162 – Starfish Business Model for Serving Survivors, with Jenny McGee

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Jenny McGee from Starfish Projects shares about why it’s so important to build sustainable businesses and teach women high-level job skills. She explains how Starfish Projects exists to help women experience freedom, establish independence, and develop careers.

Key Points

  • Sometimes it can take years to get a person to join the program.
  • Many of the girls in brothels have been tricked by family members and relatives.
  • A key to success is to surround yourself by experts in different areas.
  • Many fair trade jewelry companies provide jobs through handcrafting their products but the jewelry tends not to last long.


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Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 162, Jenny McGee Explains the Starfish Business Model for Serving Survivors.

Production Credits: [00:00:12] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:32] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. The podcast is produced out of the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University. And Sandie, it is a special month here in January 2018 when we’re airing the show.

Sandie: [00:00:58] I am always excited when January rolls around and it’s not because I get a new calendar, it’s because it is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. And this month we are on a roll, we’re doing a podcast every week. And Dave, thank you so much for the extra support so we can do this to celebrate January for prevention.

Dave: [00:01:20] The pleasure is mine and I’m so glad we have yet another expert here today who’s going to give us another perspective in a particular demonstrating a sustainable business model that goes beyond rescue. And we are pleased to welcome Jenny McGee to the show today. She is the executive director and founder of Starfish Project, a social enterprise dedicated to restoring hope to trafficked and exploited women and girls. She has worked and lived in Asia with her family for over 15 years and has been helping women experience freedom, establish independence, and develop careers. Jenny, we’re so glad to welcome you today.

Jenny: [00:01:57] Yeah thank you for having me, I’m happy to be here.

Sandie: [00:02:00] Well I was privileged to meet you in person a couple times this last year. And each time I met with you I was more impressed with the excellent business model that you have. Being at Vanguard I have lots of young students and alumni who want to go out and do something meaningful, and I want them all to learn how you have done it because you’ve used a holistic care program that really does take into account the whole rescue aspect of helping women out of this. But at the same time, you’re working towards a long hard goal that is going to sustain the women and also your business models. So, do you want to tell us a little bit about what Starfish is?

Jenny: [00:02:56] Yes so like you said, I’ve lived in Asia for 15 years and started an organization, and it’s really about three things helping women experience freedom, establish independence, and develop careers. So, at Starfish Project we have outreach teams to go out into the red-light areas, visit the women and girls there. And that’s all ages, we see girls as young as 12 years old, up to women who are in their 60s working in the brothels. And so, we just visit them regularly, share with them, see whatever we can do to help them, and then really offer them an opportunity to come out of the brothels. And so, women can come into our shelters, and this is where they establish independence piece really comes, and they can join our shelters. And we try to get them living independently within two years and then they can work at our jewelry company, where we hire the women. But we really see that as sort of a platform for the girls to learn a lot of different skills. And so, we have some vocational training there, where we do an assessment when the women first come in. And some of them can’t read or write when they first come to us, and so we start with basic literacy class. We try to give them really transferable skills as soon as we can and so all of the girls eventually go through our computer programs, where they learn a Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and they get a certification from Microsoft Corporation. And so, the women going to that program, eventually if they finish all four, they become Microsoft Office specialists.

Sandie: [00:04:32] OK so back up just a little bit. You go out into the brothels, so you don’t take like a team of people with black ops experience to knock down the doors and rescue the women?

Jenny: [00:04:46] No, actually one of our teams is led by a woman who has come out of the brothels herself. And so, she adds a lot of wisdom and support to us, but we’re just regular people who go into the shops. And what I found is, you know a lot of girls have been tricked themselves by their own family members, their own relatives. So, it takes a lot to build trust with them. You know, we don’t just walk in and they immediately want to come out of the brothels. A lot of them are used to their lives there. I mean sometimes it can take years of building support with them, building a relationship with them, and building that trust that they believe that we have a better job for them and that they can really trust us to come with us.

Sandie: [00:05:34] Can you off the top of your head, tell us how many times you might have Met the same girl before she agrees that she wants to come to Starfish?

Jenny: [00:05:43] Yes. It’s interesting we’ve had girls that we met, and the first time they say please help me I can’t survive this place. And then we’ve had other girls where we met them, and one girl in particularly we lost contact with her, and five years later she contacted us and said do you still have a job for me. So, some of them it can take many years, and sometimes it’s just the situation where they’re finally in a place where they realize you know I deserve more or I want more. Sometimes that takes a lot of time for them to reach that place themselves.

Sandie: [00:06:19] So when they come out, they know that you’re going to train them for a vocation?

Jenny: [00:06:26] Yeah. We talk with them a lot about our training programs. And a lot of the girls come to us not as much because they want another job, but they’re thinking long-term about their future and would love to be able to really do the develop careers piece that I mentioned.

Sandie: [00:06:42] OK. And you use the term assessment, so when you’re talking about assessment what does that mean?

Jenny: [00:06:50] Yes so, we actually have we have a social worker on staff, and she’ll sit down with the girls and evaluate them. And of course, we right away take the girls to do the medical assessment from the doctor, just make sure they’re healthy and they have any medical issues that they may need to be treated. But otherwise, we also do an assessment for their education level because we see a wide variety. Some girls come to us and they’ve never been to school a day in their life. And so, we need to start with just basic reading and writing. But we basically do a very low-pressure test. You know I think if we sat right away with a big exam, that would terrify the girls. But just sitting one on one with them and trying to see you know what are the levels? What do they know? And then how can we best meet those needs? And then with our social worker, they develop an individualized growth plan. And we see what goals we have for them and what goals they have for themselves, and really work to help them start that path to recovery.

Sandie: [00:07:57] I love how this involves a structure that you provide, but always involves the survivor, and what she wants. That’s so clear in everything that you’re saying. So then, how long does it take for them to go through that vocational training usually?

Jenny: [00:08:20] Yeah, it’s a long process working with these women. You know some of them come to us and they’re suicidal, they’re suffering from severe PTSD. So, we’ve had girls who come and they can’t really do much more than you know simple tasks by themselves. Some of them don’t want to work with other people because they’re just terrified be around other people. So, we really have to look at where that girl is at. So, some of them it can take a year just to get them to a place where they feel really safe and able to really start learning and have enough confidence to believe they can learn things. Most of the women who come to us will tell us you know, I can’t learn that I’m stupid. We hear that all the time, and so just getting them to a place where they believe no I can actually learn something. And then seeing the girls around them and seeing what they’ve achieved I think also helps them. But I would say most of the girls, it’s between a 3 to 5-year process where we see them go through Starfish Project. Learn what it means to you know to show up at the office every day at a certain time, call in if you’re sick, basic work skills. And starting from there all the way up to, and we try to train girls in all levels of the business. So right now, we have some women who are we have one who is studying accounting and she is our accounting assistant. And we have another one who’s doing all of our product photography, so she studied graphic design and photography. So, seeing them go from the levels of just coming in and stringing the beads to make the necklaces, all the way up to you know developing all of the product photography that we use for our website and use for advertisements for our company.

Sandie: [00:10:09] Give us the website so that we can go and buy jewelry.

Jenny: [00:10:13] Yes, it’s starfishproject.com.

Sandie: [00:10:14] That’s great. And one of the things that I noticed when I first went there, is it didn’t look like girls just stringing beads. It looked very professional.

Jenny: [00:10:30] Yeah, I think for myself, what gets me most excited about going to work every day is seeing the girls who have gone through the program and are doing those higher-level jobs. You know all of our sourcing, all of the connecting with our suppliers, that’s all done by women who come through our program. And seeing them do jobs that are beyond what they ever thought possible when they came to us, I think that is what is most exciting to me at Starfish.

Sandie: [00:11:00] I was really impressed with seeing how the photography classes are done online with a professional photographer and how the jewelry catalog, everyone will want to go and look at it now just to see how detailed the product pictures are. Somebody didn’t just pull out their smartphone take a picture and post it on the website.

Jenny: [00:11:24] That’s for sure. Yeah, it’s been amazing to see how we’ve been able to use technology to help the women. We have you know a photographer who mentors them and he’s actually in Canada most of the time, but he is able to use technology and video himself correcting their photos, and things like that to mentor the women. And then we also have volunteers who teach English through Zoom and through Skype for the women. So, we’ve been able to get teachers from all over the world to work with the women directly. That’s been really amazing to see.

Sandie: [00:11:58] That mentoring aspect of this, that kind of takes them outside of their little narrow isolated world in a shelter. That’s genius. I just love it.

Jenny: [00:12:10] Thank you. We sent some of the girls to training schools outside of Starfish, but they usually have confidence issues. And then also just sometimes the training schools aren’t necessarily totally practical for what they’re doing in their job. So being able to pair a training school within a mentor, who can say OK what is it you’re working on right now and how can I help you with that. I think that has made a huge difference for our women.

Sandie: [00:12:38] So tell me how many people are on staff at your site in Asia?

Jenny: [00:12:45] Well including the women we’re helping in our business who we employ, we’re at right around 50 staff altogether.

Sandie: [00:12:53] Wow. So that, and then you have a couple of staff that are stateside based, right?

Jenny: [00:12:59] Yeah, we actually only have two full-time staff in the States.

Sandie: [00:13:02] OK. That’s amazing. So, is it OK if I ask you what your budget is for a year?

Jenny: [00:13:11] Yeah. Well, our holistic care programs are around $400,000 a year and then our business if you put everything together it’s just over a million dollars for our business and holistic care.

Sandie: [00:13:25] And then how much of your budget is met by the jewelry sales?

Jenny: [00:13:30] This year we’ll have about 75 percent of our overall budget will be met from jewelry sales. And then our jewelry sales cover our entire jewelry business as well.

Sandie: [00:13:41] So that’s absolutely astounding. And when I looked at your annual report, it looked like any other business. It was really well laid out, and I began to understand that women didn’t stay making jewelry stringing beads as you mentioned at the beginning, but they learned every level of the business from the office to the fulfillment of orders, and the marketing, everything. So, then they’re positioned to go out and get a job, and they have real experience that they can point to. And it actually isn’t just a charity business. It’s actually a business that is doing really well.

Jenny: [00:14:26] Yeah, we really want to see that girls have jobs with dignity. And so, I think when we create a really high-quality product, that’s beautiful, and it’s marketed well, and the pictures are beautiful. I think that helps give women a lot more dignity. And so that’s really our goal at Starfish. One of our core values is excellence, and we always try to create excellent products that the girls themselves feel proud that they made and people feel proud to wear.

Sandie: [00:14:54] So one of the things that it wasn’t just about the work for survivors, but this idea of excellence as a standard of value. Can you talk about the quality of the jewelry and how that process is something that contributes to excellence?

Jenny: [00:15:14] Sure. I think for us we found that over, you know we’re working in an environment where it’s highly competitive. The job market is difficult where we’re at. And so, we saw early on that if the women only learned to make handcrafted jewelry, they were not going to be employable anywhere else. That just really wasn’t sustainable for them. But to be able to compete in our space, we needed to make high-quality jewelry. We can’t just compete on a low price point because we’re in a situation where salaries are higher than other places. And so, we really strive to make high-quality jewelry, most of our jewelry is 18 karat gold plated and we try to have jewelry that doesn’t change colors and fall apart, like we hear from our customers a lot of the complaints in the Fair-Trade field is that a lot of the jewelry isn’t high enough quality standards. So, we really work to have our jewelry at that level, and we have multiple layers of quality control inspections. But we also go directly to the metal factories and make sure we really thoroughly understand the plating processes, and how all of that works, and then connect directly with those suppliers. And now some of the women we employ who’ve come out of the brothels themselves. They could tell you all about gold plating processes and how it all works because we’ve really tried to research that mixture, that we’re doing things that are a high standard. And then also at a standard that’s good for the environment, and good for the other workers who are also helping to make those raw materials that we’re working with.

Sandie: [00:16:50] And the reason I wanted you to explain that is because so many times we actually have a little bit of jewelry purchasing fatigue in the anti-human trafficking world where oh we’re going to have another jewelry party to support the girls, and people want to do that. But you’re bringing us a little bit different layered approach to this, where when I hear you talk it’s like these women know our technological skills that I don’t even have a clue how to even learn how to do that; and the plating, and visiting where the metals are coming from, and those kinds of things. So, I begin to see these are very employable people, who have an expertise, and have met certain standards. So, they’re not like oh we feel sorry for them, we’re going to give them a job.

Jenny: [00:17:44] We have one woman who left Starfish Projects, she ended up setting up her own jewelry sourcing company. So, she set up a company where she sold the raw materials to other companies, and she became one of our suppliers as well. We’ve also had women go and set up their own business on the design side. We have one woman who has her own online business and she’s selling a lot of fashion products online. She takes the pictures and puts it online. And so that’s really our heart, to see the women be able to take the skills they’re learning to set up their own businesses or work for other businesses and have those high-level skills.

Sandie: [00:18:26] So Jenny, when you went to start this project did you go to like a workshop and they taught you how to do this in three days? How would you tell someone who wants it, like one of my students that’s going to graduate, what would you say to my student to prepare to do something similar?

Jenny: [00:18:47] You know when I started people weren’t really talking that much about human trafficking at that time. And so, there weren’t really a lot of models to follow. I think for me, one of the biggest things is to surround yourself with people who are experts in different areas. You know have lots of mentors who can help you with different things and really seek them out, seek out their advice and their counsel. But then also I think the biggest thing is just persistence. We’re working in situations where often there’s regulations or different issues with instability within the countries we’re working in. And you know if something doesn’t work, you pick up and try the next day. And I really think it’s just not giving up and continuing on. Yeah pressing on, I think that’s the biggest challenge and the biggest way to be successful in this field is just persistence.

Sandie: [00:19:44] You just keep showing up. So how can people get involved in supporting Starfish?

Jenny: [00:19:52] hire. So that’s the number one way, but also, we do have people who volunteer for us in all different areas, whether that’s in the States or overseas. We can always use volunteers and we kind of base that around you know what are your skills, some people teach English to the women. There are different ways you can get involved. But definitely see our website, if there isn’t something on our website that you see as a natural fit. Just contact us and we’ll chat with you about how you can get involved as well.

Sandie: [00:20:35] Dave got very excited listening to all of this business talk because his background is business, and he’s the host of Coaching for Leaders. So, I think I’m going to recommend to you that you start listening to Coaching for Leaders because you’ve just done such an amazing job with building this business that serves and is sustainable. And the idea that people go out and want to do this overnight it’s a dream, it’s a myth, and it takes a lot of hard work. And I just want to commend you for what you’ve done and how well the results have proven to be. And yet you don’t just rest on that, you continue to grow, and expand, and include more and more survivors.

Dave: [00:21:26] Yeah, it’s really an impressive sight. And as you’ve articulated so beautifully, Jenny, I mean there’s such a heart for this in so many people who mean very well and go out, and like you said Sandie doing like jewelry parties and things like that. But this is really a whole new level. And I went on the website here, and it’s st I actually purchased earrings for my wife while you were talking, just now. So yeah but it’s a great example. Because and you know, Sandie, we talk about so much in our work with trafficking the importance of the economics behind all of this. So,ng to affect positive change that’s sustainable, we also need to be thinking economically on the other side too, on the prevention side. And so, this is just such a great example of how that comes together in such a such a beautiful way, and very sustainably to as Jenny has articulated.

Sandie: [00:22:31] Yeah, it’s the sustainable part that sets you apart and because it is 75 percent sustained by the business. And it fits my long-term goals about prevention, is the women that come into the shelter aspect when they first come if they have children they bring their children with them, which means those children don’t then just become automatically trafficked. And what happens to the children?

Jenny: [00:23:03] So in our branch city and we have a daycare where we care for the children during the day so the women can work, and that’s for the smaller children. But as they become school age, and where we’re working school age is typically around three years old, they start a sort of preschool. We help subsidize their education heavily because in the context we’re working we see a lot of women who aren’t raising their children. The children are off in the countryside with parents and maybe the mother gets to see the child once a year. And so, we’ve really worked to try to bring families back together. So, we will help pay for a child’s education if the child comes to live with the mother, and really try to bring families back together.

Sandie: [00:23:47] Well that’s great. So, before we sign off, tell us one story that really exemplifies and makes your heart ready to go back to work in 2018.

Jenny: [00:23:59] Well we had one woman who has gone through our entire program. And we met her years ago, about five or six years ago, in the brothels. And we invited her to come to the Starfish Project and start a new life there, and she did. And as we got to know her, we found she was incredibly gifted and creative. And so, we offered her the chance to go to design school and study Photoshop and graphic design, and she was so good at it. And she started taking all of our product photography, she is the first one who really started taking the product photography. And she ended up teaching a class of Photoshop to the other women at Starfish Project. And I just remember her being so amazed, she said you know I never thought I could be a graphic designer, let alone teach graphic design to other women and help them start a new life. And since, she’s moved on from Starfish, and she set up her own business. And I think that just really exemplifies what we want to see, women being able to achieve much more than they thought was possible when they came to us. And then to move on from Starfish Project, and set up their life, and be able to have a successful business that they feel proud of.

Sandie: [00:25:09] That’s so terrific! So, the women end up mentoring the new residents as well?

Jenny: [00:25:14] Yes, we have a very large mentoring culture, where we try to get women who even if they’ve only been there a few weeks, the next girl comes in they’re helping to mentor her, and that’s just sort of the culture we have.

Sandie: [00:25:29] Wow. So, it’s just expected, it becomes very organic. I really appreciate that. Well, this has been an amazing conversation. You can be sure that my students will be required to listen to this podcast and build sustainability into any project proposals that they develop. I love your core values of growth, authentic relationships, celebrating people, and excellence. And Jenny, you’ve just been such a delight to have, and we’re so happy to have this relationship with you. And we’ll be checking in with you pretty regularly.

Jenny: [00:26:08] Thank you. Yeah, it’s been great connecting with you all.

Dave: [00:26:12] I’ll second that, Sandie. And there’s so much more here, of course, that is on their website. As she mentioned, I’d certainly encourage you to check it out starfishproject.com. And Sandie, so much more to check out on our website as well, of course. If you are looking for not only the notes for this episode but notes from any of our previous episodes and resources you can find those at endinghumantrafficking.org. And of course, we talked about the prevention month upfront. One of the other things we hope you’ll take action on is to consider investigating the Ensure Justice conference coming up here in early March, March 2nd and 3rd 2018. We would love to meet with you in person, to build relationships and partnerships, and also for us all to learn more together. As we say at the beginning of every episode our goal is to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. You can find out more by going to ensurejustice.com and joining us here in Southern California live March 2nd and 3rd 2018. Sandie, see you for our next episode coming up here in another week.

Sandie: [00:27:25] Thanks, Dave.

Dave: [00:27:26] Take care everyone.

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