Jenny McGee took a leap of faith in 2006, and began Starfish Project in Asia. Her outreach in the red light district led to a desire to help women and girls create a new path for themselves and develop a respectable career. She saw their need to establish independence, live a joy-filled life, and most of all, experience freedom.
We are honored that Jenny took the time to chat with us during our celebration of International Women’s Day. We are inspired by her mission and by the women who create Starfish Project jewelry. It’s not just jewelry—it is a holistic social enterprise that saves lives. By purchasing and wearing it, you celebrate the resilience of the human spirit.
1. What inspired you to start Starfish Project?
In 2006, some friends and I started to reach out and encourage women we met who were trapped in brothels. My heart broke for the women I met. Many of them shared stories of being tricked into brothels by their own friends and family members. Most of them were very young and had no education. Many girls were working in the brothels and sending money home, so that their brothers could attend school. I wanted to help these women find a new life and opportunities outside of the brothels. Our small team visited the brothels every week and even began teaching English to the women and girls who worked there. Over the first year, I built relationship with these women, and found that none of them wanted to be in the brothels. So we took a huge leap of faith. I bought jewelry supplies and we started Starfish Project with five women working around the kitchen table. Now, almost 14 years later, we have grown to two city branches, currently employ over 60 women at a time, and have walked alongside 140 women and their families as they complete our Holistic Care Programs and launch their careers.
2. How did you choose which countries to work in? Do you have plans to expand beyond these? (*We understand that you’re not able to tell us exactly where you work for the safety of the women).
I was already living in the city where we now have our headquarters and the need was great, so it was a clear decision to continue working here. We are also one of the few organizations reaching out to trafficked and exploited women and girls in the entire country, and the only one in the cities where we operate. We don’t have plans to start a new branch outside of this country because the problem here is so large, very few people are working on the issue here, and there is so much work to be done. We are however, looking at developing partner products where we can collaborate with other groups in different places to expand our product line.
3. Starfish Project artisans make the most beautiful jewelry! Have you ever considered making anything else in addition to jewelry?
We are looking at expanding beyond jewelry with partner products. We are hoping to collaborate with groups working in other challenging locations to bring our customers even more options and provide jobs to women who really need them.
4. What is your personal favorite Starfish product and why?
I especially love to watch the women make any of our tassel earrings or necklaces. The women stretch the sting across the production room as they wind it, and it makes almost a maze in the production room. It makes everything very lively and I love to watch the women chit chat as they work amongst the colors of string draped across the room.
5. Do the women learn any other skills besides how to make jewelry? What have they accomplished by learning these skills?
Yes! We utilize our business to offer jobs at all levels of the company and offer high level training. We employ women in our program to do graphic design, photography, sourcing, and management. Women aren’t just receiving services but they are huge members of the Starfish Project Team at all levels of the company. We train the women through our Holistic Care Programming. When a woman joins Starfish Project, she starts on the jewelry production team. At the same time, she also takes classes in subjects like literacy, English, math, and computers, since many of the women have little to no formal education background. We also provide vocational training classes in areas like photography, accounting, and graphic design. If a woman is interested in a particular vocation that we don’t provide training in, we find a local vocational school nearby that can train her. Through these aspects of our Holistic Care Programming, our women have gone on to study in higher education, become photographers, accountants, graphic designers, business owners, and much more.
6. When women work, the impact of the investment is greatly multiplied. What benefits or positive changes have you seen in the communities where the women work and live?
Many of the women and girls who are in our programs were left behind children, meaning their parents went to the cities looking for work, and they were left in the villages. Often by 12 years old, these girls are looking for help to survive and many end up in the brothels. Now they have found a home at Starfish Project. As these young women group up and begin to have their own children, they need support.
We not only provide an education and shelter for the women employed and enrolled in our programming, we also provide educational grants and daycare services so that their children can go to school nearby and live with their mothers. Many of these children are the first generation in their families to grow up with their moms by their side. Without our programs, the cycle would have repeated itself and many of these kids could have ended up in brothels themselves. Instead, we see them thriving in a loving environment. Recently one of the women who came to work at Starfish Project had a three year-old daughter that was living in the brothel with her. Now they both have a stable life at Starfish Project.
7. We love your commitment to empowering other women. What advice would you give to girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?
I think the most important part of starting a business or organization is not giving up. There will be many hard times. Some things you try will work out and some won’t. But ultimately, I believe a lot of success is purely about not quitting.
The name “Starfish Project” was inspired by the Starfish Parable:
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”