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Stephanie Pollaro : iSanctuary

iSanctuary-Stephanie-Pollaro

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.

Connect with iSanctuary via Facebook and Twitter.

Tyler Patterson : Povertees

Povertees-Tyler-Patterson

Long before he became founder and CEO of Povertees, Tyler Patterson, 24, often felt like an outsider. During a high school biology class, his teacher called him out for a good test grade and asked what he did to study. In a high pitched voice from his seat at the back of the classroom, Patterson said, “I took good notes.” A senior football player from the front of the class turned around and yelled, “He hasn’t gone through puberty yet,” as the class burst into laughter. “In retrospect, I find that story to be really funny, but it’s not funny as a socially awkward kid. I have countless stories like that,” said Patterson. Later as a college student, Patterson and a few friends he knew from high school frequently dialogued about what makes life meaningful. “To us that meant community and companionship. We were focused on treating people with respect and making a difficult life a little more bearable,” said Patterson. Povertees – a non-profit that sells clothing to help homeless friends in downtown Los Angeles to get out of the cycle of poverty – began out of these dialogues.

In 2007, Patterson and his friends decided to walk through the streets a few blocks away from Skid Row in downtown LA to pass out food to people. “Fortunately, we met some people who were welcoming and happy to talk to us,” said Patterson. The next day as it rained, they returned to pass out donated jackets and umbrellas to the same people. “We hung out with them for a long time. We still hang out with them.”

The downtown LA visits took place about once a week for several years in the midst of school and other jobs. As Patterson’s group got to know their new friends – about 20 to 30 people – they discovered practical needs they could meet, such as DMV, court, and bus fees, as well as prevalent jay walking tickets. During college at Hope University in Fullerton, Patterson and friend Matt Donahue began to sew t-shirts in their dorm rooms to sell on campus. Donahue, who named the t-shirt endeavor Povertees, had taught Patterson how to sew in high school. The proceeds from t-shirt sales directly helped their friends in downtown LA. Currently, 20 percent of Povertees’ profit goes toward outreach – 10 percent toward caring for provisional needs and 10 percent toward sponsoring a rehabilitation program at The Midnight Mission.

Patterson had what he calls one of several existential crises after he graduated suma cum laude. He questioned his decision to go to graduate school for experimental psychology research. “I was trying to figure out exactly what was going to be the right career for me in terms of my interests and skills and make me not miserable.

It’s a big decision for everyone. A lot of people going to college aren’t ready to make that decision. I was one of them,” said Patterson.

A week before he was to start his graduate program in 2011, Patterson dropped out in order to focus on Povertees full time while earning income through two side jobs. Povertees officially became a non-profit in March 2013. Since then, Patterson and college friend Hughie Hughes – Povertees president – has worked full time alongside volunteers and interns.

“If I were speaking to my younger self, I would ask, ‘Are you willing to receive a minimal salary for difficult work? Are you willing to have a career you can never really escape from psychologically or do you want a job that allows you to go home at night and decompress without thinking about it?’ If I had to answer those again, I know I would end up doing it,” said Patterson.

Patterson envisions Povertees’ mission growing beyond downtown LA. “We’re learning what it means to create a community built upon our premise of life sewn together. That involves working with art community groups, missions, and partner organizations to build a communal aspect into the recovery process. As we expand, we’re looking to other cities for potential Povertees chapters, but we know that each city presents a new context for the issue of homelessness.”

Patterson shares a story about one of Povertees’ formerly homeless friends with whom they frequently spent time. Their friend often returns to the same streets to spend time with those who continue to experience addiction, mental stress, and lack hope. “He truly is so grateful and feels so impacted by the relationship we’ve had. He’s the template for what we want in terms of the idea of creating a cycle of reciprocal giving to fight against the cycle of poverty.” Povertees’ goal is to begin employing formerly homeless people by the end of the year. “It’s definitely a complex issue. We’re not rushing into it. We’re trying to make sure we’re informed,” said Patterson.

A few pieces of key advice Patterson shared:

• Ask for the opinion and expertise of other companies and organizations that are ahead of you in terms of business development. Use your humble position to your advantage. Make it your strength rather than your weakness.

• On cultivating great communication with team members: Communicate both the positive and negative aspects of the way you’re feeling or the jobs you’re doing.

• On building a strong team: When people are feeling overwhelmed with work, you need to step up and support them and see how you can help alleviate some of those issues.

• Create a culture that values its employees and volunteers and is conscious of how it affects people and other organizations. Stand for something that brings value and meaning to the world.

Connect with Povertees on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.