Francine LeFrak is an award-winning film, TV and theater producer, a recipient of France’s Legion of Honour insignia, and a renowned philanthropist. In 2008 she founded Same Sky, a trade initiative that trains and employs women who survived the 1994 Rwanda genocide and are HIV positive. LeFrak recently discussed Same Sky with Jean Fitzgerald, head of U.S. Trust marketing.
Jean Fitzgerald: Francine, tell
us a little about Same Sky.
Francine LeFrak: Same Sky is what you might call a trade-not-aid initiative. Our goal is to help women develop more sustaining lives by training them and giving them access to a platform for the distribution and sale of the jewelry they make. Same Sky is also a pioneer of the social economy, which is a way of helping consumers connect to the source of a purchase.
What inspired you to found the company?
I was working on a film about the Rwanda genocide, a tragic period in which an estimated 1 million people were killed in 100 days and 250,000 women were raped, with 80% of them subsequently becoming HIV positive. Then Hotel Rwanda was released, and my film project was canceled. But I still felt compelled to shed light on what happened to these women, many of whom were so impoverished, they couldn’t buy food.
What sort of business model did you use?
We developed a sustainable model to fit our needs. It involved giving these women well-paid jobs, so they could escape poverty and make a difference in their lives and the lives of their children. We also needed to ensure that we could measure our results and that the women would receive the wages they earned.
Talk a little about how you settled on jewelry.
A friend told me she treasured the jewelry I had occasionally given her and suggested that I should think about coming up with some jewelry designs for these women to make. I was particularly inspired by AIDS activist Mary Fisher, who had worked with women in Africa and who eventually designed our original Same Sky bracelets.
Can you give us a specific example of how your program
Clementine, one of our Same Sky artisans in Rwanda, opened her first bank account and is learning to read and write. Her doctor says she’s doing well — and she says that’s because she’s working. Perhaps the best news about Clementine is that last year she gave birth to an HIV-free baby.
You recently expanded, forming Same Sky America, and now work in New Jersey with former inmates. What prompted you to focus on them?
I produced an HBO documentary, Prison Stories: Women on the Inside, about incarcerated mothers and the children they left behind. One thing I learned is that prospects for former inmates are not promising — about 70% of them return to prison within three years of release. So through Same Sky America, I began working with women who had been released into transitional living homes. The work has helped them to reconnect with who they were.
Can you give us snapshots of these women?
One of the women, Cassie, went to beauty school and now has a job with a nationally known hairdressing salon. Tanya is getting back custody of her three children. Angelique has realized that she’s very good at management and is taking business courses. They’ve all told me that they love working with Same Sky because they know they’re also helping the women in Rwanda.
You have an interesting distribution strategy — online and
at trunk shows, but in very few stores.
This jewelry connects you to an artisan who has suffered and is now changing her life. If you go to a department store counter, who’s going to tell you that? I’d rather sell the jewelry one person at a time and create more of a movement, a sense of family and connection. We do many, many trunk shows. We rely on word of mouth. We sell on our website samesky.com, where people can buy the jewelry, read our story and connect with our artisans.
What influenced your view of giving?
My family’s company built affordable housing, and my parents felt very strongly that we should give back to communities. That philanthropic way of thinking had a profound effect on me as a child and still does. So for me, Same Sky is not really an effort. It’s just part of who I am.
Some of the featured participants are not employees of U.S. Trust. The opinions and conclusions expressed are not necessarily those of U.S. Trust or its personnel.