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Social Impact | November 12, 2012

Brave business model

Work

Young entrepreneurs are bypassing charity and using business to help solve social problems

The Brave Collection bracelets (Photo via Facebook)

Jessica Hendricks solemnly rode through the abused roads of Cambodia, gazing out the windows of the cramped "tuk tuk" at ornate Buddhist temples and blossoming fruit trees. Outside restaurants, lines of women painted with makeup waited to be sold for the evening. As she rode past the lines, Hendricks knew she wanted to do something to help the women. Only later did she realize business would become the catalyst for change.

Young professionals like Hendricks are discovering new passions in social causes too poignant to ignore, turning to innovative business models to raise awareness and create opportunity for those in need. It's called social entrepreneurship, and it's the model that Hendricks pursued to support victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

According to Ashoka, an organization and fellowship program that supports social entrepreneurship efforts, the number of socially-minded businesses and individuals is rapidly increasing. While business sector entrepreneurs develop innovations in industry, social entrepreneurs create solutions for society's problems.

As a former drama student at New York University, Hendricks spent nearly 30 hours a week practicing stage movement, voice and storytelling techniques. She wanted to become a professional actress. But those dreams shifted when Hendricks became frustrated with the limits of her education.

"As much as I loved my education, I felt like I wasn't really learning all there was to learn about the world," she said. "My whole world felt very New York-focused."

She ventured to Thailand to teach English the summer after her sophomore year at NYU, in 2008. Taking a few days to visit the Cambodian temples, Hendricks quickly became enraptured with the country's "very strange synthesis" of physical beauty and desperate poverty in the wake of a genocide. She could not shake the haunting images of the trafficked girls lined up on the street.

Returning home, Hendricks read everything she could find on Cambodia's thriving sex trafficking industry and started conversations about the issue with nearly everyone she met. Discouraged by the lack of response, she realized that the information was "too harsh" and caused people to recoil, rather than talk openly.

Needing a creative way to get conversation flowing, Hendricks developed the concept of a bracelet, which could be crafted in Cambodia with local materials and sold in the United States to raise awareness and support for the issue. After graduating from NYU in 2010, she returned to Cambodia by herself to meet with sex trafficking survivors and local artisans to discuss materials and design.

Hendricks launched The Brave Collection's line of bracelets in February of this year. All the bracelets say "Klahan," which means "brave" in Khmer, Cambodia's native language. The word never held much weight in Hendricks' life before her travels, but it's the most fitting description for both the victims and her newly founded organization, she said. The victims' resiliency inspires Hendricks not to let minor inconveniences throughout the day "shatter" her world.

Rather than make The Brave Collection a nonprofit organization, Hendricks chose the social entrepreneurship model. While her company is not a charity, it does donate 10 percent of its profits to various nonprofit organizations. Hendricks wanted the effort to be self-sustaining, without relying on donors and fundraising campaigns. It's also intended to benefit the Cambodian economy, where exploited women learn the trades of sewing and metalsmithing and artisans can be successful selling a marketable product. But most importantly, the bracelets provide a platform to talk about the issue of sex trafficking.

Many, if not most, of the organizations that work to combat sex trafficking are affiliated with religious groups. Hendricks identifies with a particular faith. But she declined to be more specific about her beliefs because she wants to keep the business separate, in order for Brave to create its own unique brand in the fashion arena.

The social entrepreneurship model struck a chord with Gill Singer, a senior at McGill University in Montreal who interns with The Brave Collection. The fact that self-sustaining businesses consist of more than charity donations is "very dignifying" for the people that they serve, she said. And the model seems to be particularly popular with college students and younger professionals, who are more socially conscious and educated about global issues than ever before, Singer said.

Hendricks knows she's taking a risk in starting her business. She describes herself as a dreamer who rarely thinks on a small scale. And she's willing to do what she can now, knowing her life might look very different in a few years.

In many ways, Hendricks feels like she's back to storytelling. Recounting the stories of women who escaped from sex slavery, as well as those still enduring it, has become her career. But that doesn't mean she's completely given up on acting: "I think if I've learned anything, it's that you don't know where you'll be in five years. Maybe I'll be in a movie next year," she said, laughing.

Hendricks encourages all college students to travel internationally and seek adventure. While it's easy to be consumed in the college culture, she urges students to be open to new possibilities and interests, as she knows that radical shifts can happen.

"Don't be so sure you know exactly who you are because you've had a few years of college," she said. "Let's hope there's more to discover."