As President Claire Underwood in House of Cards, she is accustomed to lobbying other politicians – and off-screen, Robin Wright is just as formidable a campaigner.
Ever since the American human rights activist (and former advisor to Bill Clinton) John Prendergast introduced her to the crisis in the Congo 13 years ago, she has been working to end the cycle of violence and war in a region which has been in permanent upheaval since the 1990s and where.
Two years ago, she launched her own charitable sleepwear line, , with lifelong friend and business partner Karen Fowler. Profits from the range go towards local charities helping Congolese women who have survived violence.
We caught up with Robin and Karen to hear about their work – and what they have learned on the job.
You first visited the Congo almost a decade ago. Can you tell us about that?
Robin Wright: It was shocking. How much strife [there was]. The violence against women and how horrific the stories were.
You’re sitting there as a free person of this planet. You can do and say whatever you want. You’re free to go, you have convenience, security. They have none of that. [So you think] ‘I can give you money, but what do you really need?’ Each and every one of them said ‘We need you,’ meaning America, ‘to be our voice. Nobody knows what’s going on here. We don’t have a voice in our country.’ That’s why Karen and I decided to build this company - to make that a voice for them.
Pour Les Femmes’ profits fund education and vocational training, including sewing workshops. Why is that important, as opposed to just donating money?
RW: I mean, that is female empowerment - putting it back in the hands of the individual.
Karen Fowler: To have a job and to be able to support yourself makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you can participate in the world and the community. We wanted to give them a skill and get them back on their feet so they can take care of their families and feel like a real person again.
Is it true that you’ve been nicknamed ‘Mama Robin’ by the women you work with?
RW: We all say Mama, right? Karen was ‘Mama Karen’.
KF: ‘Mama’ is like ‘Mrs’ You’re a ‘Mama’, whether you have children or not. They built an outhouse in Kiva that says ‘thank you Mama Robin.’
They say 50% of consumers now buy not just what you do, but why you do it. What is behind the new conscious consumerism?
RW: You feel free to ask more questions.
KF: Yes, free to ask and you want to know.
RW: It’s so prominent now in the world. ‘Shame on you,’ is what you feel, if you’re wearing something dirty.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to set up an ethical brand?
RW: You just have to make sure your supply chains are clean. You have to really check your references and know who’s making your product. And mentor someone young - bring someone in, teach them how to do things differently. Take them under your wing, and pass it on.
Is it true you’re expanding into menswear?
RW: That is coming soon. Coming to a theatre near you!
What lessons have you learned in the process of setting up this label?
RW: My gosh. So many. We built from such a small grassroots, and we’re growing, and we have such a great team. I feel like I’ve really learned to listen and trust others in our company. To me, it’s inclusive of everyone. Everyone has a voice in our company. We’re not just the bosses, and we listen to everyone, and it’s nice. I think it empowers them. We have a girl that’s 20 years old in our company and she’s sweet and young and she was quiet. Now she’s not, and she’s got a voice. I think she’s developing and growing and I’m proud of that.
KF: It’s fun to give back. It’s fun to fundraise and have fun, do you know what I mean? And know that it’s going to a really good cause. We have all kinds of stories on our website of women.
RW: Even just the story of one girl that didn’t think she had any life left in her future after being raped and shamed and disowned for her family. I remember meeting her at 14 years of age. And she was so dour. She just graduated from law school. It brought her back into a light of hopefulness and perseverance. And she went to law school. This is somebody who thought it was completely hopeless. So that, even of itself, is reason enough to do this.
What does empowerment mean to you?
RW: It’s empowering to have a skill, have a trade, have a knowledge of something and pass that on to somebody else and see them ascend. Then they’re empowered too. I think it’s just, it’s the beautiful, gradual escalation of something.
The past year we’ve really seen women find their voices – from the Women’s March to conversations around pay. How has that made you feel and how do you expect that to continue?
RW: The forum is open. It’s like the glass ceiling got cracked and it’s opening quickly, which is great. I think it’s like anything: trying to sell a brand. Trying to get the word out there... It’s repetition. Keep talking about it. Keep talking about it. Keep talking about it. That starts a revolution of thought and change.
Pour Les Femmes, is available from , and