As I sail at 30,000 feet on my Luftansa flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok I glance around at my fellow passengers. Germans are notorious for their sex tourism in Bangkok, so I canâ€™t help but wonder how many of my fellow passengers are traveling to Bangkok to hit the redlight district. Iâ€™m on this flight for a very different reason. Itâ€™s a trip thatâ€™s been 7 years in the making.
It all started with an article in Vogue in 2004. I hadnâ€™t read an article in Vogue before then, and I havenâ€™t read one since. Truth be told, I was embarrassed to even be in possession of it, but there I was reading an article about a fashion brand one of my heroes Bono was launching. His line Edun was all about creating social and economic justice.Â One quote that article that stuck with me to this day is, â€œShopping is politics.â€ How you spend your money shows what you care about. His quote reminded me of the words of Christ that I had heard so much growing up, â€œWhere your treasure is, there your heart is also.â€
I had written my masters thesis on economic development and had been turned on to social justice while studying at Regent University Law School, but it was the first time that I had even contemplated the power of the market to create positive social change. Long before I had heard the term â€œsocial entrepreneurshipâ€, it was that article in Vogue that started me down the path that I find myself on nowâ€¦ go figure?
A couple years later I moved to New York and met three guys â€“ Anthony, Chad and Liem â€“ that had just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia to study the issue of human trafficking first hand. They wanted to open the eyes of our generation to this issue. They founded The Blind Project to empower and restore those affected by the commercial sex trade. I immediately bought into the vision of The Blind Project and the passion of my new friends.
As the team spent more time on the ground in Southeast Asia, we kept encountering women that had survived â€“ either escaped or rescued from – the commercial sex trade, but were struggling to survive. Unfortunately we were seeing all too many of them drift back into the commercial sex trade simply because they couldnâ€™t earn enough money to feed their families. This broke our hearts.
Though the entire issue of the commercial sex trade is complex and overwhelming, we thought we might be able to do something to empower these women that were taking the courageous steps to make the transition from slave to citizen.
We didnâ€™t want to be just another charity that gave money to help these women. Though charity has its place, we saw women who wanted an opportunity to succeed, not a handout. They needed jobs, not charity. They needed somebody who believes in them, not somebody who pities them. We saw the potential in these strong women and we wanted to partner with them to eliminate the barriers to their successful transition.
After assessing our talents and the survivorsâ€™ needs, we decided to create Biographe â€“ a premium sustainable style brand that employs and empowers survivors of the commercial sex trade. The business model is simple: we design, the survivors produce the jewelry and apparel, we market and sell, and then reinvest the all of the profits back into the survivors. This is an economically sustainable model that will employ hundreds of women of the coming years.
All of Biographeâ€™s designs will be inspired by the story of these survivors. So each premium graphic t-shirt or accessory will be a tangible person-to-person connection that is a catalyst for positive change in each person moving the survivor from slave to citizen, and the consumer from consumer to activist.
This has been a dream that the entire The Blind Project team has been working hard on for the last three years and weâ€™re happy to be partnering with NightLight an anti-sex trafficking NGO in Bangkok to make this dream a reality.
So as some of the men aboard this flight seek to perpetuate the existence of the commercial sex trade, weâ€™re committed to leveraging our skills and talent to end it.
We know the transition from slave to citizen will not be easy for these women. I know that when the wheels touch down the realities of running a social enterprise half way around the world will present challenges seen and unseen. We donâ€™t pretend to know all the answers. We are sure that our small contribution to their transition will be hard fought. But we are willing to roll up our sleeves and dig in.
Photo:Â Phil Anema
Diary of a Social Entrepreneur. This is the first post in a series of posts giving a first hand account of the challenges and realities of launching a social enterprise.Â Kyle Westaway is on the ground in Bangkok launchingÂ Biographe – a sustainable style brand that employs and empowers survivors of the commercial trade in Southeast Asia.