Annamaria Tolvaly came to Vienna from Romania, so her own life experience has taught her what it is to start life over in a new place. About a year ago, she opened an atelier and a shop Bags with Legs where she produces and sells exclusive bags. Her mission is to integrate women refugees in her project, providing them with income and a sense of belonging. Several months ago, she came to Impact Hub searching for help and advice and became one of the six participants in the found! accelerator program.
How did you come up with the idea of making bags?
“I believe that everything we do in the present is the accumulation of our past. I grew up in a family where making things with your hands and being creative was very important in order to survive. I grew up in communism, during a dictatorship. We did not have many things, and we had to create them. So what Bags with Legs does, is make amazing things with few resources. This is how this social project started.
“It was very difficult at the beginning-I was unemployed, and I had no money. I started to make bags at home and began asking people how I could make it a sustainable business. But I needed to turn it into something more meaningful. I think that the world has a lot of bags – what it needs is change and inspiration.
“I thought: «Ok… I see many women refugees who are trying to find their way, and they have this social stigma of being a migrant…» it’s an issue that speaks to me on a very personal level. I thought that maybe I should do something with them and for them. That is how I came up with idea of creating these handmade bags with the stories of women who came from these complicated places-places where they had to take their luggage along with them every day, out into the world to find a new life.”
How did you meet your collaborators?
“I set up my shop and one day a woman came in and asked if she could help me. That’s how I met Momina, who is from Syria and was my first employee. Momina studied economics in her country and then worked in her family business. Five years ago she had to run away with her family and came to Vienna.”
Momina recounted her story of meeting Annamaria, “Once I was walking near and I heard music coming from the shop and asked: Do you need some help? I told her about my experience, and then it turned out that [Annamaria] already knew about me from some people with who had participated in a workshop before. It was destiny!”
“Correspondents from ORF TV came and interviewed Momina and I,” said Annamaria. “And then came the idea of a workshop, supported by AMS-I realized that I can share my knowledge with women refugees, as they are registered with AMS, and I can learn from them! For example, Momina has a great experience, and I learned many tricks from her. After Momina I trained Seda from Chechnya. She studied fashion. Refugees have amazing culture. The women — they know how to use their hands, they know how to sew, they cook amazing food. But then they have to come to a new country fit into a new system with different standards. It is a very difficult work and takes a lot of time.”
From your experience and what you’ve learned from your employees, why do you think it’s so difficult to fit into a new system?
First of all, because it’s personal, it is about PEOPLE. Refugees are people, and everybody has their own way of coping with a new situation. I don’t really like the word “integration” because it implies there is a uniform which you have to wear to be accepted. Actually, it’s about refugees finding their place here. I can do something about that. Even inviting a woman from Syria to have a coffee with me and to make a bag together—for me it’s already amazing. To start with something small. So my idea was to put these three values together: to work with my hands, to help women and to change perceptions. I really believe in it, it’s my philosophy.
How has Impact Hub had an impact on your project?
“My next thought was how to employ women refugees on a permanent basis. My aim is to hire at least one person by the end of this year, renovate the space and make my project financially sustainable. I want Momina to have a fixed place. The public institutions offer work on a project basis for several months. I want to hire refugees for a longer period of time. That’s why we need a help of business professionals. It was a bit difficult at the beginning, because I felt a bit insecure and thought I was being too idealistic, a “hippe” thinking I could change the world. Fortunately, I met other people at Impact Hub Vienna who feel the same way I do, and who I can learn from. You can move mountains with that.
How has participating in the found! accelerator program, which is made in cooperation with the Deloitte Future Fund, impacted your business?
“In November of the last year I contacted Impact Hub and was invited to participate in the found! accelerator program supported by Deloitte Austria. This project is really amazing. Thanks to it, more people can learn about my story and my plans. They can see us, see the women and the bags they make. During the program, I also receive a lot of training and participate in workshops. I now have two business mentors from Deloitte Austria who are helping us with business and marketing plans. With this, I can go to business institutions with a serious business plan and seek investment.
Tell me about your brand name, Bags with Legs.
“My bags are quite big, and when a woman goes with such a bag, it seems that her legs carry that bag.”
Annamaria makes bags mainly from local materials including leather and waterproof fabric. She explains, “The line is very simple. For example, the bag can be made from «golden» fabric, but if the line is simple, it looks modern. And I have direct contact with my clients – if something is happening with the bag, I am keen to repair it. It’s a human guarantee.”
Check out Bags with Legs products and learn more on their Facebook page.