Story by Tori Broussard. Photos Provided by Starfish Project.
Be still. My yoke is easy. Hope & a future.
Those are just a few phrases that you’ll find engraved on a piece of jewelry from Starfish Project.
“We want all our jewelry at Starfish Project to bring messages of positivity and hope to those who wear it,” Starfish Project Founder and CEO Jenny McGee says. “These words and phrases have all been an encouragement to me in my own life.”
Now, those same words bring encouragement to victims of trafficking. Starfish Project’s mission is to help exploited women and girls experience freedom and establish independence.
Jenny started visiting brothels in Asia to help translate for a friend. When she heard stories of many women and girls being exploited around her city, her heart broke. She knew early on that it would take much more than inviting the women and girls out of the brothels to change their situations.
“Seventeen years ago, people were not talking about human trafficking the way they are now,” says Jenny. “I knew it would take at least a solid decade to build what was needed to help the women we met experience true freedom.”
So, in 2006, after growing tired of passing the exploitation of women on the street, Jenny and a few of her friends “shared a desire to restore hope and bring freedom” and created Starfish Project, which comes from The Starfish Parable itself.
Jenny searched and visited a couple of human trafficking projects that were productive in the field. Not sold by the first program she saw, Jenny quickly discovered her passion after seeing the second program that took a more holistic approach.
“I came back to my home in Asia and honestly tried to escape it,” shares Jenny. “The level of commitment was overwhelming. I took a lot of time for reflection and found myself overwhelmed by the similarities I have with the women we met in the brothels.”
Through chats that turned into coffee dates, which turned into birthday parties for the women, and even giving English lessons, Jenny and her friends were able to start a business that offers employment to women involved in human trafficking, thanks to five brave women who decided to escape their lives of exploitation.
“Inspired by our vision to celebrate the value and beauty of women, I asked the women who joined us what they were interested in, they chose jewelry, and our jewelry company was born,” says Jenny. “We rented a bright and cheery two-bedroom apartment with a hilarious orange sofa, and this space became our shelter and production area. The women made their first pairs of earrings around the dining room table.”
At the end of its first year in business, Starfish Project completed its first large wholesale order of 60,000 pairs of earrings. That following June, they outgrew their apartment and upgraded to a larger space as their team more than doubled. One hundred percent of Starfish Project’s jewelry sales support their social mission to restore hope to exploited women and girls.
“I have seen that even in places where relationships are difficult, culture is vastly different, and context is hard; people are still open for business,” says Jenny. “I love that this part of our company began as a choice given to women, who were rarely, if ever, given one.”
Today, Starfish Project is a team of over 80 women and one courageous man. Several of the women who lead the main departments are women who came through Starfish Project’s Holistic Care program.
When a woman decides to experience freedom, the first step is leaving her circumstance. Weekly, Starfish Project’s Outreach Team visits brothels in teams of two. Upon leaving, women can join Starfish Project’s team, starting with the jewelry production line. During this process, fellow survivors mentor the new women, and within their first week, women will meet with the Holistic Care team in a low-pressure environment to assess their literacy, math, communication, and computer skills. Every week, the women in the program spend a minimum of five hours working in vocational training classes.
“We have found these skills foundational for moving into higher career development,” Jenny says. “Most of the women joining us do not have higher than a third-grade educational level. Many were required to quit school to go out to work to provide for their brothers to complete school.”
After a woman has completed the first level of the vocational training program, she can request training in a specific area of interest. Starfish Project will either bring in a specialized teacher or support her to join a training outside of Starfish Project.
Starfish Project has helped women become business owners and entrepreneurs, and has supported training for certified public accountant licenses, university degrees, barista certifications, foreign language acquisitions, and photography training.
But Jenny says their Holistic Care Program “provides many of the key tools needed to develop a sustainable life of freedom– trauma counseling, personal financial training, help filing taxes, childcare, education grants for children, safe shelter, extensive annual medical checks, full medical insurance, and family communication workshops.”
The Holistic Care Program and Vocational Training are made possible through donations. Presently, jewelry sales cover the cost of the social enterprise. This includes every salary Starfish Project provides for women developing their careers at Starfish Project.
“We can’t sustain these life-transforming programs through business alone,” explains Jenny. “So donations make the life transformation programs that happen through trauma counseling, literacy training, childcare, safe shelter, extensive medical care, and so much more possible.”
Starfish Project’s first donor partners are from Dallas, Texas. Texas is and continues to be the state that buys the most Starfish Project jewelry. Jenny believes this is because Starfish Project’s mission and values align well with the people of Dallas’s worldview.
Originally from Goshen, Indiana, Jenny has been living in East Asia for the past 20 years with her husband and three children. She loves the women of Starfish Project, many of whom have been aunty to her children their entire lives. Jenny loves camping with her family and exploring new places. Even though she never saw herself being a CEO, not even in the beginning days of Starfish Project, she says her advice for future CEOs is to stop worrying about failing.
“I think many of us have a fear of public failure,” admitted Jenny. “I remember as Starfish Project grew bigger and bigger, I had that fear. I had to let that go and realize it wasn’t about me. It is all about the women we work with.”
As Jenny and her team work to create more developmental roles, she desires the Starfish Project’s jewelry to produce hope within the people who purchase it. To purchase the jewelry of hope from Starfish Project, visit starfishproject.com.