When International Sanctuary founder and president Stephanie Pollaro, 38, was a child, she wanted to be a mom when she grew up. “I’ve had 16 teenage girls at any given time in my life to be responsible for,” said Pollaro. Founded in 2007, iSanctuary works to rehabilitate girls and young women in India and the U.S. rescued from human trafficking. The non-profit – in partnership with other organizations – has empowered nearly 300 women with skills to pursue futures free from bondage. iSanctuary’s programs provide medical assistance, education, leadership opportunities, employment, and financial stability. According to the iSanctuary website, there are more than 100,000 sexually exploited people in Mumbai, Asia’s largest sex industry center.
Pollaro, who grew up in Orange County, recalls enjoying her previous job that had utilized her background in counseling and student development in higher education. She first found out about human trafficking in 2003 through an article in a friend’s fashion magazine. “It landed on me like a ton of bricks. Once I learned about what was happening in India, I had to do something. I was responsible.” Two weeks later, Pollaro found out about an opportunity to serve for two weeks in India with her church and immediately signed up. “It’s been a roller coaster ride ever since.”
After two short trips to India and one year volunteering with an Indian non-governmental organization, Pollaro saw a need to provide skills training and sustainable employment alternatives for rescued girls. Pollaro set out to find out if the girls living in after care homes in Mumbai would be interested to earn income through making jewelry that would appeal to a Western market. The girls were excited to learn how to make jewelry; Pollaro – who had taught herself how to make jewelry as a hobby – was willing to teach them. Pollaro envisioned each girl having her own bank account where earnings could be directly accessed.
Pollaro says the most difficult part of founding iSanctuary was “getting people to believe we can do it.” She was faced initially with the distrust of the girls she was trying to help and the mentality that foreigners will ultimately leave and never return.
“You can’t make promises to these girls you can’t keep. You can’t run this business in your comfortable home in America. You have to be here on the ground and make things happen. My advice for those who want to start something in a foreign country is, don’t do it unless you’re able to give everything you can possibly give and then more. The best of intentions can cause a lot of hurt,” said Pollaro.
Pollaro moved to Mumbai a year before founding iSanctuary in 2007 with co-founder Wendy Dailey. Dailey, whom Pollaro met during her second short trip to India, oversees iSanctuary’s U.S. operations. “I had no intention to spend the last eight years in India,” said Pollaro. “Once I heard the need, I couldn’t say no to it. You have to be willing to give up everything – the chance at having a normal life, family, and marriage.”
The best part of Pollaro’s job has been doing life with her girls in Mumbai. “There’s always a lot of crying and reprimanding in loving ways. Taking a hard situation and making it enjoyable is something I feel really makes a difference. I love helping women see that they can be more than what they think they can be.”
Since March, Pollaro has transitioned to iSanctuary’s Irvine office full time to allow the Mumbai team to take the lead on the ground. A typical day in the Irvine and Mumbai offices similarly deal with troubleshooting and ensuring both teams are on the same page. “The only thing I don’t get to do is sit with the Mumbai girls and come up with designs. That part I do miss,” said Pollaro.
On what success looks like, Pollaro repeats the advice a stranger had given her six years ago: “You have to measure tiny increments of success.”
Recently, iSanctuary hosted a wedding in Mumbai for one of its women. “One of our ladies told me that this was just like a real wedding. To me, that felt like a real success. I was able to meet their expectations for what normal is, and do it within our organization so we were able to bring dignity and joy, and not have any inkling of exploitation.”
iSanctuary has given over $120,000 in the form of paychecks to the women it employs. Employees in India are paid more than double the fair trade wage. “It was always my goal to be a self-funded non-profit. 70 percent of revenue comes from jewelry sales. We still can’t do everything we want to do. We need to make up the deficit with donations. We’re hoping to get some grants in the future,” said Pollaro.
Other future plans include providing high quality education for iSanctuary’s women. “They don’t have a concept of returning to school at an older age. We’ll have to do a lot of fundraising for that. We have some things to work through, so that we won’t break promises.”
Pollaro’s top recommended resources for startups:
- Materials by Patrick Lencioni to keep your business focused and organized
- StrengthsFinder for team building
- Get a mentor or consultant to bounce ideas with, look from an outside perspective, and be critical so you can improve your business.