Stilettos for a Cause

April 11th, 2011 by Laura Fraser

Pam Rosenkrans runs In Her Shoes, a California-based boutique shop that donates 100 percent of its profits to international women’s rights.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

For many shoppers, In Her Shoes, a boutique shoe store in Palo Alto, California, is a place to go to forget about the world’s cares. Filled with shabby chic white sofas, colorful chandeliers, polished jewelry cases and a highly curated selection of fashion-forward shoes and loungewear, women wander in to indulge themselves after a busy day. On this Saturday, one professional woman leans back into an Indian pillow and straps on a pair of Giroudon platform sandals, twirling her foot to admire them.

“All our profits go to the Global Fund for Women,” Lisa Sheridan, the store manager, mentions, and suddenly the sandals become even more attractive. Sheridan points to a table strewn with literature about the fund, a San Francisco-based organization that gives direct grants to grassroots women’s groups around the world with the goal of defending women’s human rights and promoting their economic security, health, education and leadership. The shopper leaves with the sandals – along with a brochure and donation form for the organization.

At a small desk in the back, surrounded by towers of shoeboxes, Pam Rosekrans, the owner of In Her Shoes, sits at her computer dealing with inventory, bills and upcoming events. Slim and stylish, Rosekrans is a longtime philanthropist and part of a wealthy San Francisco society family (stepmother Dodie Rosekrans was a famously dashing patron of the fine arts); the previous evening, Rosekrans attended a charity dinner at which she was seated next to Harrison Ford. Today she’s glad to be back at her more humdrum job, running her boutique to benefit the Global Fund for Women. “Charity events are fine,” she says. “But I feel more connected to causes when I’m personally working to support other women who are working so hard around the world.”

Rosekrans opened the boutique in 2008 expressly to support the Global Fund for Women. She had written checks to charities for years, but when the last of her five children left home for college, she wanted to have a more direct hand in helping oppressed women around the world. Her passion to become involved in international women’s issues was ignited after seeing reports and images of Afghan women being stoned to death in a soccer stadium by the Taliban for adultery or minor infractions of the Sharia law, which prohibits Afghan women from appearing in public with a man who is not her husband, or without a head-to-toe burka. “We all know there is injustice in the world, but those images of Afghan women were life-altering,” Rosekrans says. “They stopped my heart. I had to do something.”

When a friend told Rosekrans about the Global Fund for Women, which had projects supporting Afghan women, as well as other women in the poorest and most oppressed countries of the world, she became a donor and held house parties for the organization. Rosekrans liked the Global Fund, she says, because she felt the money was put to good use – most of it directly to the women running programs in other countries, with very little spent on administration. “With a lot of big charities, you write a check and have no idea where the money is going to end up,” she says. “With the Global Fund, every dollar goes to women who are helping other women survive.” Indeed, Amelia Wu, the Fund’s development director, says that 78 percent of the Global Fund’s revenues go directly into the hands of women’s groups in other countries.

Rosekrans decided to open In Her Shoes as a way of combining her passions – for fashion, for interacting with other women and for supporting women’s global rights. Both her best friend and her daughter had opened shoe and pedicure boutiques in other cities, so it seemed like a natural way to go into business. Rosekrans is friendly and readily engages the women who come into the store; she shares tips about recent books she’s read, mentions the upcoming speaker series she’s holding in the store about women in Colombia and the Global Fund’s projects there, or simply talks shoes.

All the profits from the store, beyond overhead and staff salaries, go to the Fund. “I don’t have to work, but I like to work,” says Rosekrans, who takes no salary herself. “I’m fortunate in what I have, and I believe I have a responsibility to give back.” She says it’s only right that women with the luxury to buy expensive shoes should help support women in other countries that may go barefoot. Most of her customers seem delighted to participate.

So far, In Her Shoes has donated $102,000 to the Global Fund, which typically makes grants of $5,000 to $20,000 directly to women’s groups in places where such sums will go the furthest. Last year, the Global Fund awarded 655 grants in 110 countries, totaling about $8.5 million. The organization funds projects that help women gain basic rights to land, water, health care and a clean environment, and it also supports worker’s rights and reproductive rights. Their grantees offer programs as diverse as promoting the rights and safety of garment workers in Bangladesh, offering legal advice and shelter to migrant workers in Costa Rica, documenting environmental and health damage by oil drilling in Nigeria, providing a safe space for lesbians in Lebanon, and financing small loans and scholarships to sex workers in Nepal to start new businesses and help their daughters go to school.

Wu says In Her Shoes has brought in far more revenue to the Global Fund than what comes through direct proceeds from sales. There’s a big multiplier effect:. “Women hear about the Global Fund and its work when they visit In These Shoes, and become donors themselves.” One shopper brought in a six-figure donation from a nearby Silicon Valley tech corporation. Rosekrans’ donation is particularly helpful to the Fund because it is unrestricted. “There are always popular and unpopular areas with giving,” Wu says. “With unrestricted funds, we can make grants to groups that might not otherwise be targeted, such as to sex workers or to gay and lesbian groups in other countries.”

Rosekrans in turn appreciates that the Global Fund isn’t a monolithic non-governmental organization swooping in to another country and culture and telling the grantees how to run their lives and operate their programs. The projects are empowered to run themselves as they see fit, without interference. “That appeals to me as a mother,” says Rosekrans. “There’s a nurturing aspect, and room for people to make mistakes, to grow and learn.”

Last year, Rosekrans had the opportunity to see some of the proceeds from her shop put to work in India. She visited several grantees, including representatives from Grameena Mahila Okkuta, a federation of 320 rural women’s self-help groups from 160 villages throughout the Kolar District of Karnataka, that runs advocacy programs to help women farmers and landless laborers. She also met women from a Bangalore-based program called Vimochana, meaning “liberation,” that helps victims of domestic violence, and which was one of the Global Fund’s first grantees 25 years ago. According to the United Nations, nearly two-thirds of all Indian wives are victims of beating, rape or coerced sex; brides whose parents fall behind in payments for their dowries are in danger of being burned alive.

“It was amazing to see what these women have done with their grant,” says Rosekrans. “They’ve created a place for women to go who needed to leave their husbands, often women who had been badly burned, where they could be safe and learn about their rights.”

Rosekrans met women from the Indira Female Peer Educators Collective in Chennai, in Southern India. The group was created by sex workers and their families to advocate for the rights of sex workers, to prevent sex trafficking, to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS and to provide assistance in finding alternative employment.

“The program helps women get off the streets to stop prostitution,” Rosekrans says, “but recognizes that a lot of women still have to be prostitutes, and provides them a place to get medical attention and be safe.”

Everywhere she went, Rosekrans admired the spirits of the women grantees she met. “They were so happy that people from our world were paying attention to them in their world,” she says. She was particularly moved after one formal presentation when the women spontaneously rose up and danced, holding hands together, pulling everyone – including Rosekrans – into their circle. For those moments, they twirled around and forgot they were women from different countries and of different means; they were just women dancing together, light on their feet. “I’ll never forget that dancing,” Rosekrans says. “They gave so much back to all of us.”

Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map, which comes out in paperback in June.