclusive club. I remember Charlotte Tilbury, this is like my favorite story. I was giving a speech and afterwards Charlotte came up to me and she said ‘Darling, darling. We need to do something together!’ And low and behold, she got in touch a few months later and she said, ‘we are launching this hot lips collection and I want to give you £1 for every lipstick sold in the first two months.’ And, I’m like ‘wow, yeah, amazing,’ there were like 12 lipsticks, inspired by different celebrities that she worked with, which obviously then had this enormous media exposure. And, it raised £150,000. I mean, £1 per lipstick in two months. I had no idea, I had no idea how lipstick would sell! And obviously since then she has pledged £1 million to Women for Women International.
Claudia: What a remarkable, I was going to use the word gesture, but that’s not a gesture, that is an unbelievable commitment isn’t it? And what a big difference that will make to so many women around the world.
Brita: It’s just enormous, just enormous. But you know what, it just sends such a strong signal to the industry. To say, ‘you know what, you can make profit and you can make sure that you give back, and that you contribute.’ She is personally invested, and that is the case for every single one of our ambassadors. If you meet them on the street, you can say, ‘you support Women for Women, why do you support them?’ They will tell you exactly, they will tell you the name of their sister, you know, it’s real and that’s really the key for me.
Claudia: So, you’ve mentioned enormous numbers of money raised for Women for Women, you’ve got these incredible ambassadors, your partnerships and events and such — if you could look back at the start of your journey with the charity, what advice would you give yourself?
Brita: Allow yourself to dream, and dream big, don’t limit yourself, right? Because that’s the definition. You’re dreaming! So, dream of whatever you want to dream and then take the first step, and then take the second step, and the third step and then low and behold, you can end up here. Not in a million years would I have thought that after 11 years we would be where we are right now with the incredible networks we have, raising millions of pounds and helping thousands and thousands of women every year. And I think that is the key, that you allow yourself to dream big and then trust. Trust that you’ve set the intention and then you take the first step. And, if anything, right now I’m even more determined to continue to grow Women for Women International because we are going to face greater challenges than ever before.
Claudia: Yeah, I mean, we think we’ve got problems because of Covid, you cannot imagine the women who are in these war-torn countries, what it will have done to those communities.
Brita: Right, and also because we are going to face a time where there is going to be less money and it always pains me so much to think that we have to make a choice between looking after our own or others. And I always want it to be ‘and.’ I believe, no matter what, we’ll be able to find a way to look after our own AND others. And that’s really what I want to do.
Claudia: You are a force of nature and I’m not surprised that all these women have so willingly embraced the charity. Hopefully, just through watching and listening to you, you’ve inspired some more people to support Women for Women because it really is the most incredible charity.
Brita: Thank you so much, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this, and I’m just always so grateful for any support and any sort of friendship and sisterhood. So, thank you!