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If we want to have a productive and honest conversation about what it’s going to take to end human trafficking, we’ve got to start thinking about what to do on the front end. How do we keep people from falling into the trap of human trafficking in the first place? One of the biggest factors in that prevention means providing jobs, education, and sustainable economic opportunities. This is how we end human trafficking. My guest today started a social enterprise that is caring for women escaping human trafficking and exploitation in East Asia. Jenny McGee is the founder and director of Starfish Project. Jenny started her work by visiting brothels every week and building relationships with the women and girls who worked there. She found that many of them had either been tricked into working in these places, or they came from incredibly desperate circumstances. Most had very little education, and many could not read and write. Jenny started Starfish project to provide alternative employment and educational opportunities for these women and girls. Starfish project started with five women working around a kitchen table and has grown to employ over 150 women! Today, Starfish Project has two women’s’ and children’s’ shelters and reaches thousands of women every year through their outreach programs. One hundred percent of their profits are reinvested in their social mission to restore hope to exploited women and girls. Without further ado, join me for this great conversation with Jenny.
Eighteen years ago, Jenny moved to Asia after studying abroad there and falling in love with East Asia, specifically.
She started learning the language and building a life there with her husband and three children. She started to notice a lot of young women working on the streets and brothels. One of Jenny’s friends wanted to start reaching out to the women and girls and reached out to Jenny for help translating.
As Jenny started to get to know the women and girls better, she was surprised that many were coming in from poor villages in the countryside and looking for work in the city. A lot of them were sending money back to their village for their brothers to be able to go to school. Most were there for economic reasons and didn’t want to be there doing that kind of work.
Building those connections and relationships was the foundation for Starfish Project. It allowed Jenny to begin to find educational and safe employment opportunities for the women. They started with just five women working around a kitchen table and it grew from there.
Starfish Project is a social enterprise jewelry company that cares for women who are escaping human trafficking and gives them opportunities to experience freedom, establish independence, and develop careers. There are teams that go into the brothels each week to visit the women working in the shops there.
7:40 – Experience Freedom, Establish Independence, and Develop Careers.
Starfish Project builds relationships in person and even through social media apps. They offer the option of a way out through employment and women and children’s shelters. They also provide benefits, retirement, and career development. They try to employ women coming out of human trafficking and exploitation throughout all levels of the company from graphic designers, artisans, photographers, accountants, and more.
If the women want to continue working at Starfish Project they can, but they can also take the skills they’ve developed to new opportunities in self-employment or jobs with other companies.
Working at Starfish also gives women a chance to be a part of a team and build community. Those first coming into the program can see the potential for their future in women who’ve worked there a little longer and developed their skills.
Starfish Project is one of the few organizations in the area that has very few women going back to work in the brothels. Part of that is that because newer women in program, even if they’re just starting with very simple skills, can see someone with their same background who’s made it as a photographer, accountant, graphic designer, etc.
Jenny initially came to East Asia as a part of a semester abroad program with Bethel College in Indiana. She fell in love with East Asia (a very different city than it is today). She’s not exactly sure what it is that made her love it so much, and she truly feels that being there was a calling on her heart.
Jenny and her family live in a migrant village so that they can share life with the people they felt were their community. Jenny’s kids go to an international school with kids from all over the world as well. They experience life in a mix of cultures.
19:03 -Adapting and Innovating During a Global Pandemic
Since they’re in Asia, Starfish Project dealt with Covid-19 early on and in a sense, are now in round two of the pandemic. The women in the program went home during the Spring festival time (imagine it being like going home at Christmas time). They were spread out all over the country and when it was time to return, it was hard for many of them to travel back to the city.
Starfish Project also had to turn away orders because they couldn’t get raw materials for a while and couldn’t fill orders for about two months. As soon as they started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Covid-19 hit the United States hard. Now they are seeing the sales side more impacted.
Day to day life in East Asia during Covid-10 started with a lot of strict regulations. Jenny had to do a full 14-day quarantine, complete with a sign placed on her door stating the household could not go outside for 14 days. All the neighborhoods are blocked off and getting into your own neighborhood requires a card. That affects Starfish Project’s outreach, as they can’t go into other neighborhoods where women are working in the brothels.
There are even small brothels in Jenny’s neighborhood, so they’ve been trying to deliver care packages to the women there. Some of the women locked themselves in with bike locks to try and stay safe. Their bosses cut off their electricity and heat to save money.
Unfortunately, even brothels being shutdown leaves women vulnerable because they have no income and it’s harder to communicate with the outside world and places like Starfish Project that can them begin to find a way out.
25:26 Faith and Hope in Uncertain Times and Through to the Future
Jenny’s faith and the faith of her team has brought togetherness and hope. It’s really opened everyone’s eyes to how little control they have over things.
Spending time studying God’s Word and focusing on things that bring hope has helped Jenny and the teams during this difficult season.
As Starfish Project looks toward both the immediate future and further down the road, they’ve focused on growing their business and sales to be able to help more people. They want to grow the business side to create as many job opportunities and escapes from the brothels as possible.
To accomplish that growth, they’re looking at business partnerships that will get products in front of more people and take the business side as far as it can go.
Find out what Jenny has learned about herself during Covid-19, what her hype song would be, what she thinks people will be nostalgic for in forty years, and of course, what it means to Jenny to run a business with purpose.
10:10 – It’s always hard to see people you’ve poured into move on, but I think it’s also about opening space and opening doors for other women then to learn new skills as well.
13:11 – I think from day one, even if they start on a production line doing very simple tasks in the beginning, they can see the potential for their future. I think that also does a lot to bring them hope as well.
About Jenny McGee:
Jenny McGee is the Founder and Director of Starfish Project, a social enterprise that cares for women escaping human trafficking and exploitation in East Asia. Jenny started her work by visiting brothels every week and building relationships with the women and girls who worked there. She found that many of them had either been tricked into working in these places or they came from incredibly desperate circumstances. Most had very little education and many could not read and write. So Jenny began Starfish Project to provide alternative employment and educational opportunities for these women and girls. Starfish Project began with five women working around a kitchen table and has grown to employ over 150 women since its beginnings. Today Starfish Project has two women and children’s shelters and reaches thousands of women every year through their outreach programs. 100% of their profits are reinvested into their social mission to restore hope to exploited women and girls. Jenny moved to East Asia over 18 years ago and continues to live there today with her husband and three children.