Passion Points: Giving Back
More than 500,000 people killed in 100 days. More than 250,000 women raped. Of the survivors approximately 70 percent infected with HIV. The numbers of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 remain staggering, devastating, mind-boggling. The women artisans of Same Sky —a pioneering commerce initiative based in Kigali, Rwanda—have lived through and with these numbers. Most of them are widows; several have children born out of rapes; most have lost everyone in their families and villages; and all of them are living with HIV and/or AIDS. Yet thanks to Same Sky’s trade-not-aid policy, and to their own incredible dignity and courage, they have also defied those numbers. “These women have lived through unspeakable things, but their spirit is incredible,” says Francine LeFrak, who launched Same Sky in 2008. “The way they are able to bond and support each other as a group is so powerful; we have a lot to learn from them.”
Same Sky’s founding principle is the firm belief that hand-outs are not the answer in the Third World, and that the potential for real change brought on by working women is tremendous. “Empower a woman economically and you change her, her family, her community and her country,” says LeFrak. The New York–based entrepreneur specifically sought out the women left most destitute by the genocide—those infected and living with HIV—to build Same Sky. She worked with the artist and activist Mary Fisher who designed Same Sky’s signature chunky bracelets and helped train the women to reproduce the intricate jewelry, which was quickly picked up by style-mavens around the world, appearing in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair and on the wrists of the likes of Halle Berry, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.
But Same Sky is more than the latest Third World media darling. For one, the jewelry is stunning. Crocheted with glass beads in a rainbow of vibrant hues, the necklaces and bracelets are stylish, timeless and extremely wearable. The beads are hand-blown by two women artisans in California, then shipped to Rwanda, where the trained artisans fashion them into intricate pieces; one of the senior workers can make between two and three a day. The craftsmanship is decidedly refined. “You should see some of these women sew and crochet,” says LeFrak. “It’s reminiscent of the workshops of the finest Italian artisanship.” Of course, the stories the jewelry tells is decidedly Rwandan: each piece is signed by its artisan and contributes to the success of the collection, showcasing just how effective ethical commerce can be. LeFrak largely credits an increasingly savvy consumer who has finally realized the buying power to make a difference. “I see Same Sky as part of a greater customer-based movement,” she says. “More people are starting to get the message that you can choose to buy products that truly change people’s lives.”
Indeed the lives of all of the Same Sky artisans have already seen great changes thanks to the buying power of individuals. There’s Bridgette, who was kidnapped as a fifteen-year-old by a soldier who kept her as his sex slave for years before she could escape; today she lives in a home she owns with her children. There’s Clemantine who is able to take care of her mother, brother and children on her Same Sky salary. There’s Selena, who is saving to build a house on the plot of land she recently purchased, so, she says unflinching and frank, “my children will have a home when I am gone.” All speak of their Same Sky work with pride of ownership, one summing up the sense of accomplishment: “Working every day gives me a reason to wake up.” The interviews with the artisans can be seen here, and each story is as powerful as it is moving.
All proceeds of Same Sky’s products are re-invested into hiring and training more women, spreading the economic opportunities. There are 50 artisans working in Rwanda, and Same Sky also recently started collaborating with a workshop in Zambia. The company’s enormous success in a relatively short amount of time belies the fact that LeFrak’s background couldn’t be further from heading up African start-ups. In her past life, the New York powerhouse was a successful, Tony- and Emmy-award-winning producer of theater, television and movies. “Sometimes I’m asked when I will produce another movie,” she says. “I always answer that now I am part of the movie, which is infinitely cooler. For me, helping in a real way on the ground…it’s a natural high.”
In just a few years, LeFrak has shown that real, sustainable change can be created, and anyone whose eyes glaze over when they hear Third World initiative should take another look at the Same Sky model and its products. The company is growing, the products are beautiful and extremely high-end, and the circle of women empowering women around the world grows stronger, day by day, bracelet by bracelet.
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