Same Sky’s luxe beaded jewelry gives a hand up to women in need across the globe.

What started out as a career “failure” for former movie producer Francine LeFrak has turned into a success story for hundreds of struggling women around the globe working for her fair-trade jewelry company Same Sky.

It all started with LeFrak’s trip to Rwanda to scout locations for a movie about the country’s 1994 genocide, which was scrapped in 2004 when the film “Hotel Rwanda” was released. Back in New York, LeFrak still couldn’t get the women victims out of her head. Over a quarter of a million women were raped by Hutu soldiers during a 100-day period in 1994, and 70 percent became infected with HIV.

“They were just waiting to die,” she remarks. “They were so poor they couldn’t afford transportation to get their medication. … They were so poor they didn’t have consistent food to eat.”

Unwilling to just donate money that might not make it to the right people, she began researching the idea of setting up a jewelry business to market the beautiful beaded jewelry from Rwanda that she had received so many compliments on upon her return to New York.

“To me, the greatest philanthropy is to provide a job, not a handout,” she says. Since that time, she has also given a hand up to women at home—those previously incarcerated in New Jersey and struggling to find a fresh start.

Hundreds of thousands of Same Sky beaded necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings have been sold to date, ranging from $15 for a simple beaded bracelet to pricier pieces such as a $795 white sapphire necklace. Sold on the company’s website, in retail trunk shows around the world and by retailers such as Neiman Marcus, the pieces have attracted a celebrity following, with fans including Alicia Keys, Bono, Fergie and Queen Latifah.

The start of something good

LeFrak started Same Sky in 2007 with just four women artisans from Rwanda, providing them with hot meals and transportation so they could get their medication and begin making the crocheted and beaded jewelry they had learned to craft from artist and AIDs activist Mary Fisher.

“It took us about a year to figure out what we were doing,” LeFrak says, but eventually they set up a collective with members who make jewelry from designs developed in New York with high-quality U.S. materials, such as blown-glass beads.

LeFrak explains, “The whole model I worked with is that I needed to pay 15 to 20 times the average wage, or I would never get these women out of poverty.”

LeFrak exploited her showbiz connections and worked to build a market for the meticulously crafted pieces that would command prices high enough to pay a living wage. The company’s original lines of Sky and Hope beaded necklaces, now priced at $350 to $400 each, provide enough pay for an entire year of school for one of the artisan’s children. Its $120 Bond beaded bracelet covers food for a month.

So far, 200 women have joined the Rwandan collective. Their families sleep on mattresses, have bank accounts, have moved out of government housing, and through the collective, can now take in other beading jobs to provide additional income.

“I think as a society, we need to step back and ask the tough questions,” LeFrak reflects. “Who is making the products we are buying and what conditions are they working in?”

All of Same Sky’s profits are funneled back into the company, its employees and materials.

Same Sky, different women

In 2013, LeFrak, in partnership with former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey and Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop, brought the model closer to home, opening a jewelry-making operation at the Most Excellent Way Halfway House, a residence center for women released from Hudson County Jail. It was a full-circle moment for LeFrak, who produced the 1991 HBO documentary “Prison Stories: Women on the Inside” and knew how difficult it was for ex-offenders to start over.

More than 200 women have since been employed by Same Sky in Jersey City, LeFrak reports. And LeFrak’s related Same Sky Foundation has provided micro-grants for interview clothes, apartment application fees, and other expenses to get the women back on their feet—in many cases, allowing them to regain custody of their children.

While the recidivism rate after prison runs as high as 70 percent for female prisoners, none of Same Sky’s ex-offenders have returned to jail, including the shoplifter with eight arrests who went on to successfully manage Same Sky’s kiosk in Newark Airport.

LeFrak is now working to expand Same Sky’s model to aboriginal women in Australia, and the foundation has begun making microloans to women here in the States. “It’s so gratifying to see women transform their lives,” LeFrak says. “I just hope I can work with more.”

Photo credits: Same Sky