This Brooklyn Entrepreneur Was Shaken to Her Core by Nepal’s Devastating Earthquake and Did Something Incredible

What sort of jewelry designer poured her passion into reviving devastated communities with new entrepreneurial projects.

On April 25, 2015, a devastating, 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the central region of Nepal along the foothills of the Himalayas. Nearly 9,000 individuals were killed and approximately 22,000 injured. Over 700,000 homes were damaged. Three-and-a-half million were left homeless.

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And the destruction appeared to continue and on: A number of aftershocks almost as severe as the original earthquake continued to literally shake this impoverished nation to its core.

Seven thousand miles away, in Brooklyn, N.Y., entrepreneur Natasha Wozniak felt that shaking, too, at her emotional core .“I needed to accomplish something,” Wozniak, a jewelry designer, said recently recalling the way the humanitarian crisis in Nepal affected her personally: “I had deep ties with the people there.”

Those ties dated back again to Wozniak’s student days in 1995 when she spent a year in Kathmandu Valley studying Nepali sculpture, then returned to those studies for another year, in 1999, as a Fulbright scholar.

She spoke the Nepali language. She knew the culture. She loved the gentle, generous folks of Nepal. She even incorporated the neighborhood Gurung culture into her jewelry designs.

That’s why, following a news of the earthquake, Wozniak acted fast: Within ten days she’d raised $6,000 from family and friends and begun the philanthropic mission she’s continued, a mission which includes: raised $250,000; rebuilt the Nepali village of Rainaskot; contributed to the economy of another village, Barbandi; and founded the 501(c) (3) Sangsangai (meaning “together”). In late September Rainaskot was even honored with the Nepali government’s "Tourism Destination of the Year" designation.

In 2017, just 2 yrs following the earthquake, Wozniak’s organization could give a community center and 14 rebuilt homes to Rainaskot’s villagers; and Sangsangai still remains mixed up in region today. For instance, a guest room was put into each home, therefore the villagers could augment their subsistence farming income with tourism, an attempt that’s already drawn 3,000 visitors, according to villagers’ guest ledgers.

Those visitors come both from abroad and from Nepal’s cities like Pokhara and Besi Sahar, to gaze at Rainaskot’s soaring views of the Himalayas also to enjoy their local host families’ Nepali traditions of warm hospitality, and local delicacies like Sel roti.

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Image Credit: Sangsangai

But getting Rainaskot up to now is a long, difficult road. “I started holding fund-raisers, the first at a friend’s apartment,” Wozniak says of her rough start. “And, I’m saying, ‘Okay, I’ve never done this before! But I’m likely to rebuild this village!’"

Yet that’s just what she did. She raised that first $6,000, then continued fund-raising, in NY and in her hometown of Racine, Wis. She setup a crowdfunding page on the internet. She built on-the-ground support by renewing a vintage friendship from her Nepal days: with Bibek Pandit, whom she’d first met while sticking to his family in 1995. She have been 19 at that time; he was 4.

Today, both are developed. Wozniak is 43. Pandit, who’s in his 20s, heads up Sangsangai’s NGO in Nepal. Back the U.S., Nepali-born businessman Sharda Thapa has lent crucial support, you start with the $31,000 he raised from a Nepali group in Jacksonville, Fla. Another Nepali ally, who heads an NGO there, suggested the tourism idea. Many volunteers in both Nepal which country also have pitched in.

It doesn’t mean that the first years weren’t crazy-stressful, as Wozniak continued to perform her jewelry business and her non-profit simultaneously: “I’d fill all my orders, can get on a plane to Nepal, spend per month there and keep coming back, restart the business enterprise,” she says. Still, she and Pandit were able to hire Nepal architects and construction crews to build back the Rainaskot villagers’ traditional red ochre stone and mud mortar houses — making them earthquake-proof this time around with bricks and cement, and adding porches for family gatherings.

It had been important to both philanthropists to do all of this with the villagers’ full participation, Wozniak explains. “The architects and engineers would bring the plans, however the villagers had to help make the final decisions.” Regular planning meetings were held, and the neighborhood families, comprising about 60 residents, each sent a representative.

The challenges were substantial: Life following the earthquake was hard; the villagers were forced to sleep under plastic sheeting draped over a bamboo greenhouse. There is also, of course, the financial struggle. And infrastructure repairs were tough: The tiny, muddy road up to Rainaskot, at an elevation of 5,700 feet, needed to be widened and improved so trailers could haul in bricks and other building materials. Tensions simmered, meanwhile, between Rainaskot’s residents and its own jealous neighbors, surviving in the village just underneath.

There is more: Building permits from Nepal’s newly stabilized government were exceedingly hard to acquire. The border with neighboring India closed down for half a year starting in 2015, because of a political conflict with Nepal; fuel couldn’t complete.

Furthermore, there is a drought. And as the earthquake had shifted Rainaskot’s natural water source, the villagers had to negotiate water rights with neighboring communities. Those communities and construction accidents repeatedly cut Rainaskot’s water line, which ground cement-mixing to a halt.

Still, the deep collaboration Wozniak and Pandit had fostered with the villagers paid: Their project moved ahead while some failed. Yet due to difficult permit process, both partners made a decision to forgo building houses in Barbandi, the next village they approached. Those residents, in the end, could rebuild, themselves, using grants newly released from the federal government.

That is why Wozniak and Pandit made a decision to create a community center, not houses, in Barbandi. “We’ll utilize it as an engine for giving training, and employment training,” Wozniak says they decided.

This second village’s residents opted to reproduce Rainaskot’s homestay model. And, in a third village, Bhirpani, a third economic model begun to take shape, with long-term economic implications.

“We’re in a mission shift," Wozniak acknowledges of Sangsangai’s new direction. "We began as ‘the organization building villages and private homes.’ Now, we’re considering ways [in which to take] the economic development model in ways [where] we don’t need to create a whole village, to use resources to create more impact with less investment.”

Accordingly, Sangsangai is finalizing an agreement with a Nepali felt-making company called Everest Fashions to begin with raising funds next year to create a workshop. At least 50 people will be used, assisting to supply felt to the West Elm American interior decor company.

Back Rainaskot, another thing is newly flourishing … chickens: Tourists result from the town for the weekend never to only benefit from the mountain views and the neighborhood cuisine — but also to collect an area free-range chicken for later consumption, paying host families $15 to $25 for the privilege.

Image Credit: Samip Gurung

What’s ahead, Wozniak says, are plans to create digital products to greatly help the folks of Nepal with trade and education. She’s also attempting to loosen the ties that bind her to the villagers she already knows, whose culture emphasizes long-term relationships. Her goal, though, is to foster self-reliance.

What’s behind for Wozniak, meanwhile, will be the experiences she’s had in Nepal which have taught this entrepreneur some important lessons even while she’s worked to foment entrepreneurial change:

Have associates on the floor. "Sometimes I felt a bit uncomfortable being in my own position, being the ‘face’ of the business," Wozniak says. That is why having team members on the floor and assuring villagers that they had the proper to override all decisions made a notable difference. Specifically, this plan headed off two bad results: 1) villagers counting on her an excessive amount of; 2) unscrupulous locals trying to exploit monied foreign aid organizations.

Make sure that the people you’re helping are investing their own resources. This plan helps maintain locals’ commitment. "No real matter what the scale, you must find a way for the beneficiary to involve some skin in the overall game," Wozniak says. Given the villagers’ frustrations and temptation to leave through the long rebuilding process, "If indeed they hadn’t committed their own resources, maybe they might have said, ‘Forget it.’"

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Setup peer-to-peer networks. "That is a story which has yet to unfold, but I believe the villagers of Rainaskot will be asked by other villagers and other folks in Nepal," Wozniak says. "Once they’re running their business and so are successful, I’d enjoy to create it peer to peer.

"EASILY arrive in the village, people will say ‘You can do it because you’re educated and you have resources.’ But if among my villagers from Rainsakot goes and says, ‘Oh, we did tha

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