Me: After working so closely together to create and build The Tote Project, what kind of benefits have you seen from consciously choosing to make this a partnership, rather than creating a solo project? How have you seen your own unique talents and gifts amplified due to the unique talents and gifts your partner brings to the table?
Michelle + Fay: Although we have so much in common, it’s our differences that make our friendship incredibly special. At the core, we both have a huge passion for helping others, and that made for the perfect foundation to our partnership — but it’s really our unique talents that make The Tote Project what it is. We’re the perfect mix of creativity, logic, determination and heart, and we bring such different, and necessary, things to the table. More importantly, we allow each other to grow and encourage one another to be the best we can be. It allows us endless creative freedom within the partnership, which makes it way more fun! We both were aware of the risks of starting a business partnership with a best friend, but we respect each other and communicate about absolutely everything, and that’s what keeps our friendship and company going strong.
Me: Not only do you employ sex trafficking survivors to make your totes and pouches, you donate a percentage of each sale to Two Wings so they can support and empower survivors here in the U.S. to rebuild their lives. What inspires you to go above and beyond by taking on both initiatives?
Michelle + Fay: When we started out our goal was to sell tote bags that were manufactured in a fair trade factory and use the profits from our business to support local survivors of sex trafficking. Once we started looking for fair trade certified factories we got connected with Freeset in India. Both of us instantly knew they were the final link for our supply chain. The idea that one bag can support women around the world and create a circle of empowerment is inspiring to us. The women who make the bags and the women our bags support are different from each other in many ways, but they’ve experienced the same pain and are overcoming it together. We love that and look up to them all; it’s a huge honor to be involved in their lives through our work.
Me: How did you go about finding your partners and what inspired you to choose Calcutta as the region to support?
Michelle + Fay: With each of our partners working together come about pretty serendipitously. As we mentioned earlier, it was important for us to find a fair trade factory to manufacture our totes. We reached out to a lot of potential suppliers who pretended to be certified or couldn’t provide any proof to back up their claims of ethical manufacturing. It was becoming exhausting because every lead we pursued was unfruitful. Michelle finally reached out to a member of her neoabolitionist college club to get advice (they hadn’t been in touch in years) and her friend’s answer was, “I work at a fair trade factory that makes tote bags.” It turned out she was working at Freeset! To answer your question, we didn’t set out to work in the Calcutta region, but we love that it ended up that way because we know that Freeset is meeting a large need in the red light district there. For Two Wings, we had been researching local non-profits and since we were just starting out, we wanted to support an organization that could actually use our help and grow with us. During the vetting process on two separate occasions people we just met recommended Two Wings to us out of the blue. After hearing about them the second time we contacted them to learn more and were incredibly inspired by the work they were doing.
Me: Why do you go the extreme lengths to be so diligent in your research in all the partners you work with?
Michelle + Fay: We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep slavery out of our supply chain. Fair trade goes hand in hand with fighting against modern day slavery – it protects children from exploitation, promotes safe, humane working conditions, and provides sustainable wages. This year we partnered with Made In A Free World to dive even deeper into the source of our raw materials and make sure we aren’t unknowingly contributing to human trafficking. We want to do as much good as we can!
Me: You’ve clearly thought carefully about every aspect of The Tote Project and the community you are serving. How do you go about selecting the watercolor designs? Who creates the designs?
Michelle + Fay: Although she came from a musical background, Fay had fallen in love with watercolor and graphic design while taking classes in college. She began coming up with ideas and concepts for the artwork on our totes/pouches and painting them to life — and people have fallen in love with them! The goal was to create something that people were proud to tote around, and more importantly remind them of the incredible freedom they have to do the things they love most. Not everyone is free to dance, grow, or roam – and we hope that our designs will spark important conversations about human trafficking and inspire people to take a stand.
Me: A lot of the work you do focuses on rehabilitation. But prevention is also a priority for the two of you. Do you have any plans to expand and introduce some kind of prevention initiative on top of the awareness cards you include with each tote and pouch?
Michelle + Fay: We talk about this a lot because we want to play a bigger part in spreading the word and raising awareness about human trafficking. As we grow we’d love to organize local community outreach efforts, and we’ve also brainstormed ways of incentivizing raising awareness by giving out various tote bag decorations for our customers that are involved in prevention efforts. We are open to any and all ideas!
Me: What has been the most surprising part of your give back efforts? What about the most inspiring part of this adventure?
Michelle + Fay: When The Tote Project was first created, we had the incredible opportunity to do art therapy with female survivors at the Dream Center in Los Angeles. We asked them to create images of hope inside their own individual petal of a flower, and when we brought their images together, it was a powerful message of hope and freedom that inspires us to this day. We saw in those moments that we really could spread hope and change lives, in spite of the odds.
Me: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone who wants to follow in your footsteps of using their own unique talents and life experiences to give back?
Michelle + Fay: One of the most rewarding things about being a part of the give-back community is getting to meet kindred spirits who are going out on a limb to make a difference. We’ve been blessed to meet so many people from different walks of life coming together for the common good. Through this we’ve learned that no matter what skill or talent you have, a non-profit or cause is in need of you. You don’t have to start your own company to give back. Find a cause close to your heart and contact local organizations to get involved with. If the organization you contact doesn’t need your help they’ll know someone who does.