When the social-issues film you’re creating gets canceled, the next logical step is to start a jewelry company to benefit female victims of the Rwandan genocide, right? Or at least that was the case for Francine LeFrak, a producer who has changed thousands of lives with her entrepreneurship and social-justice leadership.
On this episode of the Leadercast Podcast, Angela Raub, CEO and president of Leadercast, kicks off the inaugural edition of our Leadercast Legacy series by interviewing one of the most influential people she knows: Francine LeFrak, actress, director and producer, and founder of Same Sky and the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation.
In this podcast, the two discuss the importance of leaving a legacy, the need to think about how to affect the future by pouring into women’s lives in the present and how launching a jewelry company in East Africa changed Francine’s life beyond what she could have imagined.
Francine says, earlier in her career, she went to Hollywood to make social-issue movies. “I’m so proud of getting into social issues and shedding light on them, and they really changed my life,” she shares. “Now I have income-building programs and ways to give women a chance to have their own life and their own dignity and their own work and to show their own talent. I’m incredibly proud of that too,” she continues.
Read on for a look inside the episode, and listen to it in its entirety above or via the links at the bottom of this page.
Francine’s Social Advocacy for Women
Francine’s company, Same Sky, was founded after her movie set in Rwanda during wartime was canceled after the 2004 release of the film, Hotel Rwanda. “I felt this hole in my heart. How could I not shed light on the story [of the Rwandan genocide]? What was I to do?” Francine says. That was when a friend suggested she work with Rwandan women to come up with an idea for jewelry.
“We started with four women, who literally were waiting to die, and built a jewelry business where they were able to use their amazing talents,” Francine says. “We were able to use the jewelry as a ribbon to the cause to create this company called Same Sky.” The company’s name comes from the idea that all women are under the same sky and are connected to each other.
“I had no idea it would transform my life completely and upend my show business career,” she says. “It was so compelling and so meaningful to me to see transformation in these women’s lives, to see women with such bad health getting healthier and being stronger—and seeing the impact on their kids who now go to college.”
Francine attributed bringing to fruition her generational legacy to putting her energy into the ultimately canceled movie and seeing it pay off in the company. “The journey sometimes leads you to places that are so unexpected that you can’t even imagine in your wildest dreams,” she says.
Her gratitude for the opportunities to make an impact on others’ lives has allowed her to serve the close to 1,000 women who have partnered with Same Sky and Francine’s other programs.
“[Recently], we did our fifth graduation at the Women in Need homeless shelter in East Harlem. We’ve graduated 100 women now, and 40 percent of those women have gotten jobs,” Francine says with pride.
Earliest Influencers in Francine’s Life
Francine’s father was a builder with the motto to build housing for the masses, not the classes. “It was great to have a father who really believed in helping middle-class people have a better life,” she says.
Her mother was Francine’s mentor who encouraged Francine behind the scenes. “She had the skillset to encourage me to do and to be, so she was phenomenal and brilliant.”
She and her siblings followed their parents’ example to give back to their communities. “We grew up with an understanding that work conquers all. That was our family motto,” she says.
Francine’s two most impactful teachers in her childhood were her mother and her art history teacher.
Her mother gave 11-year-old Francine a copy of Gods, Graves & Scholars about Schliemann’s discovery of Troy and asked, “What are you going to do?”
“My art history teacher taught me how to see the world through art,” Francine says. “She gave me a lens to go into the world that gave me confidence.”
Stories That Make Francine Proud
“I draw my inspiration from all the women that I work with, and that keeps me going,” Francine says.
Among the many incredible women who inspire her are the stories of Clementine and Cassie:
- Clementine had terrible HIV numbers that improved when she began to work with Same Sky. She had the opportunity to not only buy good medication but to have a non-HIV-positive baby. She learned to read and write. She opened a bank account.
- Cassie was a formerly incarcerated woman who started her own hair-weaving business. She transformed into a glamour queen who says that everybody deserves to walk down the red carpet.
“These women did not have opportunity, they had no support and they may have made wrong choices—and they paid a huge price,” says Francine. “It’s amazing to see the transformation when they come out and realize how talented they are, they can have a job, they can support their family, and they don’t have to live alone and be filled with shame.”
Francine feels called to serve women in the justice system. Of the 200 women she’s worked with, not one in almost seven years has returned to prison. “The secret sauce is job opportunities, earning an income and getting those women to feel like they’re not invisible. It just works,” Francine says.
Francine’s advice for younger women is to dream. “In order to be at your best, do the things that you really love,” she says.
* * *