Addressing Sex Trafficking Through Social Enterprise

Melissa Ice, Co-Founder of Worthy Co.

Closed Caption Transcript:


my name is Melissa Ice and I'm
the founder and executive director

of the Net, and I'm so thankful just
to share my journey that I've been

on in my attempt just to leave
my city better than I found it.

And so what I love about my story

in particular, is that it really
has nothing to do with me.

It's not about me.

It hasn't been about me or what I love or

what I'm good at or me just reaching
my personal goals and all

the entrepreneurial steps that I
took to get there instead.

Really, what it looks like is starting

in 2009, myself and a bunch of young
people just started organically building

relationships with people on the streets
and sharing meals with them,

many of whom those young people are
now donors are on staff with me.

And so it just gives me so much hope

in the next generation,
just that they have the maturity to see

that poverty goes far beyond simply being
a resource problem that can be solved

but that all human beings are those

who crave dignity and worth
just as much as you and I do.

And so that's what I love about
the beginning of our story.

The Net has historically served people
who are experiencing homelessness.

We've had an after school program
for refugee kids and we've also

rehabilitated women and girls who have
been trafficked or sexually exploited.

And so what I want to share
right now is just really what I'm working

on now and just more importantly,
my why in our why as a team.

And so what is Worthy Co.?

Because that's really what I'm
talking about with you guys today.

And the short answer is that it's the Nets

social enterprise to employ
survivors of trafficking.

But why start employing survivors
and why use a social enterprise model?

So first, let me back up and tell you

about our recovery work
that we do with survivors.

So we began this work in 2012 when we

actually joined Judge Brent Carr's
Specialty Court in Tarrant County.

And it was actually for adult women

who have a history of prostitution,
addiction or exploitation.

This diversion program was essentially
an effort to see these women successfully

re-enter society versus going back to jail
over and over and over again with no real

hope for change as are
most diversion programs.

So we're really proud of the fact
that over an eight year period,

we've had 40 women graduate from our three
to five year recovery program,

where we partner not only with probation,
but other organizations like

Salvation Army
 who provide transitional housing or

the Women's Center in town who provide
our women with trauma counseling.

And so those are all good things.

However, we saw one problem with the women
in our program who were essentially

climbing Mount Everest every day
but still could not get a decent job.

So in Texas, the state of Texas,

where three or more convictions equals
a felony, our women were forced to write

this label of prostitution on every
application that they filled out,

regardless of their
hard work and recovery.

And just this label that follows them
around despite the victimization

and the vulnerabilities that actually
led them there in the first place.

And so if you're us and you're trying

to holistically address this problem,
you can imagine how frustrating it was

for our team to walk alongside a woman
in recovery for up to four years,

watching her successfully
complete a substance program,

address trauma in her counseling,
and to reunite with her family

and children, to make restitution
with the courts and criminal justice

system and then still be dirt poor
because she cannot get a job.

Which is why at the net,
we talk a lot about proximity,

because when you see the need up close
and personal,

you don't wait on someone
else to solve the problem or step in.

And so Worthy Co. Was our solution

to the problem of employment
for survivors of trafficking in our city.

We decided in 2018
that we would not only employ and train

our women so they could get better jobs,
but we would provide

supplemental income in a dignified
and trauma informed environment.

And so this is a place where they could

get a hands on job training,
but also a safe place to land as they

attempt to rebuild their
lives and re-enter society.

If we wanted it to be a place that felt

like home, a place where they knew
just how worthy that they are.

 And so our women get to come into work

every day and make beautiful products like
our clay earrings and our hand-poured candles.

They get to see what it means to create
something out of nothing and build their

confidence as artisans and makers
in a therapeutic environment.

Beyond that, they have advocates
who surround them as they work.

They have the care of an economic
empowerment case manager who helps them

reach their goals of getting a bank
account, getting a high school diploma,

saving up for a car,
getting their own apartment,

setting boundaries with loved ones,
making restitution with the court

To actually get off probation,
all of those things. And so

what does it mean that where they go is
a social enterprise and more importantly,

as entrepreneurs, they can talk
about this, what's the risk?

And so it means a few things.

There are several different kinds

of social enterprises or social
impact businesses that exist.

Well, ours is a nonprofit social

enterprise, which just means that one
hundred percent of our revenue and sales

just goes directly back
to the mission itself.

All of our profit goes directly back
into expanding the program,

offering survivors that we employ more
training and more development,

more hours for them, better wages for
them, providing more jobs for more women.

So that's our mission, right?

That's where all the money goes.

But despite this beautiful mission,
we're still very much a business.

And so there is actual
profit and loss, right?

There has to be sales.

There has to be profit.

Even if our bottom line is the mission,

because there is no mission without
making a profit, as we all know.

And so is it a good idea for a bunch
of social workers to go into retail?

I don't know.

Only time will tell.

Should someone with the background
of working with people in poverty launch

an e-commerce site,
start a product based company where every

day there's a steep learning curve
with digital marketing and fulfillment

production and manufacturing
and retail management?

Is that a good idea?
I don't know.

That is a great question,

because as a small nonprofit,
we're taking a really big risk.

One hundred percent.
And that's what we're doing.

And we're going into it.

Fully aware of the very looming statistic

that 90 percent of businesses fail
within the first three years.

I don't know if you're familiar
Simon Sinek. I'm obsessed with him.

Love him.
He says this.

He says, "the foolishness of thinking

that you're part of this small minority
of those who will actually make it past

three years and defy the odds
is part of what makes entrepreneurs

who they are: driven by passion
and completely irrational."

And so maybe this is true.

There might be something foolish
about it and somewhat irrational.

However, our passion for doing this is

because we believe in a world that may
not exist but is totally possible.

I believe that my daughters should live

in a city where the most
vulnerable women are valued.

You see the women who work at work
who were sexually abused as children.

They were raped, arrested,
exploited, convicted, and trafficked.

Yet somehow they slip through
the cracks of society.

And we were all just too complacent

to notice that someone's little girl ended
up on the streets being prostituted.

And so what's the remedy to that?
Well, I don't know.

I don't know exactly.

But I do know that I want Rosie,
my four year old, and Justice,

my two year old daughters,
to see a community where those women are

fought for their advocating
for because they are worth the risk.

Thomas Edison says "Vision
without execution is hallucination."

And so you can't just have a big
vision for a better world, right?

You have to take actionable
steps to get there.

Otherwise, it's

just a bunch of lofty ideas or like
he says, perhaps hallucination.

And so what are we doing right now that we
are excited about or that we're proud of?

Well, a few things I wanted to share,
five things to be specific.

One, our social enterprise
doesn't start with employment.

Instead, we are invested in our women
at every stage of their recovery.

Our DNA at the Net is that we
don't just offer social services,

We create a family.

We build an entire support system and
community around the women that we serve.

For instance, they don't just get one
advocate during our recovery program.

They get jail advocates who faithfully
visit them while they're incarcerated.

They get court advocates who sit
next to them at their dockets.

They get survivor support group advocates
who they have dinner with every week.

They get event advocates who take
the bowling or to the movies

or to celebrate Christmas
with them and their children.

And then when they graduate and enter

a job training program,
they get Worthy Co.

advocates who actually work
alongside them every single week.

And so we literally wrap our arms around

these ladies at every turn so
that they never have to feel alone.

Number 2, Worthy Co. is collaborative.

We can't do this work alone,
nor do we want to.

And so Worthy Co actually extends

the employment and job training
opportunities, not just to the women

in our program, but also to other anti
trafficking organizations in DFW as well.

And we partner with leaders because we
know that it takes a whole community

to solve this problem
Worthy Co was 

Leadership Fort Worth's

Community Impact Project,
where together we spent nine months

creating a professional
development track for our women.

We were proudly selected as the 2020

recipient of the Junior League
of Fort Worth's signature projects,

where these amazing women who are making
a significant investment of their time

and energy and resources to see
where they could succeed.

The Worthy Co, number three,

has the ability to be self-sustaining,
which this is huge,

at least for me in nonprofit world,
because we are a startup company

and a legitimate business, which means
we have sales and we have revenue.

But that also means that we have

the ability to and the goal,
more importantly,

we have the ability and the goal
to sustain ourselves over the long haul.

And we've gotten to sit under many
trainings with a sister organization

in Nashville called Thistle Farms so
that we can learn from a survivor-led

product-based company on how to which they
do successfully eventually cover the cost

of your annual budget
and hopefully self-sustain.

It's our goal is to be self-sustaining,

and that's actually why we chose
the social enterprise model rather than

just offering employment
curriculum, if you will.

Number four,
I believe Worthy Co is relevant today

in 2020 where because online and in-person
store is relevant,

because there are multifaceted
areas where women can be trained.

The opportunities that we offer

intentionally diversifies the skills that
the women learn beyond just production.

And so that's why we chose to make
and sell a product so that our training

could include shipping and fulfillment,
supply chain and inventory,

social media and digital marketing,
as well as retail management,

because we really want to see our women
transition out of Worthy Co and not

just be launched into jobs,
but into careers.

And if I've learned anything in our eight
years of working with survivors,

it's this that survivors are smart,
they are resilient, they're savvy,

and they're capable of so much
more than a minimum wage job.

And so our prayer and our hope is

that they lead not only with the skills
needed for upward mobility,

but also the confidence that they
are worthy of a good job.

And it's our privilege to cheer
them on every step of the way.

Number five, last thing.

In 2020, we will offer a candle studio,

which is essentially a candle pouring
experience, kind of like Painting

with a Twist, if you've ever done that,
where the community can come and make

candles with coworkers or girlfriends
for a birthday party or a night out,

except every candle class will support
and employ survivors of trafficking.

And so in sort of this fun

and experiential way that people can give
back but also be educated about

trafficking and learn
more about our mission.

And so everything I'm describing here,

despite how exciting it all is
and the impacts we are already able

to make in the lives of the women
that we serve is honestly overwhelming.

It's harder than I thought.

It's more work than I thought.

And I am severely underpaid.

And so there are definitely wins 

 along the way,
but it's also really hard, right,

and more often than not,
I feel a little in over my head,

which is why I wanted to in my time just
sharing about my "Why",

because the "Why" is the most important
element to this type of work.


if you come to an entrepreneurial cause
based impact conference that I know

that who I'm talking to and it's people
who definitely operate out of their Why each

and every day,
and yet we all come from different walks

of life and we all have different
lenses in which we see the world.

And so I have to be reminded of my "Why"

daily because it's too hard
not to there's not anything sexy or cool

about projections and invoices and taxes
and P&Ls, especially if it ever gets

a little heavy on the L,
if you know what I mean.

And in our case, we are doing retail,
which I swore I would never do again since

I quit my job at Charlotte Ruse
at the mall in high school.

So the further I get into this thing
and sort of the more freaked out I get,

the way less cool and mostly
just overwhelming

It all feels, right.

And so what do you do when that happens?
Well, you go back to your "Why."

And I speak on behalf of my whole team,

and I say this because
we believe and we know that we

love and serve a God who cares about
every single person made in his image.

And he has a special concern
for vulnerable and marginalized people.

And so there's a certain passage that kind
of defines my "why" that I want to read.

And it's the passage
that The Net team clings to.

And yes, it is in the Bible.

But no, I'm not going to preach
a sermon to you, I promise.

But I just wanted to share it so that you

could understand what kind of gets us out
of bed in the morning,

why we keep doing this sort
of hard work and every single day.

And it's in Old Testament out
of the Bible in Isaiah 58.

And essentially there's a group of people

who are wanting to do right, they're
wanting to please God.

And so he responds by giving them sort

of a recipe of what to do to please him
through the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 58.

And it says this "Is this not the fast
that I choose to lose the bonds

of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread

with the hungry and to provide the poor
wonderer with shelter and when you see

the naked to cover him? And if you spend
yourselves on behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in darkness."

-And my favorite part,-

"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up age old foundations.

And you will be called repairer

of the ruins, restorer of the streets
to dwell in." And so the birth of

 Worthy Co actually
reminds me of this passage.

And it's my personal "why."

This passage lived
out creates two things.

One, it creates proximity to poor,
the poor and needy.

And this is not a handout
that's being talked about here.

This is solidarity with people
that I believe God cares about deeply.

And because many of us know when you are

in proximity to people in need, it just
becomes impossible to ignore their needs

or to be adverse to them or
to at worst, to humanize them.

And so it really changes how you see
the world, how you spend your time

and your energy, how you
steward your resources.

And so the second thing and in the end is
where Isaiah shares a vision of a world

that may not exist, like I said earlier,
but it's totally possible because when one

person's life is changed and transformed,
there is a beautiful ripple effect.

Systems change, cities change where
hate or judgment once existed.

There is love where darkness used to read.
Now there's light.

And so this is the kind of stuff that
doesn't just wake me up in the morning.

It's the stuff that I
want on my tombstone.

Not to be dramatic,

but I want my tombstone to say that "repairer
of the ruins, restorer of the streets."

Scott Harrison,
the founder of Charity Water,

I love his quote because he actually
quotes another rabbi who says this.

He says, "Do not be afraid to do
the work that has no end."

And so we created Worthy Co because we

believe every woman is worthy
of the chance to rebuild her life.

And every day I am learning that they
are capable of that and so much more.

And so I'll just end by saying
that my encouragement to you is just

to consider what your impact can be
on the world and what organizations can

you come alongside and support,
whether it's financially donating or

investing in companies with big missions,
whether it's buying products like ours

for the holiday so that we can continue
to see lives transformed and maybe it's

being on boards or offering
people legal advice.

Or it's simply just telling a friend about

this great company that you heard about
that is making a difference in the world,

whether it's ours or any of the other ones
that you're learning about today,

will you commit to using your power
to create power for other people?

Let's extend our privilege so that others

in the world can be seen, known, and loved
and given the opportunity to succeed.

Thank you.