Tharani Jayaratnam’s Non-Profit GreenDreamsWomen Is Helping Women-Led Households Escape Poverty

Tell us more about GreenDreamsWomen (https://www.greendreamswomen.org/) & why you started the organization.

GreenDreamsWomen was started to provide a hub for women to gather, heal, learn and thrive in their respective communities.  By creating a safe space combined with training and access to finance we wanted to enable women, who are heads of their households, to earn a sustainable and decent livelihood that could help lift them and their children out of poverty. It was a lifelong dream of mine to create something good on our family property and when I returned to Jaffna after 27 years to reclaim it after the war, I decided to keep that promise in memory of my grandparents who had bought the property and my mother who had mentored women throughout her life. My sisters and I were shown by their actions to be kind and helpful to our neighbors and fellow travelers.  I did not want to impose my ideas on the community so I partnered with the local Women In Need, a legal aid organization which works with abused and abandoned women, who wanted to create a handmade quilled greeting card project. Initially I wanted to fund the training and give seed money to the women to create their own micro-businesses. But after training over a 100 in card making, screen printing and terracotta products with many creating their own micro businesses, we now employ 4 full time and 2 part time women who create beautiful cards that are marketed in USA, UK and Canada. The project was started in 2013 and many women who were interviewed after 3 years said it had been therapeutic to gather and create art after the trauma they had suffered. That it had helped them heal so they could move on.  Some were able to use the program to gain confidence in the marketplace, as a stepping stone to other employments and some have gone on to have healthy families but still use the skill to make extra money. We pay a living wage to the women along with bonuses and help with debt reduction and emergency funds. All proceeds from card sales go to pay the salaries and we keep our overheads low. Our cards can be ordered online or by contacting us at greendreamswomen@gmail.com or on Instagram and Facebook. We have done eco-friendly wedding cards as well. All of our cards are frameable and are always a huge hit in markets and bazaars.

How did you find your co-founder and put together the Board of Directors?

My co-founder is my mother’s youngest sister, Indra Thambyayah, who is a teacher and community advocate in Montreal since 1988. Previously she had taught in Ethiopia and Nigeria after obtaining her Chemistry degree from Women’s Christian College, Madras.  She has been the helpful neighbor, aunt, teacher in all of the places she has lived in since her 20s. So it was only natural that she would open her house in Jaffna to house the Women’s Empowerment Center and continue to sustain it through her generous donations over the years. Our Board of Directors are mainly my friends and acquaintances who have shown genuine concern and passion to help the least among us in their lives.

What made you decide to become a non-profit instead of say a for-profit social enterprise? 

I have harbored the idea of creating a social enterprise in Jaffna since 2002 and founded GDW in 2013. The term social enterprise was not yet in common parlance at that time.  Even now it’s hard to explain a lot of our work to people in the diaspora. It was easier to start as a non-profit just to avoid our work being misinterpreted. 

What made you focus specifically on the 4 goals listed on your site from the Global Goals adopted by all United Nations member States?

Though many of the 17 Global Goals could apply to our work we chose:

  • Goal 1: No Poverty
  • Goal 2: Zero Hunger
  • Goal 5: Gender Equality 
  • Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

These are the ones that directly apply to our core operations. Our cards are made on eco-friendly handmade recycled paper made by a women’s collective with disabled family members in Sri Ramapuram, Vavuniya District. So Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production would apply as well. We intend to go through the goals again in our strategic planning meeting this year and hopefully connect more goals to our work.

Can you describe the impact the organization has made so far?

In 2018, we provided approximately 4390 hours of work for our employees and handmade paper suppliers from the women’s collective in Vavuniya town. 4000 hours of employment provided in 2019 paying our full-time employees a steady, dependable monthly salary + 50% of bus fare + New Year bonus. We believe in slow, sustained and sustainable development which has a progressive impact on the lives of our project recipients and their kids. We are mindful of our ecological footprint and never hasten our graduates to heal faster than they are able to in order to be marketable. Ours is not a micro loan organization and the training we provide is free. The impact the organization has had on our full time and part time employees during these two years of the pandemic would probably be considered the most important of all.  During the 3 month initial lockdown, we paid 60% of the salaries and even though we have had very low card sales these two years, we have managed to pay 100% of the salaries without fail.  This year we increased the salaries 50% for our full time employees to address cost of living and other factors. We also gave more orders to our paper suppliers these two years which enabled them to weather the pandemic. Placing an order for our cards provides for 11 people and their families. As Sri Lanka teeters on the brink of bankruptcy our small organization has been a stable provider for 6 households enabling them to put food on the table. We also had our employees work from home during lockdowns and provided high quality masks to keep them safe.

What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?

I want to create a program to enable rural schools to help students who have fallen behind due to the lockdown catch up.  If we could create a program through partnering with local organizations for a couple of schools it could feel like a big deal.  Our organization wants to address concerns that are paramount at any given moment in time. And this, as we all know, is a huge concern not only in Sri Lanka but globally at this time. 

You’ve had an interesting career journey with a lot of your experiences connected to sustainability and women’s issues.  How did you get opportunities like being the CEO of the Harvard Kennedy School Community of San Diego and Commissioner (District 5)?

I have a BE in Electronics and Communication Engineering for the University of Madras and a MS in Engineering Management from Western Michigan University. In the first decade of my career in the US, I worked in a tier-1 auto manufacturing company in Michigan where I managed and implemented quality management systems for the organization and headed several quality departments. However, my passion has always been gender and social justice issues and mentored many young women who worked with me. I was a founding Chairperson of the Diversity and Inclusion Council for my company in 1999 and was instrumental in incorporating women’s issues to the charter, advising the President on ways to increase women in middle management. To align my career with my passion I switched to Sustainability and Ethical Supply Chains and was Global Compliance Manager at Sears Corporations. I was able to incorporate sustainability and women’s issues in codes of conduct we created there. I also consult with companies on management systems implementation integrating sustainability, gender and SDGs. I earned a MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow in 2010 and when I moved to San Diego, helped found the alumni community and was asked to be the COO.  Through my sustainability work and my involvement with the UN Association and the Diplomacy Council I was introduced to the San Diego County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and was appointed by the Supervisor of our District to represent District 5. The commission works to advance policies around Homelessness, Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence around the county. 

How have your family and friends supported you through your journey? 

My family and close friends have been my pillar of support.  My family has been my anchor throughout my life as I trudged an unconventional & convoluted career and life path. Especially my dad, who though he might have been disappointed when I rejected the life-sucking corporate and the model minority, immigrant life, has been the silent steady presence and unwavering supportive rock of my life. They have helped with funding, operations, marketing and selling the cards. This core group has done so with a non-judgmental attitude even if at times it might have seemed we were not progressing as much as we should have.

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years and what did you learn from it?

When I had discussed my plan of creating projects in the North that could help with livelihood creation for women with activists in Jaffna a couple of years after the war, many warned me of the pitfalls of doing so and even actively discouraged me. Their concerns revolved around the lack of work ethic and a perceived sense of entitlement that people having gotten used to handouts from international organizations seemed to possess. They told me about failed efforts by international organizations and the diaspora. A lot of the warnings turned out to be correct.  I had created my house as an Empowerment and Safe Center for women to gather, learn, heal and to create a stable life. I had entrusted the place with an organization which was unable to use it or motivate the women nor to create additional projects that we could have funded. I am in Jaffna for the long haul so I am undaunted by this. I have learned to work with those who are genuinely motivated to help people create a stable life.  I studiously avoid organizations and people who do not seem committed to improve the lot of women but are more into furthering their career goals.  Or to put on events for dignitaries where local women are asked to bring their creations so that the organizations get funding and recognition which doesn’t translate into much for the women.

What do you like to do for fun outside of work?

Hang out with family and friends, walk on the beach, read. Recently I’ve been trying to do some art journaling. Though I can’t draw I love colors, textures, mixed media and designs. I’d like to tell my story via these mediums.

***Read the rest of interview at TamilCulture.com.***