Starfish Project Founder Jenny McGee
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Intro: Welcome to the Simple Switch Podcast where you'll join me, Rachel, the Founder of Simple Switch to talk about conscious consumerism and positive impact purchasing. Spending our money in a way that helps our planet and the people on it can be complicated and frustrating and we're passionate about bringing ease to your journey. Join us as we demystify big ideas about conscious consumerism and hear from amazing business owners using their work for positive change. Thanks for being here and enjoy the show.
Rachel: Happy holidays listeners. I got the absolute pleasure to speak with Jenny McGee from the Starfish Project. A lot of times when I talk about Simple Switch, I say that we are selling everything from toilet paper to fine jewelry and that we are doing everything from reforestation to helping women escape from sex trafficking. And Starfish Project is the end of that spectrum that includes the fine jewelry, incredible trendy designs, but also this amazing mission of really investing deeply in these women's lives and their careers and in just some great holistic care. I was really impressed with Jenny's attitude, the reasons that she started the company, the ways that it has changed and grown to be a sustainable business that's truly fueling everything from computer training to mental health counseling for women in Asia. Honestly, this was an amazing conversation for me and I really enjoyed it. I trust that you will too. Here we go.
Hi Jenny. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Jenny: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Rachel: We are going to start with the very basics. Who are you and where is your company located as well as where does it have its impact and what is it that you guys make yourself?
Jenny: Yeah, so I'm the Founder and Director of Starfish Project. My name is Jenny McGee and Starfish Project is a nonprofit social enterprise that cares for women escaping human trafficking and exploitation. We work in Asia and we really work to help women experience freedom, establish independence, and develop careers.
Jenny: Yeah. So that experience freedom piece, we actually have teams that go out and visit the brothels every week and they reach out to the women and girls there. We see women as young as 12 years old, all the way up to 60-year-olds working in the brothels and we just build relationships with them, get to know them and then invite them out of the brothels and into Starfish Projects where they can begin a new life. And that's really the next stage of establishing independence. So we invite those women to start over at Starfish Projects. And we actually run the only women's shelter for exploited women in the city where we work, which is over 20 million people.
Jenny: And yeah. And then, the women can come into our shelters, but they can also get a job at Starfish Project. And so, through their work making jewelry, they get a salary, insurance, housing benefits, education grants for the children, and even a retirement benefit.
Rachel: Wow. Awesome.
Jenny: Yeah. And then beyond that, we really try to help women to develop careers. I think one of the things that excite me most is that we're not just helping women to get a job, but we want to see them really flourish in what they are made to do. And so, we have all sorts of vocational training programs that range anywhere from girls who can't read and write and just need basic literacy training, all the way to computer certifications. And then, as the women pass those certifications, we sponsor them to go study outside of Starfish Projects where we have women studying accounting and graphic design and photography management and then they're able to get jobs in those areas. So yeah, that's just one of the things that excite me most at Starfish.
Rachel: Absolutely. I love everything about you all model. Listeners, for those of you who don't know, Starfish Project was actually one of our earliest partners, so they really kind of took a chance on Simple Switch before we were anything. And I have always just loved y'alls values. I think that there are a lot of companies popping up that are doing really great in the world, but you guys just seem to, from start to finish, have the sustainability aspect of it with making sure that this isn't something that you're kind of, you know, getting them out and then just kinda dropping them. You really are investing in people's livelihoods. You know, when we hear about companies here in the United States that are trying to treat their employees well, like you guys, you guys are meeting those same standards as you should be. It's really beautiful to watch.
Jenny: Yeah. Thank you so much.
Rachel: Yeah. I always feel extra emotional when we make a sale from Starfish Project. I got to travel to 12 different countries in the year, the year before I started this company, and one of the countries I've traveled to was Nepal and we were doing what your freedom team does and going into cabin restaurants and brothels. And just, you know, chatting with women and letting them know that we had other options for them if they were interested. So I just feel like the women you're working with I can see their faces and they're my friends and it's very special. So I'm really, really thankful for what you guys do. And I'm sure a lot of our listeners are as well. It's really powerful.
Jenny: Yeah. Like kindred spirits.
Rachel: Yes. Absolutely. Can you tell us a little, you're the founder so how did Starfish Project gets started?
Jenny: Yeah, so we started in 2006 and long before that, I actually went to Asia as part of a semester abroad program in college and just kind of fell in love with it. And after I graduated, I got married and moved back there and I was studying the language and just really had a heart for humanitarian work and really wanted to help in that place, but didn't really know that I was going to start something with anti-trafficking work or working with exploited women. But I started to see all these women working on the streets and in brothels and really had a heart to help them. And so, I had a friend who was really interested in and reaching out to these women. So originally I just went along as kind of a translator to help her out and but I would get so engrossed in these women's stories that I'd forget to translate her.
I was a terrible translator, but the women's stories just broke my heart. And I found that many of them were really young, they were 15 to 16 years old. But these days, we're actually seeing a lot of 12 and 13 year olds. But they had been coming from poor villages in the countryside, sometimes 20 to 30 hours by train. They'd end up in the cities and no education. On average, we see about second grade education levels but some haven't been to school a day in their life. And so they couldn't read or write to go get, you know, a lot of the women tell us, I tried to get a job as a waitress, but I couldn't write down what people said to me and so I couldn't work there. So they really had no other options.
A lot of them didn't know what they were getting into. And in what really touched my heart was a lot of them said that they were sending money home so that their brothers could go to school. And I just thought that was so sad that, you know, they were funding their brothers to go to school, but yet they had no education. And so, I knew we needed to do something to help them. They were really there for, I think, economic reasons and then the value of girls in the countryside. And so, I knew that to help them get out, we needed to provide another job. So we started really small. It was actually Easter weekend and so we talked about how, you know, Easter is about new life. And we invited them if they wanted to start a new life, we were going to open this little business. And we actually had five women who left the brothels and came and joined Starfish Projects.
Rachel: That's so cool.
Jenny: Yeah, they'd sit around the kitchen table and make the jewelry. And I'd worked to gather designs and we just started selling to friends and, you know, different community groups in the area. And I would send boxes with friends who are going back to the States or going back to Europe or wherever and just say, "Would you take this box back for me and sell it and bring us the money." So we didn't have a great business plan in the beginning. It was just really a leap of faith. But then, over time, I just saw how business really can transform women's lives and it's such a tool to be able to really help people and allow them the opportunity to really help themselves.
Rachel: Yeah. That's amazing. Oh so cool. I love, a lot of our partners did start you know, that kind of way. And I actually get requests from people who are kind of in that stage where you were, where it's like, how do we make that jump into, you know, kind of more of an eCommerce model where they can be selling all around the United States. And it's so exciting for me cause you know, we would love to see more of these things pop up and we would love to see more of these things be successful. So kind of curiosity question. You guys have some of the most on-trend jewelry I've ever seen. I think it's gorgeous. Your designs are really just, I mean, very like modern and amazing. Did you have a background in that when you were with these five women? Like what was the Julie looking like then?
Jenny: Yeah. No, I think it's developed over time. I always laugh cause I was a literature major in college. It didn't exactly prepare me for what I'm doing.
Rachel: I don't think anything could have, you know.
Jenny: That's true. They don't really have a major for what I do at Starfish, I don't think. But initially, I knew, I talked with the women and I had different ideas of what we could produce and show them different ideas, but they were all really drawn to jewelry and we could get the raw materials where we were and we could ship a lot of it easily back and forth. And so the initial rounds, I actually gathered some of my most creative friends and said, "Come help us. We need new designs." And so it was really a collaboration.
But over time, now, I've really come to enjoy the design process. So I do a lot of the designs and then work really closely with the girls in our production line. And it's some of my favorite times. You know, I wear a lot of hats at Starfish Projects, but my time designing with the girls is the best time for me because as they're doing it, as they're making and we tweak it and we talk about it and do like this or maybe this color should be this way and we really collaborate and I get to, you know, that's when you hear about their family situations and just talk about life as they're making the jewelry together. And those are some of my favorite times of the week.
Rachel: Well, that's when those friendships and relationships are formed. That's so special. I mean, you guys do an amazing job of telling your story and you know, talking about your impact and making that really specific. But I think for me, I'm sure my listeners feel the same way, but to be able to hear even that extra depth of like, yeah, actually even the design process gets to create these amazing relationships. People get that, right? We have those in our own workplaces.
Jenny: I think there's something about the creative process that just brings people together
Rachel: Definitely for sure. And it's empowering, right? If you were to teach me how to make jewelry, I would feel very empowered because I don't know the first thing about that. And so it's just for you guys to all be able to do that and be collaborative. That's really cool to hear that. Okay. Tell us a favorite story that you have from the impact side. So what Starfish Project has been able to do as far as...
Jenny: Yeah. Well, I feel like I have so many different stories at Starfish Projects. I think it's such an amazing job to be able to work side by side with women who are really getting transformed and watching their healing and their growth and their confidence build. But one, in particular, is about a girl named Maylee and we actually have a video of her you should check out.
Rachel: Yeah, I've watched that. I think we've actually shared it, but maybe I'll share it again.
Jenny: Great, yeah. So she was traffic to Greece when she was a child and her mother actually sold her to some relatives in Greece who ended up making her work in a brothel there. And so she works in the sex industry for five to six years until she was rescued and then repatriated and sent back to her home country. And we were contacted by the UN and they asked us, "Will you provide a job for her?" And of course, we were happy to provide a job for her. And she came in and you know, you can imagine that trauma and self-esteem and just rejection that comes with being sold by your mother. So when she came and we just saw this lack of confidence and over time, we've really seen her grow and mature and just be healed of a lot of that shame and abandonment. And she actually started studying Greek because she had learned some in Greece and was really interested in it. So she's studying Greek and then photography. And so she's actually taking a lot of the pictures that you see at Starfish Project, most of our product photos.
Rachel: She is so talented. I am so thankful for how good y'alls product photos are cause I think it really gets across the beauty of your jewelry.
Jenny: Thank you so much.
Rachel: Doing great. Tell her great job from us.
Jenny: Yeah. Yeah. And recently, about a year and a half ago she got married and now she's expecting a baby pretty soon. So it's so great to see her flourishing and having a family, which is what she's always wanted.
Rachel: Amazing. There's so much like redemption there and it just sounds like she's thriving. That's amazing. I love it.
Rachel: I have been really struck also by the way that, you know, customers are changed by companies like yours. We have this impact, which is the obvious side and what you guys are storytelling about. Is there a way that has been your favorite that you've seen a customer be impacted?
Jenny: Yeah. You know, it's been interesting. I've had quite a few women contact me and tell me that they've experienced sexual abuse or trauma in their own childhood and hadn't really dealt with it or wanted to face what had happened. And when they started engaging with Starfish Project and seeing the stories of hope, some of them have shared with me that they really started to face some of their own trauma. And I think that has just blown me away. How, you know, just through selling the product and connection with these women on the other side of the world, people are actually dealing with their own trauma and finding healing themselves. And that was something I never expected but has been a real encouragement and blessing to us.
Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, man. Yeah. I know there are definitely people in my own life who've dealt with that, who have experienced great freedom. Not necessarily through you guys, but just through someone being able to speak up and tell a story or someone being able to empower in similar ways that you guys are doing. That's incredible. Yeah, that's a lot for you to hold. I mean, in a good way, but that's maybe more emotion than a lot of people experience at work.
Jenny: Yeah. It can be pretty emotional job but also just a ton of blessing too, I think. Yeah,
Rachel: Absolutely. I mean, there's more depth than you could ever ask for. That's very cool. Okay, so at Simple Switch, we use the phrase 'positive impact purchasing.' What do you feel like that means to you and how do you feel like Starfish Project fits into that?
Jenny: Yeah, I think in this way we're so aligned in our vision and hope. Yeah, I think every little purchase we make in our everyday life, if we make our choices in a thoughtful way, we can make a huge impact in the lives of others. And I think, you know, all of us need to buy that gift for our mom or that gift for our sister but when we do it through things like our two companies, you can really bring freedom and hope to other women and I think that makes that gift even more special for the person who receives it. So yeah. So I love what you guys do and just that you offer so many different products because you know, we're just producing jewelry and so it's so great to be on a platform like Simple Switch where we can be featured with other products and be partnering together with other companies who are doing good in all sorts of different ways.
Rachel: Oh, I'm so thrilled that you feel like that because we feel exactly the same way about having you guys. Actually, whenever I talk about Simple Switch, you know, if I meet someone just at a dinner party or on a hike and they're asking what we do, I say, "Oh well, we carry all sorts of products, everything from toilet paper to fine jewelry." And I kind of always think of you guys because, yeah, we have a company that sells toilet paper and does amazing, amazing work as well.
But it's so fun cause you guys are kinda my two bookends. We have people who buy their toilet paper, but I also have my sister's a great example of someone who she bought your, I think it's called the Catherine necklace with the pearl and she wears it every day and she tells everyone that she knows that it has funded, I want to say computer classes for that one. But yes, I mean that story is just such a huge part of her everyday life now that she can share and show that hope. And it's really fun to get to see that, but the designs are gorgeous. Well, I'm so glad that you feel that way. Yeah, we are so thankful. So thankful for partners like you. I actually am just sitting here beaming and I can't even put it into words.
Another brand value is 'ease without apathy.' So how do you feel like Starfish Project makes it winsome or appealing for people to use that purchasing power? Like you said, that we can use for good. And how do you engage people with the stories behind your product? So make it easy for them, but also keep them engaged with this honestly, really hard reality that you guys are working with.
Jenny: Right? Yeah. It's a fine balance, right? Because we really also want to emphasize the hope that comes and not just the sad stories, but the hope that the women are experiencing. And so, we actually have a 'Stories of Hope' page on our website. And when you get a piece of Starfish Project jewelry, we always put a card in there and one of the women hand signs it, who was involved in making the piece of jewelry for you. And then you can go read about her story and you can learn more about her and you can even send her a note. And it's exciting for the girls to get notes and see how their jewelry is appreciated by people and even that's very healing for them. But I think being able to engage with people, hear their stories, read about them, even the video I said before about mainly just being able to for people to understand the people behind who's making their jewelry I think is really important.
Rachel: Yeah, I think that's a really great distinguishment is for people to be able to stay engaged but really be more engaged with the hope than with the sadness. I think that was something that has always been really important for us at Simple Switch. We had a kind of, for lack of a better word, branding meeting with some of my interns and we all talked over that and just how easy it is for companies like yours, like ours to slip into guilting people into doing things. And I don't think that really makes the sale even from a business perspective, but it's just also so easy to get burned out on those stories. You can't hold that much tragedy, but you can't hold that much hope. That's really, really fun to watch companies like yours. I think most of our partners do an amazing job at that kind of marketing. The next one. Sometimes this has some crazy stories, so we'll see. But our other brand value is 'iterate often.' So we know that everything in impact, everything where you're, you know, working with humans is a crazy shifting industry. Can you tell us about a time where you had to shift or pivot and how did that affect your business?
Jenny: Yeah. Well, early on it when I started Starfish Project, you know, I was over in Asia and so I really needed somebody in the States who could help me sell. And so, I went to one of my friends who had also lived there before and talked to her and she was amazing and just stepped up and really helped me on the US side to start to sell our products and she would throw parties and sell at the parties. And so over time, we recruited more and more people like that to sell. And we ended up having a program we called 'The Advocate of Hope Program'. And it was great because we had all these different ladies who would sign up and set up jewelry parties for us. And we loved the engagement and the support, but we just realized as time went on, a lot of the companies that have the sort of direct sales model, they're based in the States right there with their advocates or you know, whatever their salespeople are called and they can really support them in a way that we didn't have the capacity to do for ours.
And we just realized like, especially my heart was there on the ground with the women and I really wanted to be able to focus on what we were doing with them. And I always felt guilty that we couldn't really provide the support and even the gratitude that we had for the women who were selling for us, we didn't have the capacity to properly care for them and to support the program. And so, maybe a year and a half ago, two years ago, we actually closed down 'The Advocate of Hope Program.' And so a lot of those women, I was nervous because, you know, I was afraid that they would be upset but they were so supportive. And I realized those women just wanted what was best for the women on the ground with us.
And they were so wonderful about it and many of them are some of like our biggest supporters and will promote us on social media. But then it's also opened doors for us to really focus our sales strategy and be able to work with companies like you all and do what we do in a better way and not be so pulled apart. So it was like a sad experience for us because we loved that program and love the ladies but also realized we just couldn't give them what we had wanted to give them. And so closing that program I think allowed us to be able to focus on the women and really do what we do and do it well and then work with companies who have direct sales programs and have women that they can support well and we can provide jewelry for them to sell. So it was a big transition, but it ended up being really good and works out well. But it was a hard process to go through.
Rachel: Definitely. Yeah. That's a big business model change. Good for you guys for knowing that limit. And I think one of the most important things for successful business is knowing what to say no to and the fact that you guys were able to see that is huge cause I think a lot of people would just continue to bite off more than they could chew with that and you know, not wholeheartedly give to those advocates. So yeah, I really admire you for doing that. Definitely. It's interesting to hear too, just from like a nerdy me partnering with a bunch of businesses aside, there has been some kind of direct sales companies that I love what they're doing, but it hasn't been a good fit for us. So selfishly, I'm really glad you guys made that transition. Yeah. Okay, I guess you answered this a little bit, but I'm still gonna ask, why did you guys choose to sell with Simple Switch?
Jenny: Yeah, I think we just love what you're doing. We love the diversity of products you bring and we just love to collaborate with others who have a similar mission. We're always trying to find other companies who are doing good in different ways. I think that just amplifies our impact. And I think being apart of a platform like yours too also helps introduce Starfish Project to people who love your other companies and vice versa. You know, we can introduce each other's followers to different kinds of products and different kinds of brands and make that impact that the customer has to go much further.
Rachel: Totally. Yeah. Oh man, I love how that happens. Actually, you guys have been a big traffic driver for us just because your products are so gorgeous and people just really resonate with your story. But what you're saying happens to us all the time where someone will say, "Hey, you know, I do want one of those Pearl necklaces because it's gorgeous and my mom will love it." But also I realized I can get myself into the paper. And who knew that I could do that. And then, yeah, I mean it really does make people's impact go further. We're working on a big web redesign right now. Our anniversary is actually on Thursday. I'm so excited. But one of the things we're working on is kind of one of those counters to say, you know, so far your purchases have done blank, blank and blank. And it's just been incredible to me to just go into any given order and see, actually this order made a ton of impact even though it was just someone spending, you know, 50 bucks, they really put that towards a lot of really cool things. So yeah. Anyways, I agree with you, I guess.
Jenny: That's great.
Rachel: Did you have a personal favorite product that y'all sell and why do you love it?
Jenny: Yeah, I mean of course over the years there's been so many that I just love. So I was thinking about it and my favorite kind of items we've been doing is we do these bar necklaces and we release them every November and we have a different one every year. And one of the things I love about it is we have a message on every bar. The first one was a justice bar that actually said, 'love mercy, act justly, walk humbly.' But then we've had a faith one and a rejoice one. But we typically engage our customers on through social media and invite them to vote or to help suggest ideas of what we should put on the necklace.
Rachel: Oh, cool.
Jenny: And so, getting people involved and them excited about what's on the necklace and that sort of collaboration between our customers and us to create a beautiful piece of jewelry, I just love that. And so, we actually have another one coming out in November, but I think just that whole process and the collaboration really excites me. I mean, it's a beautiful piece of jewelry as well, but I just love how it comes to be and the beautiful messaging that is on it and then, clearly, the messages resonate with people.
Rachel: For sure. I mean that's direct demand, right? Cause people are saying this is what we want. I feel a little stalkery, I'm looking at your website right now and looking at all of these bars and they're so gorgeous. I think I'll have to get myself the 'act justly' one cause that is one of my favorite Bible verses. Yeah. What can Simple Switch listeners do to support you? I think this is the most important thing I can ask our podcast guests. But is there anything you're working on right now that they should be especially attentive to or ways that they can be supporting you?
Jenny: Yeah, I mean, always the number one way you can support us is to, of course, purchase the jewelry. I think that really brings jobs with dignity for the women that we serve. And they feel so proud when we get big orders. They celebrate and we have an assortment on Simple Switch so that is definitely the best way you can support Starfish. We also do receive donations. We have a whole holistic care program side of the project that we have to, you know, our women's shelters and our vocational training and a lot of those things that of course, normal businesses aren't expected to be able to support our business, covers all of our business costs and even contributes to the holistic care programs. But there are aspects of it that we still have to fundraise for so there is that side as well. So, yeah, the big two ways are buy the jewelry and of course, donate.
Rachel: Yeah. Awesome. Well, I can definitely get behind that. Seriously, everyone, a lot of our earliest customers were my friends and family, right? So people just rave about your jewelry all the time and even your packaging is so cute. And like you said, like having that handwritten note is just, I mean, gorgeous. So if any of you are on the fence about whether to buy some Starfish Project jewelry, you definitely want to, I have never gotten a bad review. Yeah. Okay. Well, Jenny, is there anything else that you think we should know? What else should listeners know about you or about Starfish Project or about life in general?
Jenny: Yeah. Well, we're just so thankful for Simple Switch and for our partnership and we're just so thankful for the customers as well. I've actually, recently, I asked the girls what our customers mean to them and I was really surprised by how connected they felt to our customers. I think also maybe as some of them have received notes and different things, they really felt the impact of the customer. I was surprised when I asked them, quite a few of them cried as they talked about how thankful they were for the men and women who buy our products. And they really see that those customers are helping to give them new life of freedom and hope. And so, I just want the customers to know that the women really do feel the impact of your purchases and they're just so thankful for all of you.
Rachel: That's amazing. I feel like I'm just going to listen to this episode anytime, you know, entrepreneurship can be hard and there are days where this is part of others. I feel like I'll just listen to this episode every time because I can just imagine your women and I just feel like we would be dear friends if I was able to know them. But I think what you're saying comes from the customers feel very connected to the girls as well because you guys do a great job of showing their authentic stories and just the way that they are impacted but also just who they are as people, not just as a project. And so I feel like you guys do a great job facilitating that. So I'm not surprised at all to hear that the girls feel that way. I love that. Awesome. We are so thankful for the work that you're doing and yeah, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Jenny: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It's been great.
Outro: Thanks so much for joining me today. If you like this episode, you can support us by leaving a great review, sharing with your friends and subscribing. Thanks for caring about our planet and the people on it. We'll see you again soon.