Australian Social Entrepreneur Unites Mothers Through Multicultural Clothing

Sonali Hedditch has been fighting for female entrepreneurship around the world for decades.

Growing up as the daughter of a Sri Lankan immigrant near Brisbane, she remembers being the only darker skinned kid in primary school and always knew she was a bit different. When visiting Sri Lanka at age 12, Sonali was “blown away” by the poverty she saw there.

“I saw many women begging with their young children, and a desperation and distress I’d never witnessed before. To go from the gentle leafy happiness in outer suburban Brisbane to that experience as a child, it drew me to learn about the developing world and ultimately explore the ways marginalised women could empower themselves to create a better life.”

After receiving a Master’s in International Development, she spent seven years working on reforming laws in the Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and North Africa for private sector development with organizations like the World Bank and International Finance Corporation.

Sonali’s mission to economically empower women in developing countries led her to start her own social enterprise, Multiculti Co, in 2016.

Thanks to her work around the world, Sonali’s daughters had collected a wardrobe of multicultural clothes and were regularly stopped and asked where they came from. She noticed a demand for diverse clothes “with a story”, an alternative to mass-produced fashion in Australia.

Now, Brisbane-based Multiculti Co sources handmade, traditional children’s clothes and toys from women in developing countries. With a mission to further economic and social empowerment and benefits for families in need, Multiculti Co also helps train, advocate and facilitate assistance for women and mothers around the world.

I asked Sonali to share the experiences that led her to start this global “sewcial” enterprise.

What are some of the challenges you’ve seen facing small business ownership for women around the world?

So for example, in Australia, it takes one day to register your business online. But in some countries, it can take months! There is red tape everywhere and it’s even harder for women. They are generally less educated and it can be seen as culturally inappropriate for a woman to a start a business.

They need to turn up in person, rather than registering online, are greeted by male registration officers and can be questioned: “Does your husband know you are here?” “Does he support you?”

Many women give up or operate under the radar, and that means that they don’t have access to training, to finance, and the country doesn’t properly understand what women are contributing to the economy.

But those who persist and do manage to get their business up are in fact the key to alleviating poverty. These women spend their incomes first and foremost on the health and education of their children, and broader family and community. So my work involves looking at what can be done foster female entrepreneurship in countries or communities where it’s not common.

You saw a lot of political unrest first-hand when you were working in Jordan during the Arab Spring in 2011. How did that impact your decision to launch a social enterprise?

Just before we left for Jordan, the revolutions began, firstly in Tunisia in December 2010, then Egypt. We considered not going for a day or two, but our thirst for adventure was strong. Some called us crazy because we had our beautiful 8-month-old daughter with us in tow.

There were street demonstrations every Friday afternoon in city centres. I worked with a lot of young, well-educated Arabs who were so excited for the toppling of dictatorships and the promise of democracy. The revolutions were relatively quick in most countries, we kept hoping and anticipating the end of the revolution in Syria too, but it just continued to escalate.

We returned home in February 2012, and I watched what was happening in Syria and its impact on Jordan. Some people call Jordan the Switzerland of the Middle East. It’s home to over 2 million displaced Palestinians, two waves of Iraqi refugees from the Gulf War and the 2003 war, to Yemenis, Sudanese, Somalians and over 1 million Syrians. It is bursting at the seams, and there is limited water, food, shelter, teachers, jobs…The situation is absolutely dire.

So in September 2016, I was still on maternity leave after having my third child, and the political and media discourse around race was particularly divisive. It was the height of the Trump campaign — he hadn’t been elected yet. But I just remember thinking, “That’s it!”.

What did the process of starting Multiculti Co look like?

I started reaching out to my networks around the world to identify women’s groups that I could work with.

When we lived in Jordan, my first daughter turned one, and one of the gifts she received was a gorgeous little dress made out of red keffiyeh, the traditional fabric used by nomadic Bedouin tribes. She received comments wherever she went about that dress. So I thought I’ll find the organisation that makes those dresses and import them. But it no longer existed!

So I put a lot of energy and time into finding a group of Syrian refugees that would benefit from this project, as well as vigorous due diligence to ensure the social impact would be maximised.

In the end, I found a wonderful organisation to partner with who nurtures the professional and personal development of Multiculti Co’s ‘Mama makers’.

It was also a massive leap of faith. I just desperately wanted to do something to communicate the stories of marginalised, indigenous and refugee women, and to promote dialogue around teaching our children to embrace multiculturalism. I knew it was now or never.

Tell us about some of the women you’ve encountered on your journeys and the ones you’ve worked with

The women I have worked with around the world are an instrumental part of my business and my biggest why.

One of my Syrian “Mama makers”, Samah (age 44), came to Jordan in 2013 by land. Before her family decided to leave, the government took her husband for no reason and tortured him in prison for two months. When he came back, alive but hurt and scared, they left for Zarqa immediately.

Her husband is up and about now, but you can still see the torture marks on his back. Samah said that having an income helps her “bring necessary things to the house” since her husband and 20-year old son can’t always work. She really likes the work with Multiculti Co and having an extra salary. I asked her if she had any message for the people of Australia.

“You may hear bad news on the TV, but we are not the same people. We are simply trying to find peace and good, trying to raise our family, we just want to live a normal life.”

I’ve met women who live on remote outer islands of the Solomon Islands, and their income is derived by taking a canoe to the main island to sell handmade shell jewellery. While they’re there, they sleep on the cement market floor for two weeks, and if you ask them what they want, they want their children [to go to] university in Fiji or Australia or the USA. They want the very best for their children and they squirrel away the tiny income they make to save for creating those opportunities.

How have your daughters been involved in Multiculti Co? Do they play a role in how you have developed the business or take an interest in your work?

Their primary interest is in wearing the clothes! Whenever I get new samples of items, I request their sizes and watch how they move and play in them. If they love it, and it wears well, its a winner! They’ve also featured in some of the product photography, which was so fun for them.

Apart from being in the photos, I think it was great for them to see what is involved in coordinating something like that, and the results. Their involvement has led to an overly keen entrepreneurial eye. They are always spotting business opportunities, and our neighbours have had to consume quite a bit of lemonade!

I want them to know they can do and be anything they work towards, and I’m so excited for all the potential bundled up in them and what they will bring to this world.

Any other advice for women starting their own businesses?

I’d advise women who are starting their own business to think hard about their “why”. What is their purpose and passion behind their business?

For women, and particularly mothers who are juggling their business, caring for their kids, and other professional and personal responsibilities, the why or passion is critical. It’s so tempting to keep preparing and growing the concept before you launch so that you are ready to deliver the whole vision when you first go to market.

But there is so much to learn in just starting, and starting small. You will make mistakes, and things will go wrong, and you can take those lessons and pivot towards what you find is working as you grow.

Today, Sonali still contributes to the development of female entrepreneurship in multiple ways. Aside from her work with Multiculti Co, she works to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander entrepreneurs and Indigenous women to start and grow their businesses and has also served on the Board of NGOs VOICE and The Global Women’s Project.

Sonali’s goal is to expand the number of communities and countries Multiculti Co partners with to sustain impact and economic opportunities for entrepreneurial women around the world.

Multiculti Co has also begun facilitating direct donations to Syrian families in Jordanian refugee camps. Donations address basic short-term needs, while clothing orders provide employment and sustainable income for Syrian “Mama makers”. More information can be found on Multiculti Co’s website donation page.

Sonali helps donors exchange photos with the refugee families as a way to see beyond the donations and connect donors and refugees. She believes that the key to a compassionate world is families, because “nothing is stronger than a mother’s love, and this unites us”.

Syrian “Mama maker” Samah adds, “We hope that this message will get through to people through these garments made by our hands”.