Blythe Hill is the CEO and Founder of the Dressember Foundation, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization that engages women and men in the fight to end modern-day slavery. Through their annual campaign, thousands of people across six continents commit to wearing dresses or bow ties for the month of December as a way to bring awareness and raise funding for anti-trafficking work. In six years, Dressember advocates have raised $7.5MM USD. Dressember has received press attention from the likes of Forbes, Glamour, InStyle, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, the TODAY Show, Relevant, among others. Originally hailing from Seattle, Blythe now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their dog, Friday. She loves a good red wine, a good cheese and, clearly, a good pun.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- How Blythe started Dressember as a style challenge…and then connected a cause.
- Why human trafficking isn’t just a problem overseas.
- Why human trafficking captured Blythe’s heart.
- The growing pains that Blythe experienced as a volunteer and then a part-time CEO.
- How Dressember collaborates to design, market, and sell their own dresses.
- How you can get involved in Dressember’s efforts to end human trafficking.
Connect with Dressember:
- 2nd Annual ‘You Can Do Anything in a Dress or Tie’ 5k Run
Connect with Blythe Hill:
In Plain Sight Resources:
- In Plain Sight: Stories of Hope and Freedom (documentary) produced/directed by David Trotter
- In Plain Sight: 31 Day Devotional & Small Group Study Guide by Stacia Freeman and David Trotter
- Start Something to End Trafficking: A Practical Guide to Help You Start a Project, Event, Campaign, or Organization by David Trotter
- Heroes of Hope: Intimate Conversations with Six Abolitionists and the Sex Trafficking Survivors They Serve by David Trotter
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Blythe, thank you so much for taking time to hang with me today.
I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Tell me first of all, how did you become aware of the issue of human trafficking? Tell me the story of how that came to light in your world view.
I was in college and I think I was about 19 years old the first time I heard about human trafficking. I stumbled on an article about the sex trafficking industry in India and I was just horrified. I had no idea that something like that was happening and that slavery was still happening. I had no idea that it was happening in this form and it started to stir something inside me that I had never felt before. I just had this immediate sense of urgency to do something about it. Just this sense of horror and incredulity that this was happening.
So, you began by reading about the issue in India? I’ve been to India nine times now and I’ve actually stood in a red light area. I’ve hung out with the pimp – the owner. We took our kids in 2009 for Christmas for two weeks. There is a relationship with the organization that we travel there and I have this really weird picture of my son who was five or six at the time, standing with the pimp in the red light area. It’s this beautiful picture and yet this really weird, sad picture at the same time.
So, you read about this article and what did that begin to do in you? What was the next step for you?
I immediately started looking for a way to personally engage in the issue and I started getting really frustrated. I felt like in order to significantly engage in this issue, I would have to totally re-route my career path and I have to become a lawyer, a psychologist or move to India and get into social work or law enforcement and criminal justice. I thought about it a lot, that’s how strongly I felt. I thought, “Maybe I should re-route towards one of those pathways,” but I never really settled in that and none of those paths felt true to how I am and how I’m wired.
It was tough because the things that I naturally enjoy, started to feel kind of shallow in the grand scheme of things. When I compared them, it was like fashion, blogging and writing; it just didn’t seem possible to connect those dots. For years I felt that tension of feeling so passionate about something and yet so powerless to do anything about it.
It’s such a big issue.
Yeah, it’s huge and it’s really overwhelming. It is hard not to feel despair when you hear the stories and the statistics. Just the sheer number of people and the systemic issues beneath the issues; misogyny, racism, poverty and political and judicial abuse and corruption. There’s just so many complexities behind it as well.
Anything else starts to feel like a band-aid a little bit. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I totally resonate with that. I saw it in China firsthand on a business trip, actually. We were sourcing some fabrics for a plush toy manufacturing company that I was involved in and they took us down to a basement of a hotel and they said it was a karaoke club. We walked in and it was this big living room type room with this big round couch. I was there with a business partner and there were a number of business people that were taking us there. They had all this alcohol and I’m not a big drinker myself, so I told them I didn’t want any. And then, all of a sudden, they brought in this group of about 20 young women that were beautifully dressed in these Chinese dresses. They looked at both of us and asked, “Which one would you like?” I was shocked. I was confused. It’s like my mind was not making the connection. “I thought this was karaoke,” – which I’m not into karaoke either, but I said, “No, no, no. I’m fine,” but still my mind is spinning.
Then they looked at me and said, “Are you sure? How about this one? How about this one?” And I’m like, “No, no, no. I’m fine.” I started to ascertain that these girls would just kind of hang out with you for the evening while you were doing karaoke and after that I’m assuming that something else was supposed to happen. After I refused again, they looked at me and said, “Oh, we know what you want. You want a boy.” They all started laughing at me and now I’m in a room full of business people that are laughing at me because I’m not partaking in whatever they were. My mind was blown away by this. After that experience I began to hear about it in the United States as well, and that’s when my mind really opened up.
So, here you are, you’re writing, you’re into fashion and there’s this passion for you there and then there’s this issue of trafficking that you’re learning about. Tell me about this style challenge you came up with to wear a dress. Because as I understand the story, this was separate from the issue of trafficking in the beginning, is that correct?
Yeah, on totally different wavelength, I was still in college and I was an English major. I was just buried in books and feeling a bit bogged down by the academic routine of it all and I’m someone who likes to craft and bake. I like to make things with my hands and I just had no time for any of that. It’s like therapy for me to get to make something.
Where did you go to college by the way?
I went to Cal State Fullerton and I just had this idea, “Well, I have to get dressed every day, so maybe that is where I can add some creativity to my day.” I came up with the idea to try wearing a dress every day for a month. My first idea was actually to wear a scarf every day for a month. I love puns, so I was thinking, “Scarftember”, but it is way too hot in Southern California in September to wear a scarf every day. So, the next idea was dresses and it happened to be November that I had the idea. So, the next full month was December and I told my boyfriend, “Okay, I’m going to wear only dresses for the month of December,” and then I came up with the name “Dressember”. And was like, “Okay, now I have to do it. I love that name.” But at this time, it was just going to be a one-time thing. So, I wore a different dress every day in December.
You already had 31 dresses?
Yeah, I’ve always loved dresses. It’s an entire outfit in one piece of clothing. So, I did it and I never planned on doing it again. Then the next year some of my girlfriends wanted to do it with me. So, I thought, “Sure,” they must be bored too, “Let’s do this.” Then the year after that, their girlfriends wanted to join in too. At this point I started thinking there might be something to this. I was thinking, people like this and it’s not just my friends humoring me. It was people who don’t even know me and they are wanting to be a part of this.
I joke that I have a lot of bad ideas that never get that far, so I knew how to recognize a good one. That’s really when I started thinking it was time to add a heart to it – to add a cause and a campaign element, but I was still pretty dubious about it. I kept thinking no one would donate because we’re just getting dressed. It wasn’t like we were running marathons.
It took another couple of years to really get it together and go out on a limb and try it. But when I was thinking about what cause to align with, it was a no-brainer for me. I thought that maybe I could finally use this as my way to engage in the fight against human trafficking and maybe raise a little bit of money and awareness to the issue as well. I still felt that it could look really silly and I was worried people wouldn’t donate, but 2013 was the first year that it became a campaign and I set a goal for us to raise $25,000. I thought, “Let’s just shoot for the moon,” it was ambitious and also a bit scary, but I thought even if we came close it would be good. We hit that $25,000 in three days and eventually we raised $165,000 that first month. That’s when I realized that this was a much better idea then I ever thought. I applied for a 501(c)(3) and that was granted about nine months later and it’s just been snowballing ever since. We just wrapped our sixth campaign year and we had roughly 8,000 men and women register to wear dresses or ties during the month of December and we raised $2.4 million this last campaign season.
In the last six years of Dressember, we’ve raised about $7.5 million and expanded to support twelve different anti-trafficking organizations across the U.S. and the world. It’s just been the most incredible adventure I’ve ever been on. It’s just amazing to be able to bridge these two things that felt so disconnected. With fashion and wordplay and then engaging in the fight against human trafficking and creating that pathway between the two. Not just for myself, but for so many other people who have been feeling the same way. For those who want to do something about it, but who maybe don’t have the money or time to give. We can’t all be investigators and lawyers, so it’s just really amazing to have built this community of everyday advocates who have a high level of passion about this issue.
There’s so many issues that are in the world that you could have been captured by, or something that you could have connected to the idea of fashion. What it is about this particular issue that grabbed you, versus something else?
It took me awhile to make the connection to why I felt so passionate about it. I took it for granted for several years actually. I thought this was just something that everyone was outraged by. And thought, if people knew about it, they would be horrified and they would feel the level of urgency and passion that I felt. I think everyone has their own reasons for feeling passionate about this or any given issue, but I really universalized the feeling that I was having.
It was a couple of years into this journey before I made the connection to why this fire had started inside me and why the fire continued to burn. I realized that it was because of my own experience of sexual abuse as a little girl. I was about four years old the first time I was molested and for years I carried the responsibility of that experience. I carried this tremendous shame and doubt about my own worth and lovability. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began to process the experience and let it go. I was able to free myself from it somehow being my fault or somehow making me less valuable than anyone else.
So, I guess it was because I had experienced what sexual abuse can do to a person and that’s why it continues to fire me up. Knowing that millions upon millions of women and girls of all ages are exploited repeated, habitually and violently for the profit of another person. It just tears me up and that’s what keeps me in the fight. Like any job, it’s work and there are things that I love about it and there are things that I don’t love about it, but it really separates from any other jobs I’ve had in the past. I don’t see myself burning out anytime soon, at least on the mission behind it and that really keeps me going and keeps me fighting.
I’ve interviewed multiple survivors of trafficking and as we’re talking, one particular woman comes to mind in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was at a rehabilitation home and through tears she’s saying to me, “I finally feel safe. I finally feel like I can go into my room and nobody is going to come into my room. I can close the door and it’s a safe place and there’s no sense of fear.” That sense of safety is something that so many people take for granted. We want that sense of safety. So, I love that motivation and how you’ve turned something so tragic and so painful and have created motivation out of it. It’s so beautiful.
I don’t know how it’s possible, but there may be people who are thinking, “Is this really an issue? Aren’t these women choosing this?” One particular example that’s current right now in the news is of an NFL owner who was arrested for going to a day spa in Florida and unbeknownst to him, there was a human trafficking bust. The investigation had probably been going on long term, but for those who don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes here in the United States, help people understand how trafficking works. How is it that girls or woman could be participating in a day spa against her volition? Isn’t she there because she wants to be?
Unfortunately, that’s not a unique case. It’s a standout case because it was the NFL owner, but in that case the women who were being trafficked were from another country; I think it was China or somewhere in Asia that they were trafficked from. They had presumably been offered a legitimate job in the U.S. and trusted someone enough who probably paid their way over illegally to come and start a new life.
That’s part of the tragedy, someone is really optimistical and very courageously leaving everything they know to begin what they think is a better life in the U.S. or in another country. What probably happened is the traffickers held all of their documents and since they were probably there illegally, they didn’t feel safe to go to the police out of fear of arrest or deportation. In this case they were forced to live in the day spa and I think that’s how the investigators caught on. There was a report from the health inspection that said it looked like someone was living there because there were beds, clothing, medicine and personal items around.
That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes women or girls are transported between one sort of house where they live, often beyond capacity and then transported to a business where they are forced to work. They’re either told that they’re paying off the debt from their trip over or that they have to pay for their current lodgings. And often they never see any of their money or they’re under-educated or poor individuals, so they don’t maybe even know how to do math. So, they might be exploited just by being told that they owe interest on what they owe. It’s just a cycle of abuse and exploitation, really.
So, whether there was physical violence or not, the strict definition of trafficking could involve physical force, violence or coercion and manipulation. And if someone has control of where you live and they have control of your documents and they have control of your paycheck, you are in a very vulnerable position. And if you’re in a foreign country, you’re going to do what they say regardless of whether they’re physically abusing you or not. There are a number of cases like that; Asian massage parlors.
I think what’s surprising to a lot of people when we talk about trafficking in the U.S., if they are willing to admit that it happens here, is there is still this perception that the people who are trafficked in the U.S. are immigrants or they’re not citizens. The studies are actually showing us that the majority of them, something like 70% of those trafficked in the U.S., are American citizens. There is actually this overlap between the foster care system and trafficking in the U.S. We know that traffickers are not brave, they are opportunists. So usually they go for the low-hanging fruit and they choose the path of least resistance. They ask themselves, “How am I going to be able to profit with the least amount of risk?” So, they know to prey on girls in the foster care system because these girls don’t have families who are advocating for them. They don’t have families who are going to pressure the police to find them if they go missing. They can easily swoop in and fulfill this father/boyfriend role in a girl’s life. They will shower her with attention and gifts and offer her a warped sense of love and belonging that she’s always craved.
It’s this really insidious and incredibly emotionally manipulative relationship. The girl might even think she’s in love with her pimp – her trafficker. It’s a very unhealthy relationship, but it’s better than what she’s experienced in the past and it’s also more consistent than anything she’s experienced before. There’s also a number of women who are trafficked, who are not able to self-identify as trafficking victims because we as a larger society don’t identify them as victims of trafficking. We identify them as prostitutes and we think, “No, they’re choosing this. Sure, they’re in an unhealthy relationship, but they have chosen that this is their lifestyle.” And that’s really unfortunate because other studies have shown that a victim of trafficking in the U.S. is much more likely to first self-identify as a victim of domestic violence. It might take them years or even a decade or more before she realizes that she was trafficked and what she experienced was what trafficking looks like in the U.S. I think the more that we can kind of change those misconceptions around trafficking and what it looks like in the U.S., the quicker we’ll be able to change the course of some women and girls’ lives. When the chains are invisible and they’re emotional, you’ll see it in cases of domestic violence, you can look at a situation from the outside and think, “Well, why doesn’t she just leave him?” And maybe she does try to leave him. She might leave him two or three times before she’s able to finally actually leave him. That’s similar in a case of trafficking too, the rates of re-entry are really high because she thinks that she loves him and maybe she has a child with him or she doesn’t feel she has any marketable skills. She gets used to a certain lifestyle or maybe she has a criminal record. Some traffickers intentionally force their victims to commit crimes so that they have that to hold that over them. They tell them, “You can’t go to the police. What are you going to do with a criminal record?” There’s a lot of layers to it.
I just can’t even imagine, of being so stuck. So stuck that you don’t even have options and that sense of powerlessness. From my understanding, there’s such a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse in order to cope with that feeling of being stuck and to help cope with what they’re being asked to do. So now the pimp’s holding drugs in front of them and saying, “Well, I’m your source.”
It’s so very complicated and that’s what can make it feel so overwhelming for people. “Where do I go? What do I do? How do I help?” That’s really one of the things that I love about what you’re doing. You’re partnering with existing organizations that are doing great work. It’s unbelieve that in five years you’ve gone from $165,000 in one December – one Dressember, to $2.4 million just this past December. Tell me about the organizations that benefit from this work. How do you choose the organizations? What do the organizations do? How are those organizations on the front lines helping?
We currently have twelve grant partners, two are international and ten are domestic and they are spread all across the U.S. We started with one international partner; International Justice Mission, back in 2013 and then slowly began adding more. This last year we were able to add a number of domestic partners. We added our first domestic partner in 2016 and then we added nine more within the last year, so that was a big round for us. We were getting feedback from our fundraisers that this wasn’t just an issue that’s happening across the world, it’s happening here in the U.S. and people were telling us that they wanted to have an impact locally as well as internationally. It was really cool to get that pressure from our fundraisers. To know that it’s so great that we’re having an impact across the world, but they cared about our backyards as well.
That really lead us to expanding partnerships. But then our strategy behind which organizations to partner with; we really wanted to support prevention projects. We have a number of partners who do everything from foster care advocacy way up stream who are supporting kids transitioning out of foster care to ideally prevent that entry point ever from happening.
Another partner that we work with; I had heard this statistic that the average survivor of trafficking could have had an intervention seven times before they actually were rescued. So, one of the partners that we support is an organization called BEST; Businesses Against Slavery and Trafficking. What they do is they train hospitality industry workers to recognize trafficking in hotels across the U.S., and how to safely partner with police to intervene. We hope to expand that strategy with other organizations also.
There are organizations that train flight attendants. There are organizations that train truckers or medical workers. There are these common frontline positions that interact with survivors and may not even know it. In fact, when BEST conducts their trainings, they survey people at the beginning of the training and everyone says they’ve never seen trafficking before. And then after they learn what trafficking actually looks like, at the end of it they take a survey again and there’s this realization of, “Oh, actually I have seen this.” They kind of beat themselves up about and they feel terrible, thinking that they could have done something but didn’t know about it. But they ultimately walk away empowered enough to know that now they can do something about it.
We also partner with an organization called THORN and they are based in the bay area. They’re using technology in a really cool way, to scan basically the entire internet to find kids that are being cyber trafficked as well as tracking traffickers themselves. They’ve been able to give all of that information to police for free and that’s lead to the rescue of something like 5,000 children in the last few years and a number of convictions. Our goal is really to find and partner with organizations that are strategically dismantling trafficking from every angle. It is such a profitable industry but it’s also such a shrewd and cunning and manipulative industry. We have to be able to essentially, outsmart the traffickers and make it more risky for them then it is rewarding.
A number of our listeners are in transition, whether they’re trying to figure out their next step in life or maybe their kids are in elementary school and they’re thinking, “Okay, I want to do something. I want to start an organization,” or they want to start a project or raise money and you started something and didn’t do that fulltime for quite some time.
For somebody who’s trying to figure out if they’re supposed to – maybe it’s this divine calling or feeling of, “Am I supposed to do something?” How do you know? How could they know if they’re supposed to start a project or an organization whether it’s about trafficking or not? How did you process through that?
It all happened so organically for me. I didn’t set out to start a non-profit. I really thought I was just doing a one-time fundraiser. I approached it with curiosity and I think that’s not a bad strategy. If there’s something that you’re interested in or passionate about, if you can find a way to use what you have just to see if it’s something worthwhile at first. Could this make an impact? Big, small, locally or internationally?” And then find others who are on the same wavelength. I really, really believe in the power of collaboration. I think nothing happens alone and certainly I alone am not going to solve this issue. Dressember alone is not going to solve this issue. I think Dressember clearly reflects that collaborative spirit of. We are all in this together. It’s going to take us all to solve this huge injustice.
So, finding other people and other organizations that you can join alongside. I think that is much more needed than just starting your own thing. That’s just my personal opinion. I didn’t really have the language at the time, but Dressember functions like a foundation or a grant making organization and we support existing boots on the ground efforts. Now that I see how hard it is to do what we do, it’s amazing to me that any non-profit does both the fundraising and development and programmatic work. Both are incredibly taxing and really hard for their own reasons. So that’s why I think finding a way to partner up with and support others who are on that same wavelength is the best place to start. Certainly, no organization is going to be upset about someone trying to raise money for them. I think you’ll be a fast favourite of an organization if they see you doing something really creative or cool to raise money or awareness for what they’re doing and then you get to have this really mutually grateful relationship with an organization. They are of course grateful for you and using your voice and your creativity to help them and you are grateful for the chance to get to support work that you believe in a meaningful way.
As you were starting Dressember, what were some of the growth pains of leading a non-profit for the first time? You were writing, you were focused on fashion and then you were doing it as a volunteer and then part-time. I can’t even imagine the growth pains that went through that process. What are some of the more challenging things and what were the learnings through that process for you?
Tt was a steep growth curve. Surprisingly not so much in the volunteer CEO days as it was still growing because it was very seasonal. I was able to manage working on Dressember at nights and on weekends and lunchbreaks and I would just start working on it months and months in advance. But when I was able to transition to part-time, that was amazing, but I also felt more pressure from my board of directors and also from myself. I felt like I was juggling more things because I was splitting my time even more. The organization was really at a point where I needed to go on fulltime, but we didn’t have the resources for me to do that yet. So, I was a part-time CEO for about a year and a half and then I was able to come on fulltime.
For me, some of the challenges included the fact that I’d never seen myself as a leader before. In fact, a couple years ago I was at this leadership conference and one of the speakers asked us to think back to the first time we were called out as a leader, so we could go back and thank that person. I really racked my brain and I just couldn’t think of the first time it happened for me. I don’t know that I was ever sort of recognized or groomed to be a leader and I don’t know if that’s because I’m a female or maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four children and just grew up a natural follower. I did always see myself as a great side-kick and someone who could play a second fiddle role. So as Dressember was growing, I just was suddenly plopped into this leadership role and really had to grow into it. I read a ton of leadership business books, most of which were pretty bad in my opinion. But some of which were good as well.
Has there been a particular book that’s been most helpful for you?
I don’t know if this would even count as a leadership book, but I was late in the game on reading Lean In. But when I read Lean In, I was like, “This feels really applicable and really helpful.” It also helped me think in advance about what benefits I hoped to be able to offer, which is ultimately becoming a majority female staff. So, I really liked that one. I also just recently read How Women Rise, which is co-authored by the guy who wrote What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. He even acknowledges in the book, the things that hold men back in business are different then the things that hold women back. So, in What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, I guess one of the things in that book is anger and anger doesn’t tend to hold women back in business, because there are other factors at work.
You don’t seem very angry.
There are things that anger me, but I certainly handle it in a way that is different than maybe most men might, I don’t know. That was refreshing to read thought, and it was really helpful. It kind of gave me a little bit of insight to maybe why a lot of those other leadership books didn’t do much for me. Maybe I just couldn’t relate to many of them, but growing into a leader is an ongoing journey. It’s been challenging. It’s been exciting. It’s been an adventure. And then leading this larger community of fundraisers, but also leading this small team of people who are day to day operations; I’ve had bosses that I loved and I’ve had bosses that were really difficult. I’ve just been determined to be a good boss, but that was another growth curve for me. I had never managed anyone at all, ever. So, I just started reading a lot of books about team leadership. I started reading a lot of those like Tribal Leadership and Essentialism. All these different leadership books trying to learn and that’s when I formed my advisory board. Through them, I’m able to really understand and learn from individual mentors about what makes a great leader and what makes a sustainable leader and what makes a sustainable team.
Tell us about. What is your advisory board? How did you put that together? How does that help you?
My board of directors is more like the governing group, we meet quarterly to talk about the budget. We talk about our grants and our strategy and our mission overall. And then the advisory board what I wish the board of directors was. I would much rather be on an advisory board than a board of directors, I think. It’s higher level. It’s one on one. It’s more of a as needed, rather than a quarterly responsibility.
So, you went to these individuals and said, “Would you be on my advisory board?” I assume this is more informal rather than a formal advisory for the organization?
Yeah, exactly. We do have kind of a one-pager of what the relationship generally looks like, but it’s much more informal and it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I always tell people when I’m telling them about or inviting them onto the advisory board that, “I’m not asking you to make any commitment beyond what you’re able to make. But the whole idea is having access to you and your insight.” This also leaves me the opportunity to vet them as a potential board member if that’s a thing that they’re interested in and able to commit to. Usually someone on the advisory board is a little too busy or maybe already serving on a number of other directory boards.
I try to pursue people who kind of are experts in their own fields, so that whatever situation or issue I’m up against, I might reach out to a different one. I have a couple people who work in social impact fashion. I talk with them and they’re several years down the road in their business. And then I have someone who was the executive director of a large non-profit for 15 years, so he’s been a great resource particularly for board management and recruitment – board wrangling, as I sometimes joke. He’s been great for a lot of other things as well. I’m trying to convince someone to be on the advisory board who is kind of a non-profit development guru. Really it depends on the season I’m in and what I feel is most needed and where I need to next level up.
That’s seems like something we could all do in our own lives, whether we have a business or not. I think a lot of us probably have that informally just through friends or a network, but rather than formalizing it, informalize it and say, “Hey, if I ever have questions, can I reach out to you?” That’s really great.
Yeah, it is like mentorship, but I think even using the word “mentorship” can formalize something needlessly or make someone stiffen up. Really, it’s just that I want to learn from you and talk to you.
Back to Dressember, I notice you’re selling dresses on your website, how did that come about?
We launched our first Dressember dress back in 2014 or ’15 and that initially came about because it became apparent very quickly, the overlap between the fashion industry and labor trafficking. There was someone who on Twitter that made the observation or recommendation that there could be an unfortunate irony to our campaign. If we’re encouraging everyone to wear dresses, most of them are wearing these fast-fashion massed produced dresses. So, inadvertently we’re supporting trafficking through our anti-trafficking efforts. That really hit me and I took it to heart. We immediately began finding and promoting brands that have clean production and ethical production.
One brand reached out to us and wanted to partner with us, called Elegantees. They have a sewing center in Nepal just outside of Katmandu and they employee female survivors of trafficking. They have their own brand and it was just this dream partnership. It was a dream because they came to us and said, “We’ll handle production and fulfilment and you can handle the design side and marketing. We’ll just share the profits in a way that’s sustainable for the fare wages that we’re paying our women and we’re able to contribute to what you’re doing as well.”
So, we started with them with one dress and then we bumped up to three dresses and then five and last year we had eight. It’s looking like we’ll have eight or nine this coming year as well. I think we did one dress the first year and then three dresses the next year, and I designed all of those. After that three dress year, I was like, “I’m out of ideas. I don’t know what other dresses I can design.” So, I asked four or five women to be guest designers for our collection and that was our best selling collection yet. We had these amazing powerhouse women who helped promote these dresses in addition to the promotion we were already doing. So last year we did the same thing with eight styles and we’ll do it again with eight or nine this coming fall.
It’s been really amazing because we’ve been able to educate on that overlap. The reality of labor trafficking the garment industry and helping people to think twice about buying a dress for $10. Is that really possible? Who’s really taking on the true cost of that? And then offering them an ethical alternative that’s not crazy expensive and it’s still stylish and cute and designed by an awesome woman and supporting a survivor or group of survivors.
There’s actually a waiting list of over 500 women who want to work in this sewing center. So, our hope is we can create enough demand to help bring in some of those women. We actually already have brought some in, but the dream is to eliminate that waiting list and bring them all in and really kind of shift the demand. Even in the last couple of years, I’ve seen such an amazing shift and people are starting to become more concerned about how their clothes are made. Who they’re made by and how that person is treated. It seems to me that people are more willing to pay a little more for something where they can feel confident that no one was exploited in order to make it.
I noticed there were no ties for sale on the website.
I know, I’ve been trying for the last couple of years to find a tie partner and it’s always fallen through for one reason or another. I have my eye on another one for this coming campaign season, but I’m hesitant to say it will happen because it’s been two years now that it’s fallen through with different brands. But we’ll see. I’m hopeful. I’m excited about this one too. And we actually have a couple guys who I would like to work with as guest designers on the tie side, so fingers crossed that will pan out.
Take me four or five years out from now and tell me what does Dressember look like? What’s happening? What are your dreams? You’re already making dresses, what the heck?
What’s crazy is we’re coming up on 2020 and our original vision was to raise $10 million by then and we’re on track to do that, which is nuts. When I look forward another four or five to ten years, I think it’s really just continuing to expand our reach and our community of fundraisers who we call our advocates. And continuing to partner with and collaborate with organizations that are dismantling trafficking. I would also love to find a way to better encourage collaboration among those partners. There is already is a lot of collaboration, a lot of knowledge sharing, but I’d love to help facilitate that even more.
So, one thing I’d love to do eventually is launch a Dressember conference of sorts. Like a summit to bring together our supporters and advocates and experts from these different organizations around the world, so we can knowledge share and workshop. To help spread accurate information and real stories of what’s currently happening and the progress we’re making. To share the hope that there is around this issue and the systemic change that’s starting to happen around righting those systemic wrongs.
Even a country like India in the last two years, there’s really been a massive shift. Two or three years ago, India as a nation would not acknowledge that they had any slaves. And of course, we know from statistics that half the world’s slaves live in India. So, they’re now acknowledging it and beginning to do something about it and making more robust laws around bonded labor and sex trafficking, survivor rights and protections and repatriation. It’s really exciting to see that happening. So, just full steam ahead. Every year I update my three year strategic plan, so that’s about as far out as I usually think.
We’ve talked about so many depressing things in this conversation, but you’re so right. There are so many good things that are happening and so much progress is being made. Each one of those organizations that you’re partnering with and literally hundreds more in the United States and around the world are doing their part. Some bigger, some smaller, but great things are happening. Whether it’s prevention or rehabilitation, restoration, judicial issues, legal issues. There’s just so many great things that are happening as more and more people are becoming aware of this issue.
I want to draw attention to your 5K run that’s happening just days from now, that’s happening on April 13th, 2019. And this name is quite a name for an event, it’s called ‘You Can Do Anything in a Dress or Tie 5K’. I know the event itself is happening in the Los Angeles area, but I’ve seen how people can get involved no matter where they live. So, tell us about this event. This is your second one, how can people get involved? What would you ask them to do?
We are having our main event in Los Angeles at Griffith Park on April 13th, which is a Saturday, but we are also having a number of locally organized events. Last year, without really pushing or having much of an effort to push remote events, we had about 11 cities across the U.S., that had remotely organized events. So, this year we’re actually making an official push and we’re providing a resource packet for event organizers to be able to host an event in their city.
So, if you’re in L.A. or the L.A. area, definitely come to our event. It’s going to be really fun, we’re running a flat course at Griffith Park and then we’re doing a yoga session afterwards, sponsored by Athleta. If you’re not in L.A., there is a team page on our website and all our teams are named after the city that they’re located in. So, if you have trouble finding your city listed there, you can email our team: firstname.lastname@example.org because either you’re not finding it or because it doesn’t exist yet and maybe you are the one we’ve been looking for to start a race in your city.
It’s really much easier than it might sound. It’s literally plotting a 3.1 mile loop somewhere and recruiting a few friends or family or co-workers to put on a dress or a tie and walk or run the route with you. In addition to the digital resource guide, we are putting together physical kits for our remote runners that will include a bib, a water bottle, a headband and some other fun stuff as well, to really make you feel a little more involved.
That 3.1 mile loop can be at a park, it doesn’t have to be on a street. It could be at park, at a school – a high school, an elementary school, a university?
Absolutely. Yeah, a park would be perfect because you don’t have to deal with crosswalks and waiting and cars and everything.
We’re raising money for an organization here in Los Angeles called CAST, which is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. They’ve been around for 20 plus years and they are doing amazing work both here in L.A. and also across the U.S. In terms of survivor advocacy, they work directly with emergency immediate response and safe housing. But then also on the judicial side, they do a number of things in terms of legal advocacy for survivors. Anything from direct court representation, case management, all the way to policy change. We talked about survivors having a criminal record and then that preventing them from being able to truly move forward in their lives, so what CAST does is advocate for changes in the law, like expunging certain criminal records for survivors or someone who was trafficked in the U.S., helping them to be able to obtain a T visa or ultimately citizenship. So really the full spectrum of restoration.
Great, so this second annual 5K, people can go to your website www.dressember.org and sign up for April 13th, 2019. You can host one in your own area.
I’ve got to ask you, because I don’t mind asking awkward questions, you’re either rubbing your leg intensely or your dog…
My dog, I’m sorry.
Come on, introduce us. Oh, my goodness, so cute.
This is Friday. Say “Hi”, Friday.
So beautiful, Friday’s got his or her own Instagram, am I right?
She does, it was initially my idea and my husband upkeeps it because we’re shamelessly obsessed with our dog. She’s @yogirlfriday on Instagram.
Yogirlfriday, she’s got some big eyes. Just look at her.
Yeah, she still really looks like a puppy even though she’s two. Which means she gets away with a lot of bad behavior.
Dogs are awesome. We have a half Doxen, half Terrier and she’s a twelve year old rescue. She’s so awesome, her Instagram is @lexingtontrotter if you ever want to check it out.
Cool, okay. I will.
Blythe, thank you so much for taking time to educate us. We’re very excited about what you’re doing. I’m going to encourage people to be there. I’m going to see if my family can be out there on April 13th. We don’t live too far away, we’re in Orange County. So, I’d love to come out and support you guys. So, thank you so much.
Thanks David. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to be on your show.