Using fashion as a medium for making positive change might seem like a glamorous way to give back, and live your heartstories. But running a social enterprise is hard. The margins are smaller, the days are longer and giving up affects so much more than you.
This is a beautiful story of a woman and her band of believers who won’t quit. She’s in it to change the lives of women, starting with the first 10.
Meet Katie Martinez, founder of Elgantees.
Hi Katie! Tell us about the moment you knew for sure you had to do something.
Back in 2010, I was top of my game as a Production Manager for a fashion company in New York City. Yet the fashion line dream was itching me, and moved back to Iowa to pursue it. I set up a “warehouse” in my parent’s basement with $10,000 saved up. That doesn’t seem like a lot to start a clothing line, but I was no longer paying rent, and having relationships with factories in New York helped.
During this time, I couldn’t stop thinking about an intent I had while a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. When introduced to human trafficking awareness in a class, I heart broke learning that girls are abducted and sold as commodities into prostitution. I vividly remembers my cry out to God while sitting on a campus bench feeling hopeless for them, wanting to help.
Now, with this business, fashion can make that difference!
How did you start with the mission to fight sex trafficking?
I met Ramesh Sapkota from Nepal and Pastor Eric Watt of Greensboro, VA in 2011. The two men are dear friends to each other and work to provide the funding of and facilitating of pulling over 20,000 women and children out of trafficking each year in Nepal. Eric and Ramesh share a vision to transform the country of Nepal by reducing the poverty. It’s the primary reason trafficking happens in the first place.
Ramesh impressed me with his determination to open a sewing facility. Through hearing Ramesh talk about his people, I realized that fair-wage employment for vulnerable women is more beneficial in the long run than gifting money in a charitable way.
Meeting them was inspiring and redirected my dream to not only try to fund human trafficking rescue efforts, but help provide economic opportunities.
Tell us about one thing you learned the hard way, that you wish someone would have taught you.
Amazing progress happened as a television show with 1 million viewers featured Elegantees on air. The exposure created a feeling that this would be “the big break.” I funded a special collection by maxing out credit cards. Sales came in as the show aired, but not enough to cover the need. I was in debt, humbled, and prayed for direction and help.
Now whenever opportunities that seem amazing come, I approach it with a conservative lens.
Describe your support system through the evolution of your business.
All the key people behind Elegantees (myself, my husband, sister, and some other awesome ladies) volunteer because they believe in what we’re doing so much they are ok donating their time! I’d love to pay everyone but we haven’t made a profit yet. This year is looking more optimistic, so we plan to grow the sewing center by keeping on hand a better fabric inventory to increase our wholesale business.
Tell us all about your give-back model. How do you do good?
Elegantees has joined the fight against sex trafficking by helping provide a new life for those who have been taken out of it in Nepal. Our mission statement is to provide hope to survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal.
We provide a positive source of income that reinforces independence, a healthy self-image, and confidence that restores lives one elegant tee at a time.
One success story is found in Gita. Over two years ago, Gita was brought into the care of the safe houses in Nepal after being brought out of trafficking at a Nepali-Indian border station. She received counseling, learned how to sew, and works full-time in the sewing center. Gita sews Elegantees for a living and is finding more joy in life. She is forever an overcomer!
What is the driving force of your business?
There is a waiting list of 500 women rescued from trafficking in Nepal that want to work in the sewing center. Our growth motive is to bring them out of poverty.
Were there people who were negative, who didn’t see the vision or believe you could do it? How have you handled it?
I’m a New Yorker married to a Puerto Rican. That means I’ve got a thick skin. Haha! Honestly though, I weed out people or projects that are energy draining. I usually face more things that are energy draining than negative.
What was your most difficult season? What changed that?
The last 8 months of 2014. It was a year that many things changed. Facebook changed the visibility for pages which greatly declined our website traffic. We spent a lot of resources and time into developing collections and pitches for major retailers. We didn’t see a return.
The temptation to quit was daily.
At the end of the year, our friends in Nepal informed us we weren’t giving them enough sewing work to keep operating. They proposed closing the sewing center for good. Their cry for help was ironically a good thing because we needed to hear it. After a year of dragging in rejection wondering if the slump would go back uphill, we woke up to how much the women who depend on us need us.
We no longer see this a huge issue of 500 women on the waiting list for a sewing job, but instead we see only the ten women that work in the sewing center already. To help the ten, a small success like a trunk show in someone’s home or church is a huge success!
We rang in the new year running a new race to focus on the prize: securing the 10 women every day, while still aiming to get all 500 off the waiting list.
Wow Katie. Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable part of your story. When we only get to see the outside, that looks successful, it’s easy to not become as invested, as passionate. But hearing this story, of how close you came to quitting, brings a renewed passion to support you and the beautiful work you are doing in the world!
It makes me even MORE excited to have your clothing (that I adore!) in our pop-up Shop by Heartstories this Thursday at the Fashioned for Freedom runway show to benefit My Refuge House. What a beautiful combination of love and support for those rescued from sex trafficking!
It’s a privilege to tell your story!
to more love,
P.S. If you’re local and don’t have your tickets to Fashioned for Freedom yet, you can get them here. If you’re not close enough to make it, watch our social media! We have a live stream link sponsored by Immerss, coming up soon! Either way, see you there!