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Woodbury-based Fair Anita empowers women worldwide

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Jewelry is designed locally, produced globally

By Michelle Leonard

Some people can take some of life’s most devastating blows, and not only find a will to survive, but also become an inspiration. Joy McBrien, owner of the social enterprise company, Fair Anita, is one of those people.

At the ripe old age of 26, the Woodbury High School graduate has provided fair trade jobs to about 8,000 women in 16 countries, and she’s likely going to supply the means for even more women to find jobs in the coming year.

She does this through something called a “public benefit corporation.” As a mission-based, for-profit organization, Fair Anita is one of the first public benefit corporations in Minnesota.

But McBrien is not the only one who reaps the benefit to her company’s sales. Rather, through her affiliation with women’s shelters and employment programs from around the world, thousands of women get the financial help they need to get out of bad living conditions, or away from their abusers.

In its most simplistic form, Fair Anita is a company that produces jewelry. Rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings. Some shoes and accessories, too. And all of the pieces have a little bit of cultural couture to them — every piece both represents the country from which it comes, but has a bit of McBrien’s own design and flair, making it something women in America would enjoy wearing.

The story behind the company, and what that jewelry represents, is so much bigger than a pretty trinket.

To understand the significance of what Fair Anita is, and what it does for women around the world, one must know a little about its founder. As tragic and as sad as that may be.

See, McBrien was sexually abused as a teen, and more than once. And as traumatic as that experience was, that same experience is what brought her to where she is today.

A quest for peace

To deal with her own pain, and her own healing, McBrien decided she needed to get away for a while. She started traveling, and found herself drawn to areas where women were oppressed or being abused.

Her need was two-fold. She was grappling with her own sexual abuse and found herself trying to understand what abuse was in different cultures and to find her own peace by understanding that abuse happens to women everywhere.

“It was my way of coping,” she said. “I started traveling, because I wanted to know what violence against women looked like in different cultural contexts.”

On the other hand, the more McBrien met and worked with the abused and oppressed women, she found herself wanting to make life better for them — and, in a roundabout way, for herself.

She started looking at remedies like counseling or social work — things she understood and thought would benefit the women with whom she was working. But they had their own ideas about how to make life better. They wanted jobs. They needed to make money to get away from their abusers, to find homes, to feed their children.

“Here I was, talking with all of these women from all over the world, and I wasn’t hearing their solution,” she said.

One thing was happening almost everywhere she went — the women were bringing their handmade jewelry and other wares to McBrien, and asking her to sell the items when she returned to the U.S. The money, they told her, would help get them to a safer place in life.

The only problem, McBrien said, was that a lot of the items were reflective of the culture she was visiting, but the design wasn’t necessarily something that would appeal to contemporary women in the U.S. Some were more like trinkets, and McBrien knew her generation would not be interested in that style of jewelry.

A solution

But McBrien had already done her fair share of designing jewelry, as well. She started beading and making her own jewelry as a young teen, so she already had a sense of what would sell and how to design pieces.

As a college student, McBrien was already thinking about how she could help these women. She knew what they needed, she knew what their skills were. Eventually, she came up with a plan — she would design the jewelry, send the designs back to these women, and let them use their skills to create the pieces.

By January 2015, McBrien had incorporated her fair trade business, Fair Anita.

The company is named for a social worker in Chimbote, Peru, whose name is Ana, but many refer to her as Senora Anita. McBrien lived with Senora Anita while in Peru, and found her friend to be a great inspiration to herself, and the community.

A year later, Fair Anita has become a blossoming company. McBrien works with women’s cooperatives in 16 different countries, and has plans to expand her business in the future. She’s leaving for Chile again in March, and expects to bring in new lines from Chile, Bolivia and Peru in the coming months.

Most of Fair Anita’s sales come through online orders. McBrien has a website, fairanita.com, that features each line of jewelry, by country. She’s also exhibited at area craft shows, and done a little bit of wholesale. She hopes to expand the wholesale aspect in the future, too.

“I started this with my mutual experience with them in mind. How can we support one another, how do we invest in one another,” she said, “so it’s easy for me to sell these products. What it means is more jobs for women. That’s serious impact.”

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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