Billsville entrepreneur offers a hand to women in crisis

Amber Chand, a resident of Williamstown who has been actively engaged with the College at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and the Center for Developmental Economics (CDE) for over 20 years, is no stranger to loss. At the age of 21, she was forced to leave everything she knew and loved from her childhood to start a new life – a life that was unfamiliar and thousands of miles from the place that she had called home.

In 1972, under the order of Ugandan president Idi Amin, tens of thousands of Asians – including Chand’s family – were expelled from the country. Many had been living in Uganda for generations, but were suddenly faced with the prospect of fleeing the country they had grown up in. “I had everything in my life shattered through that experience,” she said. “My family lost our assets – our assets were frozen in the bank – our house was confiscated, and my father died within nine months of the tragedy. The world that I thought was safe and secure was just taken from under me – the rug was pulled from under me.”

Chand’s experience as a refugee profoundly changed her, and even now after she has settled with her family in the safety of the Purple Valley, she still remembers feeling vulnerable and dispossessed. In 1986 Chand began applying her unique perspective and experiences to Williamstown and became the director of the WCMA store while also working as an assistant to the director of the CDE. Now, she is trying to use her own experiences as fodder for helping women in similar situations. The vehicle for her contribution is her new enterprise – the Amber Chand Collection – which connects the handicrafts of women from refugee camps to the homes of families throughout America.

“The collection was created as my way of giving back to women – primarily women who are living in areas of conflict and building their lives in the shadows of war, genocide, civil strife,” Chand said. “Because of my personal experience [as a refugee], I felt that my role in life was to align my mission with women in similar situations. There is a personal story as to why I would create a company that would focus on women.”
Chand knew she wanted to represent the millions of women trapped in conflict, women whom she believed were voiceless, and business was a natural means for her to accomplish her goal. “I have always been interested in business,” she said. “I think that business, in spite of the bad rap that it gets, is a powerful agent for transformation. Businesses can make things happen very, very quickly and based on the fundamental principles of creating wealth and prosperity. And the basis for what my company is premised on is creating prosperity around the world, especially in situations where people are suffering from trauma.”
The idea of focusing on the people affected by conflict and strife permeates all aspects of Chand’s business. Not only does one third of the proceeds of her collection go to the women (the other two thirds are devoted to transportation expenses and reinvestment in the enterprise), but Chand also makes sure to pay attention to the social impacts of her business. In the end, her ultimate goal is to serve the women often forgotten and overlooked in conflict regions.

For Chand, her service to women throughout the world is bringing their art to a global audience, connecting everyday people to the shocking scenes of strife and violence in conflict areas. “The fundamental idea here was that as a collection, I represent [marginalized women’s] talents and skills to American audiences,” she said. “The collection in that sense is a bridge – it’s between American audiences who want to help with the crisis in Darfur, for instance, and the women in the refugee camps affected by the conflict. It’s literally investing, through a purchase of basket, candle or bag, directly in women’s capacity to create and grow their enterprises.”

Along with aiding women suffering from conflict situations, Chand’s collection is also bringing women from opposing sides of conflict together as a symbol of the universality and hope that art can represent. Among the many pieces of her collection, Chand especially recalls the conceptualization of the Jerusalem Candle of Hope.

“The Jerusalem Candle of Hope is a remarkable initiative because we are bringing together Israeli and Palestinian women across the conflict zone – in the spirit of enterprise,” she said. “The initiative began a few years ago because I felt [Jerusalem] was one of the most wounded places in the world and I envisioned a joint venture product that would represent the hope for peace of women on either side of the conflict zone. In a way, when you think about the symbols of peace you come up with a candle – an antidote to the symbols of war – landmines and bombs and guns. Everywhere in the world, people will light a candle as a reverential act of peace.”

As she talks about the various pieces in her collection, Chand points to an intricately woven basket she brought along with her. The basket is decorated with a red, white and black geometric pattern and adorned by beads that Chand describes were a special touch from artist, a refugee from Darfur. From this Darfur peace basket, Chand then pulls out two minute, vibrant baskets – prosperity baskets from Rwanda – and explains how they were created from both Hutu and Tutsi women in the war-torn region. For Chand, these baskets represent the hope that her collection can bring, not only to grief-stricken women in refugee camps, but also to traditionally hostile and opposing groups.

“This basket is woven by a woman sitting in a refugee camp, traumatized and living in a very dark situation, and yet out of this darkness comes this extraordinary object of beauty,” she said. “It’s very inspiring.”
What began for Chand as a mission to support the marginalized has now become a full-fledged international enterprise. The Web site showcasing her collection, www.amberchand.com, has been visited by people from over 180 countries, and Chand is optimistic that her business will continue to grow in the future.

Her vision may not be a multi-million-dollar operation, but she believes that it is her small but influential way of making a difference. “You can have a tremendous impact just by creating these small enterprises around the world, and from that they can grow.”