155 years ago, four Irish nuns, trained in France, got on a ship and landed in Melbourne. They were Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order that started in France only a few decades before by one woman, Sister Mary Euphrasia Pelletier.
These Sisters were sent to provide support and safe housing for women and girls marginalised or left behind during the Victorian gold rush.
The seed they planted all those years ago has grown into an organisation that provides education, micro-finance, and community projects that assist women out of poverty.
One of their networks includes The Trading Circle — a not-for-profit organisation determined to create educational and economic opportunities for women and girls through various social enterprises.
I sit in Adi’s Kitchen, a cafe run by the organisation assisting people who have fled war and persecution, and wait for Bindi Lea, The Trading Circle’s CEO.
I was hoping for something Ethiopian, because Adi, who currently runs the cafe, is proud of her Ethiopian heritage. But their flat breads have sold out this morning. Only the brownies and muffins are left. I grab a brownie and a long black coffee and find a spot outside in their courtyard.
I find out later Adi uses an Ethiopian spice mix called “Berbere” in the muffins, coffees, chais and hot chocolates. Her brownies are also made from Teff, an Ethiopian grain.
The cafe is part of Four Brave Women, their latest initiative that gives people with a refugee experience an opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen and manage the running of a small business in Australia.
A new family gets to run the commercial kitchen for eight weeks and the capital they gain within that time will hopefully become seed money for a business of their own.
Four Brave Women, and the publicity around their latest project, was how I came across The Trading Circle.
But food is not all they provide. On one side of the small cafe is a wall full of accessories, computer bags, baby toys made by other social enterprises overseas — mainly in Thailand and the Philippines.
After a hectic morning, Bindi has time to sit and chat to me. She tells me The Trading Circle has five main projects:
- the cafe and commercial kitchen, Four Brave Women;
- the store where they sell items made by their Producer Groups — all social enterprises providing training, education and a living wage to the women who work there;
- the Circle of Hope — where bags made by women in regional Thailand are bought and donated to women fleeing domestic violence in Australia, filled with donations of toiletries and sanitary products;
- a project that supplies bags, gifts and lanyards for big events and conferences; and
- an education project that seeks to inform students of social justice issues here and around the globe as well as mentor them.
When Bindi took the helm as CEO three and a half years ago, The Trading Circle was about to close. It was the last of its kind in the world. But it was losing money. Fast. In a few short years she managed to turn the business around — reducing overheads, working on new products with the Producer Groups and diversifying income streams that relied heavily on retail to one that also included hospitality.
“I feel the responsibility,” Bindi confesses. “We are part of a 300 year old legacy started by one woman in France who sought to care for destitute women in her community. Sister Anne Manning and Sister Helen Swiggs started The Trading Circle more than 20 years ago. Sister Anne has since passed away, but Sister Helen still visits every Monday to see how we are going and to pray for us.”
The organisation seems like a small network of women, but their dreams are big and ambitious. They want to act locally; act globally; and change the world by empowering one woman at a time. The next step is not only to grow the business, but to start working with their producer groups to become self sustaining businesses in their own right.
I sit there and listen to Bindi pouring out her vision for the organisation. It’s difficult not to get swept along by her passion.
“I want to start working directly with these women who make our products. I want to go and listen to their dreams and see how we can best work together to fulfil them. I have an idea of where their business could go, how they could grow, but that may not be what they need or want,” explains Bindi.
“The aim is to assist them to grow their business. So these women won’t be destitute again if one income stream ends.”
I wish I could give The Trading Circle a bigger platform. I wish I had a larger voice. Before I know it, I’m apologising for not being a social media guru or a powerful “influencer”.
Bindi looks at me.
“Listen, this organisation was started by one woman. Today, we’re part of a global network helping thousands of women out of poverty,” she says.
“Do not underestimate the power of one person to do something good. You may be one blogger, but who knows how you will impact one of your readers. All it takes is one person to read your story and think how they can change their world for the better.”
I take her encouragement to heart. I thank her for her time and make my way to leave.
I spot a computer bag in the store. It is made by women in Nong Kai, Thailand. The Regina Centre, where they work, trains and employs about 400 women. The women are responsible for all levels of management. They earn a fair wage in a stable environment allowing them to provide for their family and give their children access to an education.
I reach for my purse and buy it. I may not be able to do much, but I can buy something that will help. Besides, the cactus print is cute. And if I am to write more, I’m going to need a bag for my laptop.