Like many retired corporate executives, Wendy Summer in the early 2000s was looking for a way to utilize her professional skills to make a more profound mark in the world. She connected with a nonprofit that needed women with business experience to mentor aspiring businesswomen in Rwanda and Afghanistan. Summer knew that more jobs in these war-torn countries would mean less violence, so she said, “Great, sign me up!”
She took her first trip to Afghanistan in April 2006 and was “enthralled with the culture,” Summer says. “These people have been through decades of war—trauma like we can’t begin to imagine—yet they have a resiliency and desire to rebuild their lives, and a graciousness and hospitality I had never seen before.”
Summer was assigned to a dressmaker named Bakht Nazira, who grew up in a small village five hours east of the capital, Kabul. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they had a translator. Summer taught Nazira about fabric quality and visual merchandising and keeping financial records, and she was amazed to discover the stark contrast to Americans’ way of doing business. “They are much more polite and sociable,” Summer says, noting how a meeting that might take 45 minutes in the U.S. will span three hours and several cups of tea in Afghanistan.
Like many women, Nazira had quit school because of the Taliban, married at age 16 and welcomed the first of four children a year later. Unique to her situation, though, was a husband who wanted his wife to be educated.
“Fifty-five percent of men and 83 percent of women in Afghanistan can’t read or write,” Summer explains. “If a man isn’t educated, he has no understanding of why his wife and children should be.” Many children are forced to forgo school to work street jobs, like polishing shoes or peddling sundries, to help support their family.
“In a country that has one of the youngest populations in the world, how will these kids ever get a great job or start a business if they can’t read and write?” Summer wondered. “And if they don’t have a job, how can they support a family someday?”
She continued her mentorship, traveling between Central Asia and the East Coast. Summer decided to start a business that would benefit women artisans; she just didn’t yet know what that business should be.
Then, on her fourth visit, something happened: “One day Nazira’s husband proudly told me, ‘We have earned enough money from my business to send our son to private school.’” The boy had three older sisters and so Summer asked, “What about the girls?”
Private school for a child forced to work on the streets costs about $1,500 a year—a cost too steep for most families—and includes tuition, transportation, school supplies, uniforms and a stipend to cover the $1 daily street wage.
The couple’s youngest daughter was bright and eager to learn, and so Summer split the tuition with them. She turned to friends for donations, and her business idea was born: She would start a company called Zaanha (the Dari word for “woman”) that would sell scarves and both benefit craftswomen and provide financial assistance to families of working children so those children could instead attend public school. (Its logo, an ancient Central Asian hooked-sun design, symbolizes energy and rebirth.)
Realizing she would need high-end scarves and shawls to appeal to friends in the U.S., Summer sought out master artisans in Nepal and India to weave elegant pieces from cashmere and cashmere blends, later adding beautiful sweaters and coats to Zaanha’s collection and selling the pieces at private trunk-show parties, from Greenville to West Chester and beyond. (They are also offered on the company’s website and at select stores.) She donates a portion of sales to her company’s nonprofit fund, which now supports multiple Afghan school projects.
Since its inception, Zaanha has raised more than $220,000. Programs include schools for girls to learn English and computer skills, private schooling for gifted children, and sponsorship for children to attend public school. Additionally, the Sweater Project spins monetary donations into warmth on the backs of children who must still work the streets to help support their families.
Summer has made 16 visits to Afghanistan, where she continues to build relationships and her brand. She’s grateful for the many ways their culture has enriched her life and for the opportunity she’s had to enrich theirs.
“Just because a child is poor,” she says, “does not mean he or she doesn’t aspire to have a fruitful and meaningful life.”
Published as “Dream Weavers” in the March 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.