Women helping women yields empowering results. Open Arms in Austin employs refugee women at a living wage in the private-label manufacturing of textiles.

By Leslie Beasley

Open Arms is an Austin original, a social business that employs refugee women at a living wage in the private- label manufacturing  of textiles.

The idea and passion for Open Arms started when I was sitting with a group of refugee women in a dusty refugee camp in Uganda. These women had suffered the unimaginable in that nation’s war-torn villages. As I looked at these strong women taking care of one another, many loving on their babies conceived as the result of rape, I was overwhelmed by our need for one another. For a moment, as we shared a meal and danced together, I felt like I was them. We were all one: moms, sisters, daughters, aunts. In that moment, I decided I would seek out refugee women who had been resettled to Austin, those living right here in my own community.

I was determined to start a social business that employed refugee women, empowering them to live a life of freedom, choice and dignity. And I wanted to form a team of women who wanted to stand for one another and build something truly unique from the ground up.

Lacey Strake, our co-founder, said yes immediately. She and I had dreamed of doing something many years before and had even dreamed of an organization called Open Arms.

Then came Trina Barlow, albeit kicking and screaming at first, but once she was in, she dove deep, taking charge of our branding and marketing, and making sure we always put our best foot forward. Thank goodness she took the leap.

And then there’s Linda Knebel. She joined the team without having any idea what she would be doing, and it didn’t matter to her. She heard the words “women helping women,” and that’s all it took. She headed up our sales effort and we learned to watch out when she rounded the corner because she would roll in with guns blazing, ready to make things happen. Her passion was strong.

This founding team of women, friends I had known for years, women whose children I had held right after delivery, answered the call and worked full time for more than a year for no pay. Yes, that’s right: no pay. They invested their time in a vision that was about circling together with refugee women in our community who needed someone to stand with them. The payoff was being a part of some- thing transformative. We watched as others trans- formed and we watched ourselves transform.  When I think about this group of women tirelessly working to create something beautiful in this world, I’m convinced that’s why we’re here: to stand for one another in deep, invested, meaningful ways. That’s what gives life meaning.

Getting the company started and built to the point of viability wasn’t easy. It fact, it was really hard, but it was fun. And it was so deeply meaningful to be part of a group of Austin women with such diverse backgrounds and worldviews who were fully invested in a shared vision. We all believe in empowering women. The joy of daily interaction with a team of women who I love like family could not be matched.

In the end, as I reflect on the joys of working and living in Austin, I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful for the chance to live in such an innovative, supportive city. I am grateful for all the amazing women I’ve worked with who are committed to women helping women. I’m inspired by all the refugee women who have been relocated to Austin and work tirelessly to be parents to their children and good citizens in their new community. To see them turn around and empower other women is the greatest gift of all. It’s an affirmation of our company’s philosophy and a validation of our town’s special spirit. It has convinced me there is no better place to live, work and do life than Austin, Texas.


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