One of the amazing women that I met last month at the AYA Summit was Jane Mosbacher Morris. She had taken part in a panel on Change Through Economic Opportunity, and was impressive to me in her transition from working on human trafficking issues, and for the U.S. Department of State in counterterrorism, to founding a market place for survivor made goods. To The Market provides a path to economic empowerment for women survivors of abuse, conflict and disease. Fascinated with Jane’s path to founding To The Market I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her about her inspirations, her journey and her goals.
Elizabeth Atalay: Personally on what level does this issue resonate with you?
Jane Mosbacher Morris: Economic independence deeply resonates with me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because I greatly value my own economic independence and the basic choices that it affords me over the direction of my life. When a person has some form of economic independence, it opens up a world of choice. Alternatively, when you are completely dependent on someone or something else, you have very little leverage or ability to influence pretty fundamental things about your life—do you want to marry? Do you want to get educated? Where do you want to live? What do you want to eat?
Working on the intersection of women and security for the first part of my career revealed how little control many of the most marginalized persons in our world have over their life. It’s very hard to grant a person control over her life, however—a person usually has to take control of her life.
The longer I worked on different women and security issues, the longer I believed that providing an opportunity for vulnerable populations to access economic independence is an extremely effective way for persons to claim (or in many cases, reclaim) control over their trajectory.
TO THE MARKET’s (TTM) model is to partner with existing organizations currently employing survivors of abuse, conflict, or disease. These partners believe that providing the dignity of work is the best way to empower the survivor populations that they are trying to uplift. TTM’s job is to help these partners succeed by creating additional distribution channels for their survivor-made products; amplifying the stories of survivors and their champions; and providing business services, like trend forecasting and basic mental health resources, to improve their production and management.
Elizabeth: How were you able to apply your experience from policy to a retail social enterprise?
Jane Mosbacher Morris: My time at the U.S. State Department focusing on policy influenced my perspective on how to best approach some of the social issues TO THE MARKET aims to address. When you are working in a policy role, you’re often forced to examine a challenge on a regional or even global scale, allowing for patterns to emerge that are hard to identify when you are working on the ground. Policies, whether created in a government, NGO, or private sector organization, are supposed to be a reflection of best practices and lessons learned. Cutting my teeth in DC provided me access to information from colleagues from around the world, presenting feedback on what was and was not working well from a policy and programmatic standpoint. One major takeaway from my time at the Department was that for a variety of reasons, governments tend to be pretty hamstrung when it comes to creating jobs, which is unfortunate, because an access to an earned income is probably one of the top things that people want. Accordingly, I believed that I could support and cultivate economic independence for survivor populations more efficiently outside of the government and non-profit world.
Elizabeth: Where do you find the groups that you work with?
Jane Mosbacher Morris: When I founded TO THE MARKET, I was only aware of a handful of organizations employing survivors (two of which I had visited in Kolkata, India, sparking my idea! Thank you Sari Bari and Freeset!). That handful quickly grew to our current list of over 150 organizations employing survivors. One aspect that is very encouraging about working in the social enterprise space is that people are exceptionally collaborative. When I would speak to someone working in Mumbai, for example, they would say, “you must meet my friend who is working with XYZ survivor population.” These organizations are staffed by people that tend to follow the mantra that “a rising tide raises all ships.”
Elizabeth: Is there an area of the world that you are more focused on than another?
Jane Mosbacher Morris: TO THE MARKET doesn’t focus on a specific part of the world, but instead uses the criteria of whether an organization is employing survivors of abuse, conflict, or disease. We have partners all over the globe, including the U.S., but the specific model of employing survivors to produce a product tends to be more common in East Africa and South/Southeast Asia. The development of these “nodes” can probably be attributed to a few things. For one, organizations tend to build off of existing handicraft capacities, like beading, sewing, or weaving. Another likely reason that this model works well in these parts of the world is that the economics tend to work—you can pay a living wage and still price the products competitively in a U.S. market. Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the impact that the faith-based community has had on the development of these social enterprises. A notable number of these organizations have been started after a particularly impactful mission or volunteer trip.
Elizabeth: How closely will you be able to follow the progress of the artisans and their journeys toward financial sustainability?
Jane Mosbacher Morris: We are extremely fortunate in that we have a wonderful working relationship with our partners. I tend to have a good idea of what is going on within these organizations, including whether their sales are healthy enough to continue to employ their survivor artisans. One of our partners is currently only employing one woman, while another is able to provide steady work to hundreds of women. Expansion is not always the best decision for these organizations if it means that they are putting the business at risk or they aren’t able to monitor the survivors’ mental, physical, spiritual, and financial health as closely. It’s a tricky balance!
You can do your part by shopping at To The Market this holiday season and beyond for beautiful gifts that give back.