WRITER | NICOLETTE CHAMBERY
PHOTOS | BETTER LIFE BAGS
Pivoting a Creative Outlet into a Life-Changing Organization
To stave off boredom and remain productive during the final trimester of her pregnancy, Rebecca Smith decided to make a diaper bag for herself. Once finished, she shared it on social media. So many people loved the bag that in 2009 she started taking orders, and then opened a store on Etsy. She named her new business Better Life Bags.
Demand continued to rise, so, in 2012, Smith asked her neighbor Nadia if she could help part-time with the mounting items to be sewn.
The lucrative business grew, and Smith decided to donate ten percent of each bag’s purchase price to a low-income entrepreneur overseas. As the months went on, Smith noticed that Nadia’s contribution to her family’s income was enabling her to purchase necessities like a dining room table and frames for her children’s beds. This small enterprise was changing the economic status of Nadia and her family.
So began the larger mission of Better Life Bags: to help support not only women abroad, but also those who have moved to America and might be experiencing difficulty in finding employment outside the home due to language barriers or cultural restrictions.
Fast-forward nine years. The organization currently employs 15 local women from all over the world, including Yemen, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, who now have the freedom to work from home, simultaneously empowering them, their families, and the women abroad who receive the dividends of Better Life Bags.
One employee was recently granted political asylum and has applied for her family to come to the US. She is a highly skilled seamstress, and yet, if it weren’t for Better Life Bags, she wouldn’t have been able to support herself as adequately or in a way that respects her cultural norms.
Emilie Arnett, an important part of the agency, was a photographer in Ohio before moving to Michigan and accepting a marketing position with Better Life Bags. I asked her to explain how her views have changed concerning the plight and resilience of foreign women and their unique challenges to employment. Her insightful observation was this: “A lot of it stems from different environments and cultures that we aren’t aware of or exposed to on a daily basis. Working here has opened my eyes to just how amazing these women are. They are skilled, and they are our sisters. I’ve learned the struggles they face and how hard they have to work to get to wherever they want to go. For example, whenever I return from any travel, one woman asks me to tell her all about the place I just visited, because travel isn’t as accessible to her.”
So many things about this organization are striking to me, but I am personally surprised by my own lack of awareness of the trials – and triumphs – of women who come here to make a better life for themselves and, often, their families. The work of organizations such as Better Life Bags is not only changing lives, it is raising awareness in people like me.
“I am also more aware of ethical fashion and what agencies I can support that will use their profits to invest in another woman’s life. I am missional with my spending, and I am now willing to spend more money for higher quality, or purchasing with a purpose,” Arnett added.
Better Life Bags continues to evolve, mindfully expanding and identifying ways to support women around the globe. Their merchandise is safely and ethically made and is absolutely beautiful. Despite a lean profit margin, the money still goes directly to the woman who makes each unique bag.