Imagine being a small-business owner who travels all the way to Africa to purchase inventory. Imagine then driving into the desert and following a rutted, barely marked route for eight to 12 more hours to reach a tiny village. There, hundreds of women rush to greet you, proudly showing off the crafts they’ve made and hope to sell.
That’s a typical buying trip for Cecilia Dinio-Durkin. She is the owner of Women’s Work, a Poughkeepsie boutique that sells fair trade crafts, many made by the San Bushmen women of southern Africa.
Dinio-Durkin grew up in Poughkeepsie, graduated from Hunter College, and ultimately became a magazine writer and editor. In 2003 her husband, a Peace Corps alum, accepted a job as a game reserve manager in Botswana, and the family, which included two young children, moved to Africa.
“I was writing for a travel magazine, and was assigned stories all over southern Africa,” she says. But meeting the San Bushmen women changed her life, Dinio-Durkin says. “I was overcome with how sequestered their life was, and yet they were happy. They made beautiful crafts they were proud of, and I thought maybe I could help sell their work.”
She adds: “At first, we would just sell things that we had in our suitcases, and word began to spread.” After moving back to the U.S. in 2006, she opened her first shop.
“I didn’t even know, back then, that what we were doing was what’s known as fair trade,” Dinio-Durkin says. (Fair trade promotes doing business with impoverished people and countries, offering a livable wage that helps sustain workers and jobs). “Many of the women don’t have bank accounts, much less computers, so I would send their money by Western Union. That’s how direct the connection is.”
Dinio-Durkin, 49, has since expanded to selling crafts made in more than 20 other countries. Today, her attractively arranged shop is chock-full of colorful jewelry, baskets, clothes, and housewares. The most popular items? Marula oil and a line of ostrich eggshell jewelry. She’s also been moving more into consulting, and was recently sent by the U.S. and other governments to assist in projects involving women artisans in Pakistan, Guatemala, and South Africa.
But Dinio-Durkin isn’t just helping women overseas. She is very involved with female business and empowerment groups organized through the American Association of University Women, including My Sister’s Keeper.
“Sometimes, people question the motive behind helping those overseas, when so many need so much help right here at home,” she says. “But to me, it’s about living ethically and trying to help whoever you can. It’s making the world a better place.”