In the town of Kutahya southeast of Istanbul a group of artisans is working on our designs. They are among the best in the world, continuing a long tradition of crafting beautiful ceramics entirely by hand – the perfect vessel for a unique candle.
The ceramics are not for us, though. They are for widows in Baghdad. Prosperity Candle is going to Turkey to source pottery for the first women-owned candle enterprise in Iraq.
It may come as a surprise to discover we started there. In 2009, Prosperity Candle launched an initiative in Baghdad to support women’s economic independence through entrepreneurship at a time when bombs were exploding every day. Women were advised to stay home, safe from market violence and a culture that was turning increasingly restrictive.
In a small town in western Massachusetts, three friends gathered in a dining room to assemble 50 “business-in-a-box” kits, complete with candle-making equipment, training supplies and an Entrepreneur’s Guide translated into Arabic. Our founder’s 2-year and 4-year old daughters helped, making sure each box had every component the women in Baghdad would need.
Then we flew to Turkey to train the first Iraqi woman – Iptesam – on every aspect of candle-making, from preparing the wax to packaging the final product. And in record-keeping, quality control, and marketing. She returned to Baghdad to train 4 others who in turn trained more than 40 Iraqi women.
We were completely self-funded, passionate, and in hindsight a little crazy. Some months later we participated in a business plan competition and earned 3rd place. Afterward, a judge told us that our idea was so bold that we might have won, except no one actually believed we could ship out of Iraq.
Just two weeks later, our first candles left Baghdad… 1,948 pillars handmade by Iraqi women, mostly widows. We waited for a lull in the bombs, loaded a truck, and shipped. The candles were delayed in Erbil, then again in Dubai, and yet again in New York. But they arrived in time for Mother’s Day 2010.
Suffice it to say that the very first pillar we held was an emotional moment. From Baghdad to small town USA. From her hands to ours.
This vision to help women in regions of conflict build brighter futures through entrepreneurship – to not just survive, but actually thrive – was now tangible. We had a lot of work ahead to fully realize that vision, but the launch was successful. We had done what others had said was impossible.
Today, as we prepare to return to Turkey with Mimi, an extraordinarily talented product designer, we feel fortunate to be working with some of the same Iraqi women from 2009. Strong, determined, inspiring women like Lamya’a, Nazhat, Hiyam and Intisar.
This time, however, they will joined by hundreds of their sisters. Won over by the original project, the U.S. State Department has asked us to scale up the initiative to include 600 widows with their support.
That is the impact we seek. One community, one woman, one candle at a time.
If you’re interested in hearing more about Prosperity Candle’s origins, check out Our Story.