Darling is pleased to announce the Starfish Project x Darling jewelry collaboration, available at www.starfishproject.com/darling. Your purchases will make a difference to victims of exploitation and human trafficking. This article introduces Starfish Project’s work with sex trafficking victims through an interview with Founder and CEO, Jenny McGee.
Founded in 2006, Starfish Project helps exploited women experience freedom, establish independence and develop careers. Starfish Project is unlike other cause-related brands of its kind because 100 percent of its sales are invested back into its mission—restoring hope to trafficked women.
“All of the money goes back into the program,” said Starfish Project Founder and CEO Jenny McGee said. “Our entire company is about employing and giving opportunities to trafficked women.”
Another incredible fact that makes Starfish Project an outlier—less than 5 percent of the women who participate in the program return to working in a brothel. McGee explained that typically in the anti-trafficking world, after-care organizations have a high percentage of women who return to brothels (even 75 to 80 percent).
“When we started, we didn’t have a lot of models to follow, but over time, we started hearing different statistics,” she said. “We have been looking at why that is—and I really feel like it has a lot to do with the holistic approach at Starfish.”
McGee’s story of how she got into the not-for-profit industry is unique. In college, she studied abroad for a semester in Asia and quickly fell in love with the places and people she encountered. Right after graduating, McGee and her now husband, Doug, married and quickly moved to Asia. Once she lived there, what she saw firsthand changed her life trajectory and gave her a new mission—to help girls and women trapped in sex exploitation.
“I was shocked at what I found,” Jenny said. “Many of them were as young as 16 years old.”
Starfish Project began as a grassroots project of sorts. McGee and a few friends began visiting girls and women in brothels, some as young as 12 years old and others up to about 65 years old. Many had no education. Many could not read or write. A lot of them were working and sending home money so that their brothers could attend school.
The stories vary on how they got there, but there is one common thread—most were deceived about what kind of work they were getting into beforehand. Some were told they will be waitresses.
“They end up there in different ways, but all out of desperate circumstances,” she said. “A lot of them feel stuck with no options.”
McGee recalled the story of one girl the Starfish Project rescued from a brothel.
“She called her mom and dad and said, ‘Mom and dad, do you know what they are expecting me to do?’” McGee explained. “And her parents said, ‘Lots of girls do it—you’ll be fine.’”
McGee began brainstorming ways that she could help. She started making jewelry and using the proceeds to assist the women financially. McGee also began teaching the women how to craft jewelry themselves. During that time, she threw an Easter party at her home and invited all the women from the brothel. She invited them to join the new jewelry-making business and thereby escape the sex trafficking system.
“We said, ‘If you want to start a new business, then you can join in,” McGee explained. “It started with five women making jewelry, and I would sell it to friends in the States and in Europe.”
As Chief Executive Officer, McGee directly oversees all operations at Starfish Project, including the business and holistic care sides. While every day looks different, her two areas of focus including team support and jewelry design. McGee functions as a sounding board for her team of about 60 people, including the 45 women in the program and 15 staff. She also helps oversee design and works directly with the women to create jewelry.
The jewelry making process can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to two hours.
“It is a bit of a collaborative process,” McGee explained. “We will have six or seven women making different designs at the same time. I will throw ideas on the table and we will collaborate back and forth.”
At Starfish Project, the women are involved in every aspect of the business, not just jewelry-making. There are women studying accounting, and some women working in management. They are learning graphic design and photography. All of the Starfish Projects’ component sourcing is done by women in the program as well.
“We try to utilize them at all levels of the business,” McGee said. “We all work together as a team to make a great company.”
Women typically work for Starfish for about three to five years. At the beginning, Starfish Project provides housing in a safe house. When they are ready, the women can move on to living in an apartment with a housing stipend from Starfish Project so they can learn to live on their own. The women not only make a good income, but they are also provided with health care, insurance and daycare for their children in order to develop careers—careers that cultivate long-term skills and impact for themselves.
“They get to see girls who came from backgrounds just like them doing photography, graphic design and accounting,” McGee explained. “I think it gives a lot of hope for what they can become.”
Upon entry into the program, the women’s education levels vary. Some women may come with a second grade education and some women may have never been to school a day in their lives. When they come in, the program offers an individualized growth plan for each woman to assess their education level, emotional state and physical well-being.
“They are really strong, capable women,” McGee attested.
The women at Starfish Project often arrive a lot of shame. In some parts of Asia, girls and women are not valued nor seen as “a good investment for the family.” McGee explained that in poorer families, it is common culturally that the parents do not want to invest a lot into their daughters because they see them marrying into another family.
“I think there is a deep wound of feeling not wanted just around the simple fact of being a girl,” McGee explained. “We do a lot of work of celebrating that we are women.”
McGee is a mother of three, two boys and a girl. She recalls that when her daughter was born, their family celebrated the fact that her daughter was a girl.
“It made me sad that not every girl gets celebrated in that way,” she said. “At Starfish Project, I want every girl to feel celebrated.”
Since 2006, Starfish Project has expanded to two branches, increased jewelry sales revenue to more than $1,000,000 annually, employed 125 women and reached thousands more. It’s most recent addition—a jewelry partnership with Darling!
The line includes 11 pieces of bracelets and earring options, perfect for the holiday season. McGee’s favorite piece—the Tessa Tassel Earrings, which come in beige and green. She encourages shoppers to purchase the jewelry for their beauty and quality, as the women at Starfish Project have so much pride in their work.
“It is important that [the women] feel proud of what they make,” McGee said. “It is not a pity purchase, but they want people to feel proud to wear it because it is a great piece of jewelry.”
What are your thoughts on Starfish Projects’ holistic approach to working with women in sex trafficking?
Images via Luke Cleland of Cleland Studios