For most of her life, Carmel Jud had it all.
She launched a successful career as a producer of advertising jingles at the age of 19. Before long, she lived in a six-level house in the Santa Cruz hills with a built-in recording studio, so she didn't even have to leave home to work.
But after almost 20 years, something didn't feel right.
"I didn't feel like I was doing anything to help," she recalls. "I really loved what I was doing, but I thought, is this what I'm here for? Is this my life's purpose?"
So one day she reached over to the pile of books next to her bed and chose one at random, looking for a message. The book was Deepak Chopra's Seven Spiritual Laws to Success and the page she opened to said: "If you had all the money in the world, would you still be doing what you are doing?" and "How are you best suited to serve humanity?"
The words resonated.
Shortly afterwards, when she saw a documentary about how poor women in Afghanistan were treated by the Taliban, it came into focus.
"I knew I wanted to help those women," she says. "Whatever I'm here for, it has something to do with that."
Jud was 37 at the time and engaged to one of the musicians in her advertising business, Brian Todd. Not long afterwards, the two of them got rid of most of their possessions and moved into a barn so they could launch the organization that would help poor and suffering women around the world.
Today, nine years later, her Rising International has raised over $1 million by selling beautiful handcrafts made by women in the poorest villages in the world at house parties, modeled after companies such as Avon.
Jud's goal is to be a nonprofit that grosses even more than the $9 billion a year that Avon does. She is well on her way. Rising's charitable funds are increasing exponentially, and it's getting attention from the likes of Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina, and Congressman Sam Farr and his wife of Congressman Shary, who was a keynote speaker at a recent Rising luncheon.
"The beauty of Carmel is that whatever forces she was listening to at the time she took up this cause, she is 110 percent committed to it," says Farr. "What she has done for so many of us is that she has brought the lives of these women close to us, so we can really think of them as women we know and consequently care about."
The process wasn't as quick getting off the ground as it seems. There were all kinds of hurdles. One was that Jud had never taken a business course, or any college training. She had to draft a business plan that would not only make money, but would make sure that the money got to the women who made the crafts, not to the treacherous middlemen, or con artists, who have often gummed up similar charitable efforts.
"Some of the challenges were unimaginable," she says. "For example, how do you sign a contract with a woman to make sure she gets paid for the crafts, when she can't read or write?"
She had to build a network in countries where women were in refugee camps or in the middle of wars or in the most remote villages.
"Something as simple as getting a cardboard box in Rwanda to pack the crafts in was almost impossible," she said.
She did it step by step, in much the same way she had once built an advertising business from working in a music store selling guitars and selling jingles written by guitarists.
She found business professors at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Monterey Institute of International Studies to help draft a plan and punch holes in it to make sure it would work. She spent a year working on the concept and a 175-page business plan, aided by a grant from the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which Clint Eastwood chairs.
"Partly why I did that is that I have two years of high school. For me to come out in the world and say I have an idea to contribute to helping end world poverty, I didn't really have the credentials. So I took a year to do my homework."
She has built an organization with a staff of 1.5 paid people and 35 volunteers that has grown in each of the past four years in California and is starting to spread to other states. She's thrown 300 parties from Santa Cruz to Arizona and Hawaii.
While there are men in the chain, Jud focuses on women because they have the fewest rights and are the poorest people around the world.
"I wanted to go where it was hardest to be alive as a woman," she says.
Afghanistan was first.
At the time, the women there weren't allowed by law to read or write. They were treated as the property of men. They didn't think they had any marketable skills – but Jud learned, mothers made these beautiful dolls they passed on to their daughters. It was a tradition passed on for generations.
Those dolls were her first product in 2003.
"They were an incredible example of what is possible in the middle of a war," she says.
Jud hasn't visited any of the countries, but has set up a network of local people who are either traveling there or are part of relief organizations to make contacts for her.
"I wanted to go and get involved and meet the women," says Jud. "I looked at a trip to Africa, but when I saw the ticket was $2,500, I thought, I could feed 20 people in a village for a year with that. I couldn't spend it."
She has, however, brought village women to the U.S. to talk at the home parties that sell the goods.
"It's brought people together and taught them so much," she says. "People don't want to just write a check and not know where it's going. Having an Afghan woman come and talk to you about what it's like to live in a war right now, and you learn things you don't hear on the news. It's an opportunity to make a deeper connection. A lot of people would never travel to these places. We are trying to create this whole global network."
Among the group's biggest accomplishments, she says, was helping a group of women in Rwanda buy a plot of land with the money from baskets they made.
"We cried our eyes out when we saw that," says Jud.
Jud is helping out women on this side of the world as well — by recruiting underemployed and unemployed women to set up parties here. For some, it has changed their worlds.
One Salinas woman who asked not to be named, lived in a neighborhood controlled by gangs and had no way to move out of it before she started working for Rising and earned enough from her percentage of sales to leave.
"That was incredibly gratifying for me," says Jud. "We had gang girls in Salinas selling dolls made by Afghan women living under the Taliban – two violent areas where women are struggling and can connect with each other and help each other."
Those are the kinds of accomplishments that drew Farr and others to the nonprofit.
She is featured today in Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day. She was also chosen to receive one of three Woman of the World awards, which will be given in March by 50/50 Leadership, a Southern California organization that promotes leadership for women.
"Carmel is like an international fairy godmother," says Shary Farr. "She is just able to make magic happen so everyone is doing something wonderful for someone else. We're not just writing a check, we're creating a relationship. These women are our sisters, our mothers, our friends."