For Theresa Carrington, there could be no higher compliment than the name given to her by an African tribal chief: “The One Who Turns Grass Into Gold.” For more than a decade, Carrington has helped transform grass into woven baskets while building a sustainable business model. In the process, she has raised more than 30,000 people—her weavers, their families and entire villages—from debilitating poverty. She cracked the code on creating sustainable prosperity wages to help end poverty in eight of the world’s poorest developing countries. During this time, The One Who Turns Grass to Gold transformed from being ‘the story’ to ‘the storyteller’ and, ultimately, the ‘story-changer.’
Carrington knows poverty. She was raised in a foster home in rural Illinois, where she and her family barely scraped by. Through hard work and the help of a handful of people who recognized her talents, Carrington rose out of her own story of poverty and became a recognized storyteller by winning more than a dozen Emmy Awards as a television news producer.
During her time in television, Carrington learned that many of the world’s poorest weavers produced millions of baskets, but remained in abject poverty as middlemen skimmed the profits, leaving weavers destitute. Using her storytelling skills, she persuaded well-known brands like Disney and Whole Foods to purchase her weavers’ baskets. Then she did what had once been unthinkable: paid the weavers directly for their work, eliminating the middlemen. As a result, her weavers earned five times what they were customarily paid.
Direct payment of higher wages is one piece of a formula Carrington terms prosperity wages, which she uses in an effort to change the story of women in poverty around the world. The other component of the formula is a requirement that her weavers invest their profits into two additional lines of business, which helps buffer them from downturns in any one of their businesses. When a single weaver creates three lines of business, that weaver raises 10 people from poverty. Carrington labels this phenomenon ‘Ten By Three,’ which is also the name of the social enterprise she founded and heads.
The results of her efforts have been incredible. Not only has she raised the weavers from poverty, she has also helped entire villages. In one, her efforts stopped a practice of sending teenage girls to cities for work, which invariably landed the unskilled girls in the sex trade. With the village economy thriving, Theresa commandeered a bus to round up the girls from the city and return them home. Fearing they would never see their girls again, family members had an unexpected and tear-filled reunion with their loved ones.
It turns out that the tribal chief was right when he said Carrington can turn grass into gold. Washington University recently honored her with a Doctorate of Humanities, she presented her poverty-ending formula to the United Nations, and BMW tasked her with heading up their prestigious international charitable organization. And through it all, Carrington maintains her optimism, her resolve and her great sense of humor.
Beth Chesterton is a master certified executive coach and an expert in organizational development.