Leader Spotlight: Francine LeFrak, Founder of Same Sky

Life has a way of making the unexpected happen. For Tony- and Emmy-winning producer Francine LeFrak, the unexpected came years ago when she was in Hollywood developing a film on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. All was well until the acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda hit theaters. With a similar theme to her production, the film’s release made it impossible for Francine to get her movie made.

Unsure of what to do next, Francine thought about the women in Rwanda who she hoped to help through her movie—those who had been raped during the Rwandan Civil War and were now HIV positive. If producing a movie wasn’t on the table, how else could she help them?

Francine did what all great leaders would do in a situation like this: She embraced the unexpected and allowed it to guide her into a new venture. In 2007, Francine founded Same Sky, a trade initiative providing jobs and training to struggling women. Now with two locations, one for HIV-positive women in Rwanda and the other for ex-convicts in New Jersey, Same Sky provides opportunities for women to utilize their talents, hone their skills and fulfill the monetary needs required to help them get on their feet—all through the art of jewelry-making.

Leadercast sat down with Francine to learn more about Same Sky and how it is changing the lives of the women involved with it, as well as how it’s transformed her leadership.

Why did you decide to move from the film industry into philanthropy after Hotel Rwanda was released?

I realized the best way to [help Rwandan women] was through the dignity of work and giving them a job—a hand up not a handout. I wanted to give them a job so they could regain their dignity and self respect and also use their talents. Talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t, so I decided to start a jewelry company in Rwanda. I called it Same Sky with the idea that all women are under the same sky and we need to [open] our eyes to each other. It was important to me that we find a way to utilize their talents, help them and their families, and know that they were getting paid 100 percent.

How exactly does Same Sky operate?

We’re set up as a trade initiative. We pay the women 15 to 20 times the average wage. We pay for the materials and training, the shipping and some of the costs, but we don’t take money out of the company. We pay 100 percent of the net proceeds.

What is it doing for women in Rwanda?

Let me tell you about Clementine in Rwanda: When I met her, her HIV numbers were terrible. [After some time with Same Sky,] she went to the doctor and the doctor said to her, “Clementine, what are you doing? How did you get healthier?” and she said, “I’m working.” Clementine learned how to read and write; she opened a bank account and she gave birth to a non-HIV baby since we’ve been working together. She started her own entrepreneurial venture as well. The impact on these women is phenomenal.

How did you go from Rwanda to a second location in the U.S.?

We took the model to New Jersey and started to work with ex-offenders because there are a million women on parole now in [the United States]. Women are the fastest rising segment in the prison population, and the recidivism rate is terrible. Since we started, we’ve impacted more than 200 women. We give them the materials, and we give them more than minimum wage.

The whole idea is really interim work to get them back on their feet. When [these women] get out of prison, they feel a lot of shame. Eighty-five percent of them are mothers who have left their children behind. This is an amazing opportunity for them to reconnect with their families, get an apartment, get a job, and go back to school.

What effect have these women had on you as a leader?

I’ve seen [women transform] in front of my eyes. I get so much out of it because it keeps me grounded. To see how these women's lives have transformed has transformed my own life. I believe philanthropy needs to be done on the ground. We need to invest in the people who are doing the work. We need to see the impact and the results with our own eyes. We can’t be arm’s distance… I feel strongly that we all have got to get our hands dirty, and the impact of what you get from it is so enormous.

You’ve won both a Tony and an Emmy. How have your talents as a producer played a part in what you’re doing now?

My skill is as a producer. I produce plays and social-issue movies, and now I’m using that skill to help produce people’s lives. It’s so rewarding to me because now I feel like I’m in the show or movie. We have to go where our heart and our purpose takes us in life. We need to harness our talents for the better good, for the better of humanity, and use it. [We should] go out of our comfort zones and go into places where we feel we can make a difference, even if we have no experience or credentials—we have to take the plunge as a society.

What did you learn about leading yourself through your transition from producing to philanthropy?

When opportunity knocks on your door, you have to listen, and you have to take the opportunity. No matter how hard it is, you have to run with it. It’s really hard, especially when you’re in a transition, because you don’t know what it’s going to look like on the other side. It’s like there’s no roadmap, but you can’t stop yourself from growing and learning. You just have to continue.

How do you hope Same Sky will help the landscape of women in leadership and philanthropy?

I want to ring the bell to remind women to support each other. I want more women at the table. I want more women in politics… I want to see women at the peace table and more women negotiating. I want to see more women peacekeepers—that’s on one hand.

On the other hand, I want philanthropists to get their hands dirty. I want them to be proactive. I want them to use their entrepreneurial skills or whatever talent they have, but I want them to get their hands dirty. I don’t like arm's-length-philanthropy. I don’t think it works.

Are there hopes to expand Same Sky beyond those two locations?

We absolutely do, but it’s a very difficult task. Over the last two years, we’ve been talking to Aboriginal women [in Australia]. We’re trying to do a project in Atlanta now as well for women who have been trafficked. We want to impact as many women [as we can], and we want to encourage other philanthropists to do the same. Take your talent and find a way to bring it to other people. Find a way to inspire other people with your own talent, whatever it might be.

> 5 Female Leaders Francine Admires:

- Gloria Steinem
- Oprah Winfrey
- Eva Moskowitz
- Maya Angelou
- Angela Merkel