Addressing Sex Trafficking Through Social Enterprise
Closed Caption Transcript:
Hi, 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 materially, 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? Right. 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. Right. 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. Right. 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. So 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.