If you ever think for one minute that one person cannot make a difference, you are dead wrong. Proof in point is Surekha Kulkarni, who immigrated to Louisville from India 30 years ago so that her son could attend DePaul School. Before she moved to America, she had never worked a day in her life. Her whole life changed when she moved here and started working for a living, at the local grocery store she opened with her husband in Old Louisville. She also began volunteering around town at various organizations.
She returned to India often, and it was during one of her long trips home to India that Surekha took a jewelry-making class that changed her life. When she returned, she began teaching jewelry-making to women refugees during her volunteer time at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. She then realized they could sell the jewelry, and Beaded Treasures Project was born. Ironically, the same woman who has founded this organization based initially on jewelry doesn’t even like wearing jewelry. What she does like is mentoring women and giving them the confidence they need to bloom here in their new home. Meet our newest FACE of Louisville!
You took a jewelry-making class in India in 2005 while you were there for an extended vacation. What did you do with those skills when you came back to Louisville?
I am an accidental artist. I don’t even like wearing jewelry. I took the jewelry-making class because I was bored, and the month-long class has grown into a lifetime passion. I successfully started selling my jewelry, but soon discovered that I did not enjoy selling — just the creative part. So I started teaching a jewelry-making class called “Beaded Treasures” for the JCPS Adult and Continuing Education program, and I really liked that.
I volunteer a lot. No place in particular. Anywhere where that extra help is needed. My other passion is social activism for women’s issues.
So, in the fall of 2010, while volunteering at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, I met a group of women trying to sell their necklaces without much success. Something clicked. I felt like I had to do something about it. I didn’t know what. So I invited a few friends and co-hosted a party to see if the women’s jewelry would sell. To our complete surprise, we found that within an hour we had sold over $1,000 worth of jewelry, had someone wanting to host the next party and had volunteers and artists wanting to get involved. So we invited the mayor and made it official. On June 16, 2011, the Beaded Treasures Project was born!
You say that the jewelry is simply a means to an end for the women refugees who make it. How does teaching them about jewelry teach them so much more, especially about themselves and their capabilities?
It’s all about confidence-building. Self-confidence builds self-esteem, which leads to self-sufficiency. I worked with a group of 10 women for a little over two years to test the viability of the model.
When I met them, they were homebound, lacking the confidence to enter mainstream society. As we worked together and the women started selling their jewelry, this had a positive impact on their status within their families. The men began driving their wives to the jewelry shows to ensure their continued success. They also started having more say in decision-making in the family. Their opinion counted, and their confidence increased. Gradually, they started doing everything themselves. They were ready to graduate.
At the end of two-and-a-half years, when the women graduated, I saw that not only were they successfully selling their jewelry, but five of them started working full-time and three of them started pursuing further education. Some of them also started catering.
So — 100% success — way more than expected. I would have been happy if they could just have been able to supplement their income. Something amazing had happened — the jewelry-making and selling to the public had developed their self-esteems and their confidence — they now felt like they could do whatever they wanted to do, be whoever they wanted to be. Given the miracle of opportunity, it was possible to overcome all barriers to success!
You joke that you never worked a day in your life before you moved to Louisville over 30 years ago from India. Tell us about that journey and the effect it has had on you.
Had I lived in India, I would probably have become a great hostess — great at throwing parties, maybe great at playing mahjong. And that’s it.
Today, we are well-settled in Louisville, and I am probably in the same socio-economic level I would be in had I continued to live in India. But there is one big difference: I am no longer the person I used to be. I moved to Louisville over 30 years ago with my family, not to seek fame and fortune, but to provide an educational solution for our son. It was a life-changing experience. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would experience such phenomenal enrichment and growth as a person. I worked every single day and learned so much, from running a small grocery store all the way to founding a nonprofit for disadvantaged women.
How is it that you have found such a common ground with these women refugees here?
I realized that self-confidence and self-esteem are essential for personal empowerment, regardless of economic, social or educational status. Refugee women have already survived war, death and destruction on their way to Louisville, and I could completely relate to the barriers to success they faced — because I had faced them myself — despite my college education and English language fluency.
Where do you see Beaded Treasures Project in five years? Do you think you will still be teaching jewelry-making and selling?
I think Beaded Treasures Project will continue to be a part of the transformation in the lives of all underserved women in Louisville, a transformation from dependent to independent, diffident to confident, helpless to empowered, and it will be my privilege to be a part of this transformation.
How can we help and get involved in this project?
Initially, proceeds from the sale of my jewelry and small grants were sufficient to test the model on 10 refugee women. In order to take the next step and duplicate the model for 200 women and beyond, we need more of everything — resources, funding, staff. Will I be able to do this? I don’t know. I only know one thing: I can’t stop now! So, I am asking anyone who reads this: Join me to help make this happen!
So what can you do? There are so many ways to help and each is equally valuable.
- Host a Beaded Treasures party — You invite a few friends and coworkers, and we do the rest.
- Buy our products — Purchase handmade jewelry made by local women and accessories made by our global artisans.
- Become a workshop instructor — Until now, I have been conducting all skills training workshops myself. The more instructors we have, the more women we can train.
- Volunteer your time— Regardless of your skills or experience, there will always be an interesting project for you.
- Become a donor — Be a change agent in the life of a woman in your community and get a tax deduction.
If you were not in your current job, what would you secretly love to do?
I don’t know. In Beaded Treasures Project, I have found my true vocation.
What are three words that describe you?
Compassionate, optimistic, enthusiastic
What advice do you treasure?
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” Maya Angelou said that.
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my: ___.
Trash to Trendy bag made by our global artisans.
Favorite thing to do in Louisville?
What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
Name three lighthearted or frivolous things you can’t live without.
Coconut ice cream, binge-watching shows and walking
Thank you Adele Reding Photography for the beautiful pictures.
To learn more about Surekha’s work with her nonprofit, the Beaded Treasures Project, visit beadedtreasuresproject.com.
To be inspired by other great women in Louisville, check out our other FACES of Louisville here.