|Nicole and Jed Robyn, along with their children; tm photography|
It's an unseasonably cold March day when I order some hot tea and sit down at a table at Fort Thomas Coffee with Nicole Robyn, Polished Pearl's CEO. Robyn didn't have far to walk—she, along with her husband and teenage son and daughter live in the apartment above the coffee shop. And Polished Pearl's new Fort Thomas storefront, slated to open the first week of April, is next door. But this story doesn't begin on North Fort Thomas Ave. Rather this one begins in one of the oldest boroughs in the United Kingdom—Barnstaple, England.
Robyn's husband, Jed, worked in ministry at the time—work that led him and his family to move from Loveland, Ohio to Barnstaple, England, where he started a house of prayer. While there Nicole Robyn befriended a group of women with a particular interest in social issues. This group noted the number of young, single mothers in Barnstaple in need of employment. So the women opened up a small storefront as a place to employ teenage mothers. They also ran a medical and counseling crisis center above the shop.
A year went by and they closed the shop in order to better meet the needs of the women in Barnstaple in others ways. The counseling services were moved to a nearby café. Robyn says she and her group of women continued to explore social issues, specifically human trafficking victims.
In 2010 Robyn, along with several other women, visited India. An estimated 28-32 million women and children have been victims of global human trafficking, Robyn says. And an estimated 14 million of those women and children are from India. "It's so prolific and the need is so great there," she says.
|homes in a village in India; photo courtesy of Nicole Robyn|
While there they discovered that many women become more vulnerable to human trafficking due to lack of employment. "Desperate and starving people make for a group that's ripe for being exploited," Robyn says. "The average age of a human trafficking victim is 11 or 12. They haven't fully gone through their education making it challenging to find sustainable employment."
Robyn says it was a massive learning curve, and she and her friends spent several years trying different things and working out the kinks to find suitable employment for these women. They began working alongside an aftercare program in Mumbai (which is partially funded by Crossroads, which has five locations throughout Cincinnati), providing survivors with training in things like money management.
They also partnered with Freeset, a fair trade business that offers employment to women in Kolkata's red light district. Freeset employs more than 200 survivors, and last year the organization formed Freeset Incubator to see new freedom businesses start in particular villages known to be large source areas for trafficking. The extreme poverty in these villages encourages human trafficking, Robyn says, so Freeset has begun moving into the villages, hoping to employ women as a preventative measure.
|Women in India receiving painting training; photo courtesy of Nicole Robyn|
In 2014 Polished Pearl joined Dillard's Free At Last campaign, which seeks to partner with freedom businesses—businesses that employ human trafficking survivors. Polished Pearl, along with Freeset and Sari Bari, sells handbags, clutches, ID cases, lanyards, market bags and organic lip balm at select Dillard's stores.
|a sampling of goods available through Dillard's Free At Last campaign|
This winter Polished Pearl launched a bridal line. This line employs women in Moldova (which is an area known for its gorgeous, handmade wedding dresses and where the women have a high unemployment rate) as a preventative measure against the high percentage of human trafficking that takes place there. And just last week Polished Pearl opened an Etsy store.
|Polished Pearl bridal jewelry (flowers by Ford-Ellington, also in Fort Thomas); tm photography|
|Polished pearl shawl and belt, worn as a headpiece; tm photography|
Today, in addition to the women overseas, Polished Pearl employs three women—Robyn, Jill Wegman, an administrator who lives in Northern Kentucky, and Teresa Eklund, a designer who lives in Montgomery, Ohio and graduated from The University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP). Eklund sends pictures and samples of products to the women in India, and is involved in training. All three women work on a volunteer basis and do not take a salary.
Robyn travels often. She says she's been to India seven or eight times since her first trip, and she plans to go to Moldova in April. She homeschools her sons, which often allow them to travel with her. She talks of her first trip to India, how heartbroken she was for the women in brothels and the deep sense of responsibility she felt. "I didn't choose to be born here," she says. "We've been given so much here in the United States." She mentions the popular #firstworldproblems, and talks about how very true it is for so many of our complaints.
Robyn says after seeing the survivors' immense courage, she knew she wanted to be a small part of that. "I love what I do," she says. "It's an honor to do what I do." And for many in Fort Thomas, it's an honor to have Robyn and her business, with its hopes for a better future, grace our main avenue.Freeset is a fair trade business offering employment to women trapped in Kolkata's sex tr