Kristin Keen has seen it firsthand: thousands of women living under the thumb of a cruel system, victims of a massive sex industry. She says they feel helpless and despairing, with no power to escape.
For five years, Keen, now the founder and executive director of Rethreaded, worked to help women and girls find a way out of the brothels in India. Within only a few years of arriving in Kolkata, she and Sarah Lance founded a company called Sari Bari. It was designed to employ women coming out of the sex trade, and help nurture their effort to achieve independence.
Sewing a New Story
It all started with a blanket. On the streets of Sonagochi, Kolkata’s largest red light district, a woman was stitching together old saris to craft a “blanket of the poor.” Keen remembers thinking that it was a product that would be popular in the U.S., so they started producing them for export. The company began with only three women, but now boasts over 90 employees.
Three years into the project, Keen made the (heart-wrenching) decision to return to the states. She settled in Jacksonville and brought her mission with her, creating Rethreaded, which works in close cooperation with Sari Bari. Keen calls it a social entrepreneurship. The official mission is to love “people affected by the sex trade by fostering relationship and life-giving community…to unravel the effects of the sex trade by fighting business with business on a global and local level.”
Rethreaded’s central purpose is to be a viable business while also offering long-term solutions to women who choose to leave behind destructive lifestyles. To eligible candidates, Rethreaded offers a 4-month paid training program in a nurturing environment. To successful graduates of the training program, they offer permanent employment with the company.
Employees make many of the products on site. One of Rethreaded’s bestselling items comes with a compelling product description. It is called the Grace Scarf. The product page describes it as the first thing every woman creates upon entering the program. “It is made up of individually cut strips of t-shirt that are stretched into strands. Once stretched each strand curls eliminating all errors made in the cutting process, resulting in a perfect strand to add to the bundle. Once bundled, all the unique strands are then tied together into a beautiful scarf.” It holds a deep symbolism for the Rethreaded community, “because entering the Rethreaded family is stretching. Only when we are able to give and receive grace are we able to come together as one team to make something beautiful.”
Keen says that the metaphor of “sewing a new story” and “unraveling” the old one was developed when she and her volunteers were coming up with ideas for the organization. It was springtime and they knew that the theme of “new beginnings” should be expressed in their branding. “Taking the old and making it new,” was important, says Keen. They wanted the women to feel as though they were sewing a new chapter in their lives.
In addition to creating their own products, Rethreaded has business partners from around the world who share Keen’s business values and social cause. In addition to placing orders with Sari Bari, Keen purchases products from companies in places as far away as India and Cambodia, as well as domestic companies in Tennessee, South Carolina and California. There is a worldwide network, Keen says. And the financial impact that Rethreaded is making is significant. Their most recent order – just a single-order – to Sari Bari will pay for 900 days of wages for the India-based company. Or, as the folks at Rethreaded say, 900 days of freedom!