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Nepali by TDM: Empowering Nepalese women with scarves

Alex Beall, special to WTOP.com

WASHINGTON – Nepali by TDM scarves adorn the necks of celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Anne Hathaway and the Kardashian sisters.

Nepali by TDM is a women’s accessory company in Potomac, Md., which specializes in scarves, sterling silver jewelry and merino wool tops made by Nepalese women who use the proceeds to pay for health care and education.

Michelle Baldwin founded Nepali by TDM in 2006 to help impoverished Nepalese women after seeing their optimistic attitudes despite their living conditions.

“There is an amazing feeling of warmth that emanates from these women,” she says. “It’s genuine happiness and smiles. It’s very tough. They have four hours of electricity a day, and yet they don’t walk around complaining and they are still able to create these beautiful, beautiful artistic things throughout such hard challenges.”

The scarves, ranging in price from $60 to $195, are made out of natural fibers such as cashmere, bamboo, silk and organic cotton and are sold to more than 900 stores in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.

Baldwin, who is in her 40s and lives in Potomac, designs the scarves the Napalese women create by hand, which includes the process of spinning, looming, dying and printing. Baldwin says the scarves represent the colors of Nepal.

“When you go into the markets, the herbs and the spices, they pull them from flowers, and grind them and it’s beautiful, bright colors,” she says.

The 120 Nepalese women who work with Baldwin also design some scarves, which Baldwin sometimes incorporates in the collection.

“Every once in a while in a shipment that comes to me — I always consider it a little surprise — there will be a couple of scarves that they designed,” she says.

Baldwin came up with the idea for the accessory company in 2005 when she visited Nepal while consulting for a business that imported custom rugs from the South Asian country. She named her new venture “Tissage du Monde,” or Weaving of the World, which she later shortened to TDM.

“I was in Nepal … talking to one of the rug vendors, and they handed me a cashmere blanket that was the most amazing thing I had ever felt in my life, and I just sat there and thought, ‘How can I bring this back to the States? How can people really experience this?'” she says.

She asked the vendor’s sister, Tulsa, who is now a coordinator for Nepali by TDM, to make several scarves from the same material, which Baldwin then took back to the U.S.

“I realized I had hit on something, and I was able to not just help the women of Nepal but also bring a beautiful, fashion-forward product to women here in the United States,” she says.

Two Nepalese women, Tulsa and Sushi, coordinate the production in Nepal by distributing orders, shipping the finished scarves and finding more women to work. Often, they hire women who performed manual labor on construction sites.

The company provides employment, higher than average wages and a safe working environment for the women. The average wage in Nepal is about $58 a month, according to Baldwin, but the women working for Nepali by TDM earn between $85 and $200 a month depending on their skillset.

Nepali by TDM also offers the women and their families monthly medical care and school scholarships that covers the cost of uniforms, lunches, tuition and pencils and paper.

“We pay for everything so that the family doesn’t have to worry about a penny of the children’s expenses,” Baldwin says.

Baldwin advises the mothers to send their children to private schools that provide a strong English education.

“We feel (it) is so important to be able to elevate them out of poverty and into a position where they can earn a good wage in Nepal,” she says.

She adds that the Nepalese women motivate her to continue growing the company.

“It’s really their will, their desire, their clear love of life and of people that just made me want to give to them what I could give to them,” she says. “Throughout the last seven years, they have just given so much to me as far as truly what values are in life and how to create beauty when it’s so challenging.”

Baldwin says she wants to double the number of women working for Nepali by TDM.

“There’s not a specific number because when I hit that number I’m going to want to help more people,” she says.

In the last few years, the scarves have been featured in magazines such as Vogue, People and Style Watch. Baldwin sells the scarves wholesale through a showroom in New York to stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel and through tradeshows. The next show will be held in New York May 6-8.

The company also sells products at fundraisers for a discounted price, giving 25 percent of the proceeds to a nonprofit chosen by the fundraiser. In November, Delta Gamma sorority at American University partnered with Nepali to sell scarves on campus. The sorority raised $300 that members donated to help people with visual impairments.

“We had a great opportunity to raise money for our Service for Sight philanthropy so we wanted to partner with Nepali since the company has a goal to empower Nepali women,” says American University senior Judy Daghestani, a sorority member who coordinated the event and now interns for Nepali by TDM. “It’s great to know that the merchandise you are wearing is helping do good for Nepali families.”

Editor’s Note: Alex Beall is a member of the Delta Gamma sorority at American University.

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