Francine LeFrak knows about building something from the ground up.
Her family made its fortune by envisioning and building affordable homes for working and middle class people in and around New York City.
“From a young age I was taught that it takes hard work, perseverance, and authenticity to make the life you truly want.”
But the life Francine was living would take an unexpected turn starting in 1999.
As an award-winning film producer, Francine was developing a project on the devastating impact of the Rwandan genocide.
In just 100 days, nearly 800,000 people were massacred in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign, leaving behind many widows, single mothers, and orphaned teenage girls. The U.N. estimates that a quarter-million women were raped; of those 70% contracted HIV/AIDS.
Although Francine’s movie idea never proceeded to fruition, she felt compelled to help Rwandan women reclaim peace and rebuild their lives. So, in 2008 she founded SAME SKY, described as a trade-not-aid initiative.
SAME SKY’s mission is to employ and train women in Rwanda to make beautiful, glass bead jewelry, which is then sold at high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. The women artisans earn 15 to 20 times the average wage in Sub-Saharan Africa. And every penny of the net proceeds from the sale of the jewelry is reinvested to train, employ, and empower more artisans in need.
“I didn’t realize when I started it would totally consume my life. And as much as I give to them, they give triple to me.”
So far more than 40-thousand pieces of jewelry has been sold, improving the lives of nearly 200 women artisans. Francine says she has always been passionate about purchasing items that embody authenticity, a human connection – things that don’t just look beautiful, but feel beautiful. She also understands the importance of providing a hand-up, not a handout to the women so they can lift themselves out of poverty through the dignity of work.
“You have a different relationship when you open your drawer and there’s something that’s been made by a woman in Rwanda, and you know by wearing it, you’re changing her life and communicating with a woman a world away.”
One of the biggest challenges for SAME SKY has been creating demand for the ethical shopping movement. But, like her father and grandfather before her, Francine is building on her original vision, working toward changing the way we think about consumption.
“My life has led me on many paths, in the art world, on Broadway, in Hollywood, and now as a social entrepreneur,” says Francine. “Without the twists and turns of my own journey, I never would have founded Same Sky.”