Insights from launching a social enterprise with sex trade workers in Bangkok
The BlindProject (www.theblindproject.com) helps former sex workers in Southeast Asia build skills and find new employment opportunities. In case it's helpful to others, I thought I’d share notes from a conversation with a friend who helped TBP launch a social enterprise.
The Blind Project's social enterprise Biogaphé
TBP came to life about 5 years ago when three friends were inspired by the book
Terrify No More by International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen. Their first goal was to raise awareness about human trafficking and the sex trade in Southeast Asia. After traveling to Thailand and filming a documentary, the founders soon realized that they could enable others to get involved by organizing service trips. Soon they were taking their friends and other volunteers to Thailand to offer basic services like optometry, hair and makeup to former sex workers.
To expand their impact further TBP began a social enterprise called
Biographé that offers marketable skills and work to women in Bangkok. TBP engaged fashion designers in the US to design t-shirts, developed an e-commerce website, and set up a silk screening facility in Bangkok. Through Night Light, a local partner in Bagkok, Biographé offers women training in fashion design and production, and it employs them in a positive work environment.
My friend spent 6 weeks in Bangkok between to help set up Biographé. Here are some insights from his experience that he shared with me:
Poverty, lack of information and migration as root causes.
“I was surprised that poverty and lack of information was what forced many women into sex work, rather than human trafficking. Their entire social circle was in the same situation, and they just didn’t know what other opportunities they might have.
All of the women were from rural areas and moved to Bangkok. Our team couldn’t find organizations that shared information with rural communities and educated women about good and bad opportunities. Organizations that go to rural communities to share information (almost like colleges send recruiters out) would make a huge difference. A welcome center in the city wouldn’t be as effective. Once people arrive it’s often too late as they’ve already chosen sex work as their way to make a living.”
Mobile phones but not the Internet.
“All of the women I worked with had feature phones and used SMS. They didn’t have smartphones and they were not familiar with sitting at a computer or using the Internet.”
No solution is for everyone.
“One thing that was surprising was the range of response that we heard. Some women were so grateful for the opportunity we were offering they literally thanked us in tears. Others, really didn’t seem to care much.”
Communication and business practices are not universal.
“Our fabric suppliers would not tell us directly if there was a delay. They’d say everything was on schedule just to appease us, but they’d often not be telling the truth.”
Infrastructure is a real hurdle.
“Setting up a business in another country brings unexpected challenges. The logistical and infrastructure challenges were much more difficult than we expecting. For instance, we spent a to of time getting power set up in the building and never expected how hard that would be.“
Appreciate the difference you’re making.
“I learned to understand that if you make a difference in a single person’s life it really matters. The volunteers with a grandiose vision of having a massive impact quickly were quickly deflated.”
“Funders want fast growth, but doing things well takes time.”