The Story of the Mana Project
Michelle Klassen Merrigan is the President of MK Advisors, HQ near Detroit, Michigan. “Mich” and Anni Wilhelmi, Founder of CrossRoads Company, met through business in 2012.
Their bond was immediate--and fortified through similar experiences in their personal and professional lives.
Through the ensuing years, Mich and Anni knew that they were going to one day work on a project of significance. When, where, and with whom were always pending questions which caused little concern. Because they are both humanitarians at heart, for years they bounced ideas on how to disseminate, replicate, and scale social entrepreneurship. These conversations were shared in Cape Town and Chicago, email and WhatsApp. Together Anni and Mich have sketched out a book titled, Letters to our Mothers. This pursuit was discussed at length: ”How do we convey that we, women, are more similar than we are different?”
Mich and Anni--though worlds and a decade apart--both have similar memories of trauma and survival. Many of these memories only manifested in their adult lives. Through their bond--storytelling, and honest expressions of desperation and of hope--Anni and Mich learned how to (remotely) hold each other close. This “soul” connection...this love for another very different human...this created the communion and the connection--the power: Mana--that is believed to weave together women all over the world.
In 2019 Anni invited Michelle to address South Africa Women President Org members who would travel to the annual conference, which was planned for April 2020 in Montreal. Michelle had planned an’ off the wall’ workshop, which would address the innate intuition females possess through a half-day workshop. Due to COVID, Montreal did not happen but the workshop went ahead virtually. It was during these 3 hours that Michelle felt the heaviness of the desperation of these South African women in business...their pain and challenge in mid April was raw and real. They were facing impossible decisions about their staff--and their businesses.
For weeks after the workshop, the tangible reality of the pain and concern in these women played over and over in the minds of Mich and Anni. They finally got on a face call with a solution and a plan for action. Mana Boxes--or “Mana” as Mich was taught in Hawaii--describes the global essence of our interconnected reality. We are all connected, despite the borders, the distance, or our masks.
Mich and Anni decided to find a way to sell SA handmade products to US women, through a subscription service. Knowing each other well, Michelle stepped into the natural role of visionary and blue-sky thinker and invited Anni to lead the execution in SA--to source the supply of SA goods through her women-owned and women-led networks.
Michelle took on the role of chief fundraiser and demand creator. During the COVID decline, Mich used her own money at project inception to enable a subscription-based model--ensuring demand so Anni could execute with a quality supply chain. Anni sourced high-end niche products that would appeal to a developed economy. The vision was clear, but it presented an immediate challenge: How do we promote a mystery box of SA-women manufactured products, made with ‘LAYERS OF LOVE’, to women who can call Amazon for almost anything? (Amazon doesn’t actually ship to/from SA, interestingly….)
What Mich and Anni knew was that US women would LOVE to partner with communities deeply impacted by COVID. They also knew that like everything else in business, this has to be sustainable, replicable, and scalable. Otherwise, why bother? We can give to charity, or we can create channels and models wherein charity is not a necessity.
Anni prioritized women who needed immediate access to business, who had a story to tell, and who promoted sustainability, community, and family.
The choice of suppliers was not prescriptive, or based on any specific demographic, because there was so much need. The foundational criteria was women in business, supporting women. The samples and stories began to flood in…
Women in business came together to support the sustainability of the community, specifically for women facing desperate situations. Some women with sewing machines… who live in townships.
This is the reality. This is why we are here.