Interning with Secret Projects: Fi's Story! From Tooting to India... Working life with Secret Projects!

 19th Oct 2019 |  Work with us |  Fritha Mason


“Feminism is not about making women strong. Women are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D Anderson

I have recently returned to the UK after 6 months working for Secret Projects India in Bengaluru. It was a lifechanging experience that has taught me so much about myself, human interactions, the sheer determination of women, the power of the global sisterhood, business for freedom and so so much more.

Having worked for Secret Projects in London for over a year, to finally meet the Makers whom I had heard so much about and to see the impact that the social business is having was so important to me. For 6 months I lived right next to the Secret Projects’ Training Support Unit and main office in a suburb in Northern Bengaluru. I lived and breathed Secret Projects and experienced what can only be described as ‘backstage India’.

My day-to-day life was so incredibly varied, with no day going completely to plan due to the wonderful and exciting unpredictability that is India! My tasks included audiovisual documentation of our Makers and their stories of empowerment, as well as carrying out interviews in order to measure impact and keep the connection between our Makers and our customers alive. I spent a significant amount of time in the workshop developing products and organising fabrics and materials for production and meeting with Makers in order to check on their progress and answer any queries.

I travelled far and wide in Bengaluru meeting stockists and connecting with other like minded brands, organisations and individuals in order to promote ethical production in the city. I also travelled beyond Bengaluru with my right-hand woman and Indian adoptive mother Lissy, Secret Projects’ meticulous and dedicated Quality Controller. We visited our Maker Groups in Hindupur and in the Nilgiris mountains to distribute materials and to lead training sessions on new products. These sessions were always incredibly motivating. We were always welcomed with such warmth and absolute eagerness to learn.

A highlight of my time in India was traveling to the northeast to the state of West Bengal. This being my first time in India, West Bengal was a completely different world to the South Indian experience that I had become familiar with in my first couple of months in the country. There, I met and spent time getting to know the inspirational Molly who runs a Secret Projects sewing unit in Canning Town, two hours outside of Kolkata. Molly is a talented seamstress and is utterly dedicated to the other Makers in her unit. She has built up a special safe space full of chatter and laughter and friendship, providing the vulnerable young women who attend the unit with so much more than training in dressmaking.

The Makers became my closest friends while in India: I spent time in their homes, I ate with them, I got to know their families, I went to the market with them, I was invited to their festival celebrations and birthday parties. Their warmth and compassion towards me was overwhelming. For me, this was the most amazing privilege of my role with Secret Projects: simply being human with these women and building beautiful friendships. The women showed me how every wound can heal and how every individual can rise up to claim their full worth and break into their fullest expression despite conflicting constraints around them. I have left a significant piece of me in India with these strong women.

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SP Accountant's Trip - one year on!

SP Accountant's Trip - one year on!

Secret Projects Accountant’s Trip – November 2019  A little background...  Just over a year ago, Secret Projects took the decision to . . . change our business model completely and became a Community Benefit Society. The organization was put up for sale, giving people the opportunity to buy shares and, with others, own Secret Projects Community Benefit Society.   Our CEO, Fritha headed up the promotion of the newly structured business and was busy selling community shares. Banke, Secret Projects Global Director of Finance and Operations oversaw finding the correct financial structure for the new business – a task she relished! Part of the new structure meant that Secret Projects formed a subsidiary company in India, known as Social Power India (SPI), and Banke knew that we were moving into a completely different arena. We would begin trading internationally as a multinational company, which has its own compliances and financial regulations plus accountancy standards for each country Secret Projects was to trade in.   As a highly experience professional, Banke knew what her accountancy strengths were and had spent several hours in discussions with Secret Projects UK Accountant Fiona Bird of Heather & Co, bouncing ideas around. However, the more she and Fiona investigated the India side of the business, Banke realized that she had a gap in her knowledge. To plug this gap, she put feelers out into her professional network, and this is how we were able to connect with Sneha Shah, an Indian accountant, who has since become SPI’s accountant based in India.   The 3 accountants decided that it was crucial for them meet face to face, spend time together, focusing on what needed to be done, dividing tasks between them in line with their own areas of expertise and they also felt they wanted to get to know each other better. So, in November 2019, Banke and Fiona boarded a flight to Bengaluru and the first Secret Projects Accountant’s Trip began!   The trip...  The 3 women stayed in a flat together in the city for a week, speaking the same accountancy language, and because of spending this focused, quality time together, realized how beneficial it was for Secret Projects to have their joint experience and skills in compatible areas. It is fair to say that during this time, they bonded!   It was also decided that whilst in India, Banke and Fiona would begin the process of sourcing a suitable bank for SPI, and Sneha volunteered to help with the search, and was an invaluable asset, as she has so much experience of the Indian banking system. They spent time thinking about what SPI needed from a bank, what banks in India required from businesses and arranged meetings with several institutions. Although it’s not an easy task to set up bank accounts in India, it helped enormously for Secret Projects Accountants and Director to meet Banking Account Managers in person and as a result, they found a bank that is an excellent fit. The officials of the bank they chose is led by a woman and strikingly, they completely understand and back our work to empower women. As importantly, SPI has been able to develop an excellent working relationship with the bank, and this is enormously beneficial for the business.   Other outcomes...  All 3 found it incredibly empowering on a personal level to work together and collectively realize Secret Projects vision of a world where all women have the confidence and resources to make choices, thrive and contribute to the strengthening of their communities. This feeling of personal empowerment has driven them to believe even more deeply that women in India can be empowered by Secret Projects 4-stage Virtual Training for Empowerment Programme and the making and selling of clothing and homeware. Banke now knows that if she has any issues that need sorting out, or needs to get a task completed in India, she can rely on Sneha completely and indeed all of them feel the same way and the great, professional relationship that sprang up from this trip is growing ever stronger.   It wasn’t all work...  Banke, Fiona and Sneha worked all morning and then in the afternoon would venture out into Bengaluru, visiting the palace and various markets for shopping trips and had lots of fun in the process! They returned to the flat for a few more hours work, before spending the evening having dinner and getting to know each other away from work. On their last evening together, they visited a well-known restaurant recommended by Fritha and had a ball, even though no-one was feeling particularly well that night.   The flat, where they stayed is situated beneath the apartment of SPI Director Nirmala, who really took care of them all, inviting them to her house for breakfast and was on hand throughout the trip and really made everyone feel at home.  They were wonderfully comfortable, making their business trip so much pleasanter than staying in a hotel.   The following week after Fiona had left to return to the UK, Banke, who was to remain in India for a further couple of weeks, travelled to Mumbai with Sneha and stayed for a few days with her and her partner. Banke had the most wonderful time, as they took her sight-seeing, for a manicure and a pedicure and even had dinner in a restaurant that is a favourite haunt of Bollywood stars. Spending time with Sneha and her family like this was a great ending to this part of her time in India.   Since then, of course, the world has changed as COVID-19 took a grip with most countries going into lockdowns. Secret Projects financial team now meet virtually, which will continue for the foreseeable future. However, this is made easier by their strong working and personal relationship that was forged during their week together in Bengaluru.     Photo: Left to right, Sneha, Fiona, Banke and Nirmala
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Our values. We support each other...

Our values. We support each other...

Our Makers are the world to us and we see each one as an individual. We were keenly reminded of this last week when Sindhu, one of the Makers from our . . . Divine Maker Group was experiencing difficulties with her bank account. We had been trying to transfer money that Sindhu had earned from Stitching Secret Products (the name we give to items in our clothing and homeware ranges) for a couple of weeks, but kept being advised that there was an issue with the account and the funds were bouncing back. Of course this worried us greatly, as we knew that Sindhu really needed this money to support herself and her family. We contacted Sindhu to ask if she knew why this was happening and she told us that she had been unable to get to the bottom of it. Luckily, our General Manager, Sumathi had spent time working in the financial sector and was able to use her knowledge to unearth what the issue might be.  She contacted Sindhu's bank and made an appointment with one of the Account Managers and followed this up with a call to Sindhu to let her know what documents the bank would need to see to rectify the issue, telling her that they would attend the meeting together. So, last Friday, armed with lots of hand sanitiser and wearing face masks, Sindhu and Sumathi met up and went to the bank together to meet with the Account Manager.  We are happy to report that the issue was resolved and we are now able to transfer the money that Sindhu has earned. Sindhu told us that it was a good learning curve for her and will know exactly what to do should something like this happen again. Negotiating banking systems is never easy. This story is a great example of how we empower our Makers, not just by the training they receive through our four-stage Virtual Training for Empowerment Programme, but in so many other practical ways. If a Maker needs our support and it is practical for us to help, we will always be there, supporting each on one as needs be. One of our  Values is 'we support one another', and, like all our values it plays an integral part of how we all work at Secret Projects, whether that is our staff Team or Makers. Photo: Left to right: Sindhu and Sumathi outside the bank.
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We are proud to be WFTO's member of the month!

We are proud to be WFTO's member of the month!

We had some wonderful news in late September, when we were advised by the World Fair Trade Organisation Europe (WFTO Europe) that we were to be their . . . member of the month for October. This came at a great time, as we were celebrating having been part of this amazing organisation for a year. Being recognised like this by WFTO, means that a wider audience opens up to Secret Projects and our story of women's empowerment in India spreads ever further. The work of the WFTO is so inspiring and so necessary and has members from all around the world working towards the common goal of fair trade in all it's forms, from decent working conditions to fair wages. We are honoured to be a part of this impactful institution and we say a big thank you to WFTO for making us October's member of the month!
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