Written by Stephanie Proft Friday, November 25 2011
Snapshot: Francine LeFrak, founder, Same Sky
|Francine LeFrak, left, and Brigette|
Francine LeFrak, New York, enjoyed a career as a television and theatrical producer prior to founding Same Sky in 2008. The jewelry company began by employing HIV-positive women in Rwanda to craft beaded bracelets and necklaces, and it expanded to Zambia this year. Net proceeds of the venture are reinvested in the company toward the end of acquiring more resources and hiring more women.
The philanthropic business model not only provides aid to these women struggling to provide for themselves and their families, but it also teaches them a skill and entrepreneurial experience, allowing for growth beyond a temporary source of relief.
Womenetics: What inspired your vision for Same Sky, and how did you go about executing it?
Francine LeFrak: As a film producer, I spent eight and a half years developing a film on the Rwandan genocide that never got made. However, I still wanted to shed light on this horrific human tragedy – genocide – and especially lend support to the women survivors. A friend introduced me to the idea of fair trade and suggested I come up with jewelry line to offer women a hand up rather than a hand out. I had also joined the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School and discovered that 56 percent of the parliament in Rwanda is made up of women. I felt compelled to tell the story of this little country in the heart of Africa that could act as a role model to the rest of the world.
Womenetics: Who designs the Same Sky bracelets?
LeFrak: Same Sky’s glass bead bracelet was originally designed by the renowned artist and AIDS activist Mary Fisher. Internally, as a team, we have come up with several other designs including the prosperity bracelet, the glass beaded necklace, and the wrap bracelet.
Womenetics: Do the women make the glass beads or are they sourced from somewhere else?
LeFrak: We work with a glass blower in California from where the beads are shipped to Rwanda for production. The women artisans crochet the glass beads into bracelets.
Womenetics: How do women become a part of the Same Sky program, and what is the training process like for them?
LeFrak: Same Sky has reached out to the most vulnerable and the most left behind from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In partnership with local organizations on the ground in Rwanda we were able to locate these women and offer them an employment opportunity. In Zambia, we were introduced to an already established artisan collective on the ground, the members of which had the skills but didn’t have a marketplace. Furthermore, Same Sky brought them the opportunity to produce marketable products as a way for them to earn a living.
Training involves learning the basics – learning how to crochet with practice beads, learning how to measure, and eventually learning how to crochet with glass beads, seed beads and delica beads.
Womenetics: Part of the philosophy behind the company is “trade, not aid.” What is the significance of this approach?
LeFrak: We give women the opportunity to work. Rather than giving them just money, we are giving them a skill, dignity and responsibility. We are giving them sustainable employment that helps to improve their health, enables them to send their children to school, open bank accounts and improve their overall quality of life.
Womenetics: How involved are you personally with the artisans crafting the bracelets? Do you visit the villages?
LeFrak: We do site visits a few times a year where we lead training with new women artisans and also visit with the artisans who have been working with us since Same Sky’s inception. We interview the artisans, perform surveys, visit them in their homes, etc., so as to maintain transparency and assure that our mission is being fulfilled.
Womenetics: All of the net proceeds are reinvested into the company. What percentage of the net profit is received by the women you employ?
LeFrak: Thirty percent goes directly back to the artisans, and the wage they earn is approximately 92 percent above the national standard wage.
Womenetics: Same Sky has had an impact on so many women's lives. Is there a story that stands out to you as being particularly powerful?
Le Frak: Brigette. Before working at Same Sky, Brigette lived like an orphan. She had no family, no siblings, and no reason to live. She bore her children out of rape and did not care about where they went because she had no way of providing for them. After working at Same Sky, Brigette says she now has a reason to live. She can provide for her children, has a new life and family.
Her health has also drastically improved. Brigette is HIV positive and has suffered from severe migraines after an injury from the genocide. Brigette now has health insurance, is able to visit the doctor regularly and does not get headaches anymore. She recently was able to buy her own house and afford electricity, an accomplishment she is very proud of because she knows her children are taken care of.
'I Am Someone'
“I had nothing, but now I am woman. I am a mother. And I am someone. Same Sky has restored my dignity as a woman, it has restored my dignity in my community, and I hope that all of us Same Sky women in Rwanda continue to be an inspiration. Thank you.” – Brigette
Womenetics: You've had a successful career as a producer. Are you focusing all your energy on Same Sky or do you have other projects you are also working on?
LeFrak: All of my energy goes into Same Sky because I believe so deeply in the concept of women empowering women and promoting the idea of handmade goods that change people’s lives.
Womenetics: Do you have any suggestions for people inspired by Same Sky's mission looking to become more involved in empowering HIV-positive women in Africa?
LeFrak: There are many ways that you can get involved – share our story, friend us on Facebook, host a trunk show, start a Same Sky chapter at your university or high school, think of us for your local holiday bazaar and make an effort to be kinder to other women.
Stephanie Proft is the editorial assistant at Womenetics and a recent graduate of Georgia State University, majoring in print journalism and minoring in anthropology. She was born in Lichtenfels, Germany to a native mother and an American soldier. She has since lived happily in a variety of settings, including the Northwest and the Southeast. She is generally fascinated by culture, and the way it shapes our experiences.