Economy

Boredom on a trip to her homeland India in 2005 led Surekha Kulkarni to take a jewelry-making class.

That would change her life’s trajectory.

Years after her return from that trip, Kulkarni met a group of women at Kentucky Refugee Ministries trying to sell their jewelry — and without much success. She invited a few friends to a house party to help move sales.

The group of women ended up making $1,000 in an hour. And in turn, Kulkarni founded the nonprofit Beaded Treasures Project, which trains women to make and sell jewelry and focuses on microfinancing. The project’s first shop will open in December.

As part of our new weekly series From the Ground Up, I met with Kulkarni at a coffee shop in Prospect to talk about how jewelry can change a woman’s life.

Listen to our conversation in the audio player above.

Why the first party she hosted was successful:

“What we have tapped into, and I didn’t really realize it, was that there is a need. The way our system is set up, the refugee resettlement process, they [refugees] get federal funding in which refugee families have to be resettled in a finite amount of time. And it is not possible to get everyone a job.

“So usually the man, or one person in the family, gets a job. And the women, most of them encounter enormous difficulty. Maybe they’ve never worked in their home country. They have been traumatized. They don’t have child care facilities. So no one ever thinks of them of having any value, any skill they can contribute to the family income. So we had tapped into this need.

“What we are doing is providing them with the opportunity. We train them in home-based skills. So they don’t have to go, they don’t have to find child care, it’s not some ultra-specialized training. They use what they have in order to start earning something, supplementing their income. And in the process, boosting self-confidence, their self-esteem. And they get empowered.”

On a success story in her organization:

“Maybe I can mention Maryam. She’s from Iraq. When she moved here — it’s a very patriarchal society, so her position in her family was just essentially to be a part of it. She didn’t have any say.

“When she started making jewelry and selling it, we can see her confidence building up. She started having more say in what happens to her family. And then after she graduated, she continued to sell her jewelry.

“However, last year something radical happened. She learned how to drive. Then she joined the community college to train as a phlebotomist. So all of a sudden because she’s driving, she’s doing all these multiple things, which the last three years she wasn’t doing. It’s amazing to see.”

What the Beaded Treasures Project means:

“The Beaded Treasures Project is like a necklace. The beads are the women that we are helping. Or the beads are the women in the project. And the community is the thread that makes it possible. So I cannot have a necklace — one cannot exist without the other.”

This interview is part of From the Ground Up, our new weekly series of conversations with entrepreneurs, changemakers and other innovators in Louisville.