Maria Teresa Romeiro Leal, who works with seamstresses in a Brazilian slum, reveals two realities about business and poverty: first, workshops owned by poor women can compete in the world of haute couture; and second, making quality goods is the best way for poor women to find business partners, open markets, and earn a living.
The New Idea
Maria Teresa, known as Tetê, has found a new way to alleviate one of the oldest problems afflicting Brazil’s urban poor. Unemployment is the bane of life for migrants who have settled in shantytowns, or favelas; but development programs have failed to help the poor find reliable income. Tetê realizes that, despite good intentions, small enterprise programs fail on several fronts: they fail to produce high quality goods, they fail to understand and develop markets, they fail to make best use of their workers’ skill, and they fail to see themselves as viable, competitive manufacturers competing in a global economy. Rather than organize poor women to produce poor goods, Tetê is raising both the standard of the product and the living standard of the people. This philosophy guides her cooperative, which makes expensive high-fashion clothing and sells it to Rio de Janeiro’s elite.
The same philosophy will guide other small businesses that follow Tetê’s lead and benefit from her efforts to promote and certify small, high-quality enterprises owned and run by the urban poor. With her co-op as a model, Tetê is now defining an industrial standard that will mark good merchandise produced with the best practices in community development, environmental protection, and fair labor.
Located just south of Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha is notorious as the largest slum in South America. Migration from Brazil’s drought-ridden Northeast has made Rocinha into a city within a city. Many residents are domestic workers in the wealthy gated communities nearby. Poverty is linked to racial bias: Afro-Brazilian women, like those Tetê works with, earn only 53 percent of what white women earn, according to research by the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies. Prejudice against people who live in favelas means that education and employment opportunities are few, though the entrepreneurial spirit in the favelas is strong. Once, the textile industry offered only sweatshops to women from the slums; by training poor women in design, management and marketing, Tetê shows industry what it has been missing.
(Read the rest of this long article on ASHOKA).