Women's Work

In their journey among the world's female artisans, two successful entrepreneurs found much to learn

PICTURE THE SCENE: A poor Indian village in Gujarat near the Pakistani border. Paola Gianturco, an American marketing consultant, and her colleague Toby Tuttle have come to chronicle the daily lives and business struggles of the renowned mirror embroiderers there. The Muslim women first cover their faces in the Americans' presence. It's not because they're shy; they assume that the two visitors, with cropped hair and trousers, are men.

Considering the vast cultural gulf that separates these entrepreneurs from their Third World counterparts, it's surprising how much they can learn from each other. If you have any doubts, take a good long look at In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, (Monacelli Press, New York) a striking new book photographed and written by Gianturco and Tuttle.

Five years ago, Gianturco, now 61, was teaching leadership skills to high-level executive women at Stanford University and Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and consulting on glass-ceiling issues to major corporations. That's when she was "electrified" by the news from the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing: One-fourth of the world's families were supported exclusively by women and one-quarter more primarily by women--mostly on salaries of less than a dollar a day. "It seemed to me if they were successful in educating their next generation, it could change more than their children's futures and family's future. It could alter their countries' futures," Gianturco says.

Compelled by her strong interest in women's business issues and inspired by the recent death of her father, who had devoted his life to helping people, Gianturco decided to write a book to highlight the struggles of these Third World entrepreneurs. She informed her clients she was taking a yearlong sabbatical from her one-person consultancy, the Gianturco Co. in Mill Valley, Calif. She recruited her former ad-agency buddy Tuttle, now 64, who was just then scaling back the investment banking business she ran with her husband Tim Tuttle. In the fall of 1996, the two women cashed in their frequent-flier miles, and began an 18-month odyssey that would entail six trips to 12 different countries. "I had collected folk art for about 15 years," says Gianturco, "but my link was really to women and business."

Besides India's mirror embroiderers the book introduces us to a broad array of craftswomen who are slowly grasping the importance of adequate capital and marketing. In Bolivia, we meet the knitters in a credit association who joyfully bless their loan money with confetti and beer. In South Africa, we learn of Zulu basket weavers who sell under a common brand name.

Over and over again, Gianturco and Tuttle were struck by the women's teamwork, something they say U.S. companies would do well to emulate. Consider the Turkish rug weavers, who often take turns on each other's looms during social calls. Not only can one pick up where the other left off because of their "shared knowledge base," they never ask for payment, even though rug weavers are paid by the knot, says Gianturco.

While Gianturco resisted the temptation to give advice during the book project, she's now doing her part to help the women. She chairs The Crafts Center in Washington, D.C., which works with indigenous artisans, and serves as a board member of The Association for Women in Development, also based in D.C. She and Tuttle also plan to donate a percentage of the book's profits to six international nonprofit organizations.

In many respects, the journey that Gianturco began with her sabbatical is not over. She has since resumed consulting on a smaller scale, but her perspective has truly expanded. "I ended up with a profound feeling of connection with people all over the world," she says. Her latest client? An adventure-travel company.

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