Gyals Spotlight: Amateur Bikini Bodybuilder and Entrepreneur, Lenee Forcier


“I think a group like Gyals Network is important because it allows you to be in touch with other successful entrepreneurs and professionals in industries that you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to.   If you want to change industries you can use Gyals Network to make contacts and connections and make that move.”

About Lenee:

Lenee is an Amateur Bikini Bodybuilder growing her fitness bikini line Dion Bikinis.. Find her on Instagram @dionbikinis

The Juicy Talk Series

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Lets talk self love!

Join us for an evening of radical self-love to answer the question: "How do you practice radical self-love and what do you hope to learn from others?" 

This talk is inspired by the book, "The Body is not an Apology Movement" by Sonya Renee Taylor.  

More on Sonya:

She gave an inspiring talk at TEDxMarin back in October and her new book is set to release later next week. 

A friend first introduced to her SpokenWord over 5 years ago and found her strength and confidence inspiring. Sonya has continued to travel the global and give powerful performances like this one on SnapJudgement. Now there is a movement and a following. By find our own inner strength we can then go on to do bigger work in the world community.

This talk will be help in San Francisco. Exact location details will be sent before the event. +21 and over.

Please register here ->

Make a difference. Volunteer with us at Project Open Hand.

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Gyal's Network is excited to volunteer with Project Open Hand SF (located at 730 Polk Street) the 2nd Tuesday of every month, starting on tonight, Tuesday, March 13 from 5:30-7:30 PM. Join us once or as regularly as you can! 

Sign up using this link: 

Since Project Open Hand relies on having a consistent number of volunteers, please only sign up if you are confident you'll be able to join. You will be contacted with further details as we get closer to the date :) 

Project Open Hand’s mission is to nourish and engage our community by providing meals with love to the sick and the elderly. During our shifts, we will help prepare food and assemble meal packages. 

We look forward to seeing you there!


Gyals Spotlight: Jessica Beeler

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Gyals Spotlight- San Francisco Criminal Defense Attorney Jessica Beeler shares why she appreciates Gyal's Network : 

“With technology we tend to be disconnected so I appreciate having real life interactions with people who have similar goals and want more from life. Its important for people in SF to connect in person and have fun together. I personally have found Gyals Network helpful for the purpose of sharing successes. I’m in solo practice now and it can be a solitary experience which is why I appreciate when I can get together with other people. It’s also great to hang with non lawyers for a change and learn what’s going on with each other and share successes.” 

Learn more about Jessica at

Subscribe to Gyals Network news and events at

Join our facebook group

Gyals Creating Change: Shireen Hafeez of Deaf Kids Code

How it Started

Shireen Hafeez world changed when her son was diagnosed as deaf at 4 years old. It was a late diagnosis. Hearing aides were not covered by insurance as they were deemed cosmetic. Hafeez soon learned of the need for advocacy for children like her son and made it her life goal to change the improve inclusion among the Deaf. She has since been striving to do just that.

The Opportunity in the Digital Age

The economics are clear: 70% of the deaf are unemployed or underemployed. Hafeez learned this statistic then also learned about the term “ school to couch” as the negative pattern that is so often the pattern of children who have a disability. It's considered the typical life path that the Deaf follow. However, Hafeez is not here for that and strives to make a difference. She has already made strides to integrate education for the digital age and is leveraging this opportunity to develop tech talent. “We are in a new day and age where remote work is on the incline with over 1 million jobs projected to require computing expertise by 2020.” Hafeez sees the opportunity in this projection and believes that the “digital age is the great equalizer" for the Deaf/ hard of hearing. Coding languages are universal and visual thus allowing one to a have a equal voice and participation in the world. 

Deaf Kids Code

With no fancy data to back up her vision, Hafeez followed her intuition to ignite interest in computer science and technology to kids who are Deaf/ hard of hearing. She started a local grassroots effort that quickly developed into a high demand organization nationally. The response has been amazing. She has been approached and invited by deaf educators to do workshops. Kids also ask for Deaf Kids Code to return. 

Hafeez is now growing an ecosystem for deaf students with online and project based learning that helps them build their portfolio beginning in middle school and high school.  This program is focused on developing talent for companies, not pity.   

What’s Next

Hafeez is working with Purdue University’s EPICS team to translate 1000 Khan Academy educational videos to ASL. She has also led translation events at Dreamforce and tech fairs. She continues to advocate and raise awareness of the untapped talent in the deaf community.  

Shireen Hfeez.jpg

We will leave you with a few closing quotes she shared in her amazing Ted Talk.

    •    "[The Deaf] the next great problem solvers.”

    •     “Inclusion and diversity should be societal imperative, no questions asked.”

    •    “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine.” 

For more information on Deaf Kids Code, check out their website at


Why We Get Stuck in Our Careers

Ever feel stuck in your career and don’t know why?  Are there times when you feel unheard or not taken seriously?  Does it seem like everyone else is moving up the ladder while you remain stagnant?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above you are not alone.  We recently caught up with Arjun Buxi, Executive Communications Consultant who shared how our professional brand may be impacting our career growth and how we can intentionally develop it for more personal and career success.  Check out his valuable advice below and catch him live via the web on our next Accelerator lab on Personal Branding Tuesday, March 28th at 10AM PT.

Question: How can I build a strong professional brand at work?

Answer: Your brand is what people associate with you - even if they don’t know your name. And they treat you accordingly - with or without respect, with or without reward, with or without opportunity.

So how can you fix this to make all your hard work and potential count?

Brand Development is not a choice or a balance between intimidation/power and generosity/kindness, rather a development of mission/objective orientation in our ‘big picture’ and day-to-day thinking.

The mission is a larger, almost philanthropic goal — 

McDonald’s might have a mission of ‘making people happy with great-tasting food’ (questionable yet plausible).

The objective is how we gain revenue in exchange for providing value.

The latter keeps the lights on, the former keeps us light.

Focus on these as the two sides of a coin — neither one can be sacrificed in the pursuit of business success, and this is the cornerstone of building a culture for your company, and a brand for your customers to engage with.

Question: When should I be firm and when should I be forgiving?

Answer: Both, all the time.

Be firm in your principles and goals: all employees, stakeholders and yourself (above all) must fit this Culture thus created.

Be forgiving of people’s mistakes, but firm in judging their ‘fit’ for your organization.

There is a value to the ‘pull’ orientation of “people work” (a better phrase than management, don’t you think?) in that we are playing on intrinsic motivations — actually wanting to succeed with the organization, rather than in return for some real or imagined incentives.

Employees who believe they are fairly paid are more engaged, are less likely to quit, experience less stress at work, feel healthier physically and psychologically, and are more satisfied with their personal life.

Personnel are not motivated in the long term by the ‘carrot and stick’ alternation of days gone by, certainly not white-collar workers with a college degree. They are motivated by a sense of fairness and opportunity, and a consistency displayed by Management in accordance with the spoken and unspoken culture of an organization.

Be unrelenting in the mission, ultimately, and lead by example.

The rest will follow (pun intended).

Learn how to build your personal brand by joining us for Arjun’s Online Accelerator Lab Tuesday, March 28th 10-11am PT and get valuable insights into climbing the corporate ladder on YOUR terms.   Early bird registration is $19.  Register here.






Happy International Women's Day

Wednesday, March 8th, is International Women's Day. As millions of others around the world celebrate the positive achievements of women and spark the next chapter of change, we encourage you to empower others and celebrate with us! How? Below are 3 awesome events we are hosting and co-hosting to celebrate Women's Empowerment Month! Join us and invite others!

3/11, Napa (Carpool available if RSVP by today) - Girls Day Out, Wine for Women's Empowerment!…

3/22, Oakland - Who Run The World? (GIRLS!) - Women's Herstory Month Celebration:…

3/30, San Francisco - SHEnanigans: 5th Annual Women's History Month Celebration:…

Our November 2016 Gyal Creating Change - Vinitha Watson, Founder of Zoo Labs

We are excited to bring you our next Gyal Creating Change Vinitha Watson!

 Vinitha Watson, November 2016 Gyal Creating Change

Vinitha Watson, November 2016 Gyal Creating Change

About GCC: Gyals Creating Change is an initiative where we showcase female pioneers making an impact in their communities. Our goal is to support their work and empower you to support them too.  Are you a Gyal Creating Change or know someone who is?  If so, please visit our GCC page at and tell us more!

Vinitha is an entrepreneur, design strategist, and artist. She opened Google’s first office in India, was a fellow at the Institute for the Future, and sits on the boards of Nexleaf Analytics, and California College of the Arts.  Vinitha is the founder and Executive Director of Zoo Labs, the world's first music accelerator that sits at the intersection of art and business.   Zoo Labs is about re-imagining entrepreneurship as a creative endeavor and supporting Artist lead companies get to the next level.  With roots in Silicon Valley the nonprofit brings together some of the best mentors in tech, business, and art to have a hand in shaping the future—something bigger than its parts. Sometimes people ask her if she’s crazy. And she might well be.

Zoo Labs is looking for great artists to be part of our program as well as mentors and donors in the business, tech, and art space. For more information visit their website

Connect with Zoo Labs on Social Media:

fb  twitter   instagram  music

Press: KQED

Are you or any fab women you know making positive change?  If so, we'd like to showcase them.  Nominate here.

The Pay Gap is REAL. Join Our Challenge.

Do you know your worth?   Does your current salary reflect your value? 

 Photo source:

Photo source:

If you were working full-time in 2015 and identify as a woman, statistics show that you only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by white men. If you're a woman of color it's more like 67 cents. **sigh**

Although we know bias plays a HUGE role in this 20% pay gap,  one study of graduating MBA students found that men negotiate their job offers 4X as much as women.  In fact, only 37% of all job offers are negotiated even though employers expect counter offers.

Become a POWER Negotiator

To help you discover the strategic techniques to negotiate successfully, we will be hosting a special LIVE webinar with Michelle Kim, a passionate Career Consultant who is spilling the beans on effective negotiations and has a track record of increasing her clients salaries an average of 14%.  Interested in joining us?  The live webinars will be hosted on Tuesday, November 15th and Saturday November 19th at 10AM PT/1PM ET.  Recordings of the live webinars will be available for all registrants for 10 days after the live event.  Register today to take advantage of the $15 early bird pricing limited to the first 50 registrants (HURRY that's 40% off!).

Join Our November Negotiations Challenge

Challenge yourself to negotiate!  When you join, you will receive negotiation tips delivered directly to your inbox throughout November.  Simply enter your email below.

* indicates required


Hope you'll join us!

Introducing Accelerator Labs: Webinars for Women

Gyals Network Accelerator Labs offers FREE or low cost, live access to experienced experts providing practical strategies crucial to the advancement of women (all genders welcome).   During these webinars, you will have rare, exclusive access to leaders who typically offer their services to high-paying executive clients.  Check out our current schedule and join our newsletter to get first hand access to upcoming webinars on a variety of topics designed for your advancement. 

To ensure the quality of our webinars, we limit capacity so that you have the opportunity to engage and interact with our experts.  Spaces fill fast so claim your spot early and take advantage of any early bird pricing while available!  Our next webinar, Salary Negotiations: Overcoming your Fear of Asking for More will take place November 15th and 19th and will be hosted by Michelle Kim, an experienced Career Consultant and Coach who will share the core skills/techniques required to successfully negotiate a job offer, including how to respond when you are asked "what is your current salary?".

Not sure if you can make the date?  No worries, you will have access to the live recording for up to 10 days after the scheduled date.  Email me directly if you have any questions.

Gyals Creating Change: Angela Patton Appointed White House Champion of Change

Please join us in congratulating our very own gyal,  Angela W Patton on becoming a White House Champions of Change for Extracurricular Enrichment for Marginalized Girls and Girls of Color.

 On September 30th, 2016 Angela W Patton was appointed  White House Champions of Change  for Extracurricular Enrichment for Marginalized Girls and Girls of Color.

On September 30th, 2016 Angela W Patton was appointed White House Champions of Change for Extracurricular Enrichment for Marginalized Girls and Girls of Color.

Angela and 9 others were selected by the White House for their leadership in developing and supporting high-quality after-school and extracurricular programs that create opportunities for girls from marginalized communities so that all young people can reach their full potential.

Angela Patton is the Chief Executive Officer of Girls For A Change (GFAC) and the Founder of CAMP DIVA, one of GFAC's flagship programs. A native of Richmond, Angela has been a strong advocate and champion of Black girls for 13 years in the non-profit sector. Girls For A Change seeks to address the unique challenges faced by Black girls and to support and inspire them through after school and summer enrichment and leadership programs focused on creating social change. Patton has established partnerships with five universities, expanded GFAC programs to undeserved communities across the country, and overseen the creation of over 200 social change projects conceptualized by girls. One of those projects was the subject of her 2012 TED Women talk. Angela is working to expand GFAC programs to create more spaces where girls can be seen, heard, and celebrated.

We are extremely proud of Angela’s accomplishment and privileged to be lead by such an amazing and fearless visionary.

Our October 2016 Gyal Creating Change - Dorie Hagler, Photographer and Activist

We are excited to bring you our next Gyal Creating Change Dorie Hagler!

      Dorie Hagler, October 2016 Gyal Creating Change    
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Dorie Hagler, October 2016 Gyal Creating Change

About GCC: Gyals Creating Change is an initiative where we showcase female pioneers making an impact in their communities. Our goal is to support their work and empower you to support them too.  Are you a Gyal Creating Change or know someone who is?  If so, please visit our GCC page at and tell us more!

Dorie Hagler is a long form documentary photographer and activist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, Viewfind, New Mexico Magazine, Saving Land and many others. In March, in response to a celebrity obsessed society, Hagler founded me&EVE a visual feminist movement highlighting the extraordinary stories of ordinary women.

Hagler’s work has been exhibited in both solo and group shows in both galleries and museums throughout the country.  She created and published a monthly photo column in the Taos News for eight years before moving to New York City.  Her clients include; Tina Brown Live Media, The Eugene M. Lang Foundation, The Kellogg Foundation, The United Nations International School, Marymount, Coffee Kids, Taos Ski Valley, PLASTARC, The Boys and Girls Club of America and the Taos Land Trust.

She is a frequent speaker and teacher at Adorama in New York City and currently Hagler is teaching a photography workshop to female inmates at Riker’s Island.  

Check out her work:

Our September 2016 Gyal Creating Change - Carol Luong, Founder of GreatPositive!

We are excited to bring you our next Gyal Creating Change Carol Luong!

 Carol Luong, September 2016 Gyal Creating Change

Carol Luong, September 2016 Gyal Creating Change

About GCC: Gyals Creating Change is an initiative where we showcase female pioneers making an impact in their communities. Our goal is to support their work and empower you to support them too.  Are you a Gyal Creating Change or know someone who is?  If so, please visit our GCC page at and tell us more!

Carol is a marketing strategist by trade, but considers herself to be a dedicated philanthropist first and foremost which is why she founded GreatPositive

Founded in September 2014, GreatPositive is the only platform that focuses exclusively on building donation tools for small nonprofits. They help nonprofits better engage, empower and activate their supporters to fundraise on behalf of them through our peer-to-peer fundraising platform, where supporters commonly donate their own birthdays or come up with other creative asks. And to top it off, they take a stance against taking a cut from donations and work off a fixed fee model that all nonprofits can afford. In May 2016, GreatPositive was awarded a “Best for NYC” company, recognized particularly in two categories: for their dedication to the community and environment.

  Carol Luong,   MBA,     Founder of GreatPositive

Carol Luong, MBA, Founder of GreatPositive

Carol has been volunteering since the age of 12 and knew that it would be her lifelong mission to help others and improve the world. As a first-generation American, she was always grateful for the sacrifices and struggles of her parents who were “boat people” that emigrated from Vietnam over 35 years ago. Even though she didn't have much, growing up in a 2 bedroom apartment with her parents, 4 older siblings and grandmother, she always felt like she had everything she needed.  

Prior to founding GreatPositive, she spent 7 fast-paced years in the corporate and startup sector, where she gained the knowledge and inspiration to leverage technology to help nonprofits. Highlights include leading the product development of HighTable, an online peer-to-peer community for CIOs, and running the marketing for Monaeo, a SaaS startup focused on location-based tax solutions. She also has 2 years experience consulting with nonprofits on marketing communications, web design, and online fundraising strategy.
Carol also enjoys speaking at industry events, including her experience as a panelist at New York Nonprofit Media’s FundCon on the topic of “A Nonprofit Call to Action: How to Enhance Direct Response Campaigns,” a panelist for Binghamton University's Center for Civic Engagement’s discussion on “Online Activism and Social Change,” and a moderator for a panel discussion on “How to Integrate Volunteerism into a Balanced Life.” Most recently, she was invited to be a guest author for Nonprofit Hub, an online educational community dedicated to giving nonprofits the highest quality resources, reaching 34,000 monthly users.

  Carol Luong,   MBA,     Founder of GreatPositive

Carol Luong, MBA, Founder of GreatPositive

Carol has an MBA from Binghamton University, is a graduate of the Circular Board, a collaborative accelerator for women entrepreneurs, and is a Roadmap Scholar graduate of Andrew's Roadmaps, an exclusive entrepreneurial boot camp for early-stage startup founders.

LinkedIn Profile:


Our August 2016 Gyal Creating Change - Liz Lee, Co-Founder of Online SOS

We are excited to bring you our next Gyal Creating Change Liz Lee!

 Liz Lee, August 2016 Gyal Creating Change

Liz Lee, August 2016 Gyal Creating Change

About GCC: Gyals Creating Change is an initiative where we showcase female pioneers making an impact in their communities. Our goal is to support their work and empower you to support them too.  Are you a Gyal Creating Change or know someone who is?  If so, please visit our GCC page at and tell us more!

Liz is doing big things.  She is currently building a nonprofit to address online harassment ( and recently quit her corporate job at Morgan Stanley to leverage her tech experience to broaden the conversation on online abuse while ensuring individuals experiencing harassment are able to get the help they need.

“I started Online SOS because I want people to have a professional, safe, central place to get help, after experiencing any form of online abuse - including harassment, stalking, threats of violence, impersonation hacking, and non-consensual pornography.”

Liz navigates her own experiences with online (and in-person / IRL) harassment and violence and bravely shares her experience as the greatest challenge in her personal and professional life: “Online harassment is also often misunderstood and trivialized or dismissed. But from personal experience, I deeply understand how online (and in-person) harassment and violence can have real life consequences, and how challenging it can be for anyone - even high functioning, strong-willed men and women - to return to normalcy.”

Online SOS provides crisis coaching, referrals to expert help, and donations to help pay for services.  Doors are open, but the network is operating in stealth mode before their public launch this fall.

“There is an emotional and economic cost to online harassment, and unfortunately the burden falls under the person targeted. We don’t want money (or time) to be the reason people don’t seek or get the help they need.”

Online SOS has established three main initiatives:

  1. Online SOS Program - A pilot program to help anyone who has or is dealing with harassment with an online or digital component. The first step is to listen to the victim to determine ways to support including funding towards legal fees.
  2. Share your story - Online SOS iscommitted to learning about the needs of the victim no matter when the incident occured.
  3. Join this Online SOS Network - If you are concerned about the state of online communities, you can join the Online SOS network. 

Email Liz at to learn more and find ways you can help.

Volunteering is Good for the Soul! Our Experience at Project Open Hand.

Last Saturday, we volunteered with Project Open Hand (POH) to help feed the chronically ill.  Below is a synopsis of our experience.

A few cool facts:

  • Project Open Hand was founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  During that time HIV/AIDS was considered the gay man's cancer and due to a lack of education, people avoided all contact with those infected out of fear.  This harsh treatment lead to job losses and isolation which eventually caused malnutrition and death.  Ruth Brinker saw the need for service and then founded POH with little resources.
  • Everyday, POH provides approximately 2,500 nutritious meals and 200 bags of groceries to their clients to sustain them.  If clients are too sick to leave their homes to pick up their meals, POH will deliver their food to them.
  • POH offers a diverse menu of healthy meal plans tailored to their clients needs.  They also offer visits with a nutritionist so that their clients become empowered.

POH always needs volunteers so if interested, sign up here.

A Look Back: Gyals Network Leadership Team Accomplishments

It's almost been a year!

On October 28th, it will be a year since the Gyal's Network Leadership team was established.  Time sure does fly by when you are having fun and I must say that TOGETHER we have done a lot in the past few months to execute our mission of empowering women from diverse backgrounds to make a positive change in the world. 

A few of our accomplishments include:

  • Re-branded from our famed Gyals Game Night identity to better communicate and execute our mission.
  • Hosted our very first Gyals of Impact fundraiser for the Covenant House.  We learned a lot about how hard fundraising is.  IT IS HARD!   Although it was a struggle, we successfully raised enough money to put together 80+ care-kits for homeless youth in Oakland.  Success is sweet!
  • Launched Gyals Creating Change where we now highlight remarkable women making a change in their communities.  By doing this, we offer them a platform for gaining support on their work! 
  • Held our Bo$$ Lady empowerment event in celebration of Women's History Month.  This event inspired a beautiful, diverse group of emerging leaders to take control of their career growth through great dialogue, our famed #playwithpurpose activity, and a leadership presence workshop.
  • Executed our Gyals of Impact Fashion Revolution movie screening and action plan to spread the word on the huge global implications of cheap fashion on our environment and health.
  • Represented Gyals Network at the White House United State of Women Summit last month.  We learned so much about the state of women and it was clear that executing our mission is more important that ever!

What's Next?

  • Partnering with Project Open Hand to feed those in need this Saturday, July 23rd in SF.  Sign up here!
  • Women's Wellness Showcase featuring experts sharing tips and resources to manage overall wellness.
  • Dating and Relationship Showcase featuring relationship experts on the current state of dating and key habits of strong, healthy relationships.
  • Gyals Creating Change ramp up with new features every month.  Please nominate someone today!
  • Semi-annual Gyals Groups: An intimate gathering to facilitate important change-making dialogue on the state of women that will eventually drive our initiatives.  Want to join?  Email us at and we will get back to you!

Thank you!

I just want to thank the Leadership Team and all of our members, friends, and family who believe in our vision.  We will be doing a lot more with your support.  Thank you!!! xoxoxoxo







Our July 2016 Gyal Creating Change - Lucy Keoni, Co-Founder of Startuprising

We are excited to bring you our next Gyal Creating Change Lucy Keoni!

Gyals Creating Change is an initiative where we will occasionally showcase female pioneers making an impact in their communities. Our goal is to support their work and empower you Gyals to support them too.

Lucy Keoni is a trusted start-up advisor and mentor who's mission is to mobilize the tech community towards inclusive action. Lucy actively structures her life around the issues that she feels are most important. Like, not just working in finance, but starting a conference to teach young girls financial literacy. Learning mobile product development to build technologies to help empower people in developing countries, or starting a holistic health and wellness company to help corporate employees be healthier and happier so they could give back more to their communities - and sending her profits to support social impact causes.

Today, Lucy is the founder of StartUpRising ( and is committed to bringing resources and opportunities to historically underrepresented founders and investors.

Are you a Gyal Creating Change? If so please visit our GCC page on and tell us about yourself!

We are proud to announce that our own Gyal, Shamini Dhana has been featured in B The Change Magazine! Check it out!

Ethical Fashion Benefits from Employee Engagement

Some Indian Clothing Manufacturers Find Employee Satisfaction Is Also Good for the Bottom Line

Esha Chhabra • June 14, 2016 [Original Article]


Eighty percent of the 200-plus factory workers at fair-trade-certified Mandala Apparels are women. Here they stich and inspect garments in Mandala’s Puducherry, India, factory.
Photo courtesy of Dhana


Some of India’s textile factories are finding that improving their employees’ lives is good for the bottom line.

In a small industrial complex in Puducherry, India, sits the Mandala Apparels textile factory where sewing machines hum, and women chatter as they stitch fair-trade clothing. Rows of fans cut through the hot, humid air. A breeze wafts through the open doors.

Ezhilarasi, wearing a mint-green sari, delicate gold earrings and bangles, sits near one of the doorways at a massive table, prepping collar tags for an order of shirts. Now 40 years old, she came to the factory seven years ago. She likes her job — it has allowed her to pay for putting two children through college. She’s also eligible for retirement and health benefits.

“I want to at least complete 10 years here at the factory,” she says. “It’s been good for me.”

Mandala and a growing number of other textile factories in India are part of a new wave of enlightened operations that offer wages and benefits that exceed fair-trade standards to create a community in which their workers can thrive in business and in life. The vision isn’t purely idealistic. Its architects believe employee engagement is likely to result in a more motivated workforce and better employee retention. Their workers and also likely to be more productive — with benefits ultimately showing up on a company’s bottom line.

“I want to see how fashion can become responsible not only to the environment but also to the people who take great effort to make the garments,” says Anjali Schiavina, founder and CEO of Mandala, which is a fair-trade clothing manufacturer that uses only organic cotton.

Discover how good practices can become good business when you download our FREE Special Report, Why Is Corporate Social Responsibility Important? CSR Advantages, from Profit to Longevity

Schiavina acknowledges that Mandala and its fellow fair-trade clothing manufacturers face serious challenges as they scale up to be able to compete with the goliaths of fashion. Fair-trade operations immediately incur higher costs, and improved productivity takes years to develop. She believes the answer lies in gradual growth and ensuring that employees are treated well and benefit directly from the company’s success, which will improve employee retention.

In India, the textile industry is second only to agriculture in providing jobs and about 60 percent of its employees are women. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh — where a textile factory collapse killed more than 1,000 workers in 2013 — the fashion industry has been under scrutiny. The disaster alarmed consumers who were previously unaware of widespread worker abuses in developing countries. A 2014 study by the Freedom Fund and the C&A Foundation reports that at least 100,000 girls and women working in the South Indian textile industry were exploited with low wages, forced overtime, and verbal and sexual abuse.

The Rana Plaza disaster was a critical wake-up call for the industry and has led to reforms. Employee health, safety and engagement are now discussed in locales where they were previously ignored. Some companies are seeking ways to increase employee engagement and employee retention, rather than just paying their workers as little as possible.

At Mandala, Schiavina employs 220 workers, 80 percent of them women. The business started in 2002 with just one tailor. The founder speaks with conviction and emotion about the importance of educating and engaging fashion workers, and of empowering women.

Women at Mandala Apparels sew fair-trade clothing for U.S.-based Dhana, an ethical fashion brand that selected Mandala as a supplier largely because of its fair labor practices.
Photo courtesy of Dhana

“It’s not just about me having these values. They have to be shared. Everyone here has to have the same vision,” she says.
After living in Italy for a decade, Schiavina returned to Puducherry at age 34 with a fervent desire to transform fast fashion from an industry that views both its products and employees as disposable. She now admits that she might have been naïve.

“I didn’t want to be just sitting in the office but working at the grassroots level,” she says. In search of the “grass roots” she discovered Chetna Organic, a Hyderabad-based nonprofit co-op that works with more than 9,000 farmers in three states in India to produce organic, fair-trade cotton. Started in 2004, it directly connects organic cotton farmers to businesses (see Revolution in the Organic Cotton Farming Industry). Schiavina was thrilled to discover that by managing her supply chain, she could improve lives beyond her circle of employees to the people who grew her raw materials.

Competitive Advantage of Employee Engagement

Research by Dr. Nick Lin-Hi, interim professor of business and ethics at the University of Vechta in Germany, suggests that companies that are publicly concerned about communities, workers and the environment have more committed employees, higher job-satisfaction ratings and more motivated employees. He also found that money is less important than working conditions — so much so that even a salary increase of 10 percent isn’t as motivating to employees as a good working environment. Mandala and other like-minded Indian manufacturers are creating a positive feedback loop where the support of their workers in turn bolsters the businesses’ profits, which in turn allows the companies to sustain more employees.

Schiavina first learned how to bring on the right employees, and she favored hiring women instead of men, and not just because she cares about empowering women. “They were more responsible,” she says. Women are more likely than men to take home their earnings to their families, put their children in school and feed them, Schiavina says. “If I’m going to be offering a fair wage I want that wage to actually be helpful.”

Schiavina has found her female employees to be more willing to accept change and try new designs. Today, standing in her factory, she’s surrounded by a predominantly female workforce, dressed in brightly colored saris with fresh jasmine woven through their hair.

On the other hand, the women Schiavina hires often have no previous employment experience. “When they walk in here, it’s like starting at zero,” she says. During their first eight weeks they’re given basic skills training led by various nongovernmental organizations.

Mandala Apparels’ employees are offered a retirement plan and health insurance on top of their salaries.
Photo courtesy of Dhana

The new hires are trained for one of the various jobs available: sewing, cutting, packing or quality control. Depending on an individual’s performance, she can advance to different roles and eventually management. “We don’t turn down people. We find an appropriate role for them,” Schiavina says.

The starting monthly salary for an unskilled worker is the region’s legal minimum wage of 7,500 rupees, or $115. Mandala offers a retirement plan and health insurance.

The company has a personal-improvement program, offering workshops on health, wellness and environmental topics. For instance, last fall Mandala hosted a three-hour session on waste management. The factory stopped production in the afternoon so all the employees could learn from Raja Manikamoorthy, a local environmentalist, about how to reduce the amount of trash at the factory and at home.

One video clip — of a cow’s stomach that had to be cleaned because it was filled with plastic — made a strong impact. “You should’ve seen the faces of the women as they watched the vet pull out plastic bag after plastic bag by hand,” Schiavina says.
After that, workers at Mandala say they abandoned plastic bags and returned to old-fashioned jute or canvas bags for their shopping. Ezhilarasi, for instance, says she then educated her friends and neighbors, who also now avoid plastic.“We had no idea that a simple session would have this kind of ripple effect,” Schiavina says.

Rather than running the health and wellness sessions herself or having a medical professional at the helm, Schiavina had 15 workers trained at Mandala who conduct sessions for their colleagues.

And, by improving workers’ lives outside the factory’s walls, Schiavina has broken down cultural barriers, such as husbands and in-laws who objected to women working. Such family support helps her keep a steady workforce — reducing employee absenteeism from 14 percent to 11 percent.

Schiavina isn’t the only businessperson in India exploring a new employment model. Rajat Jaipuria of Rajlakshmi Mills is a third-generation textile manufacturer who runs three fair-trade factories in Kolkata and one in Delhi, employing about 1,000 workers total. Jaipuria has committed his company to organic cotton, higher wages and improved benefits in search of more productive employees and lower employee turnover. Today, Jaipuria’s workers are offered a host of benefits on top of their daily earnings, including health insurance, pensions, subsidized lunch on-site, and transportation to and from work. The employees receive an annual bonus plus paid leave and holidays adding up to nearly 30 days off each year.

The workers at Rajlakshmi Mills have a calm, safe workplace compared with the conditions at other Indian textile factories.
Photo courtesy of Rajlakshmi Mills

Jaipuria says these benefits explain why his company’s employee retention rates are high: “We have little employee turnover — maybe 1 percent — and that’s mostly because of a special circumstance or medical reasons.” He says his turnover and training costs are lower — and his employee productivity is higher — than his competitors.

In Chennai, about 90 miles up the road from Mandala, a small sewing center employs women who were previously exploited by sex traffickers. Sudara, established by American Shannon Keith, produces loungewear — primarily printed pajamas — in factories throughout India.

Keith traveled to India in 2005. She was amazed by what she saw: hundreds, if not thousands, of women working in brothels, looking for a way out. Many could sew or could easily learn how, so she launched a brand to employ women whom society had dismissed. The company began in 2006 with six women in one sewing center in Mumbai. Sudara has employed more than 500 women since its inception. Most of the partner sewing centers are small, with fewer than 20 women producing 500 to 5,000 garments each month.

Shannon Keith (yellow top) founded Sudara with the goal of employing and empowering women who had previously been exploited by sex traffickers.
Photo courtesy of Sudara

Sudara is empowering women by providing job-skills training, health care, child care, a savings plan, and, when applicable, housing support through local partnerships. Keith says her employees make 10,000 to 18,000 rupees ($166 to $300) a month, depending on skill level. In contrast, a woman working in the sex trade in Kolkata, she says, makes between 200 to 6,000 rupees ($3 to $100) a month. (Read about the real impact on the life of an employee by working as a Sudara seamstress.)

The workers also have some autonomy, Keith says: “They got together and decided, for instance, that they would start work at 10 in the morning, instead of 9, so they could take care of their families and drop off their children at school before coming to the center.” By having this flexibility, the workers are able to show up regularly and are more dedicated to their work, and the company reaps unexpected benefits, including lower employee turnover and higher quality craftsmanship.

Fair-Trade Clothing: A Look at the Costs of Fair Treatment

Sudara’s compensation plan does cost significantly more than many of her direct competitors’ plans, Keith acknowledges. “I’ve had business folks tell me that I could be more profitable if I did it differently,” she says. “But that’s not the point. The point is being profitable so we can become a known, lasting brand whose mission genuinely benefits the people it represents. Our sincere belief is that we can achieve both impacting the world for good and being profitable.”

Customers sometimes complain that Sudara’s wares are pricey. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I can get similar pants at Target for $20.’” Keith says. Sudara’s pants cost twice as much, starting at $44. The price difference helps pay the workers more than they would make at other factories, Keith says. Sudara’s garments are sold online, mainly to women who like the unique designs and are keen to support companies that align with their values.

Mandala’s Schiavina says that her costs are marginally higher than a typical factory’s expenses, and organic cotton costs about 10 to 20 percent more than conventional. Despite the increased costs, the company has been profitable. “We were profitable until the global financial crisis hit [in 2008] and, because our customers were primarily European or North American, it affected us adversely. But now we’re back on track,” she says.

Schiavina says she spends an additional, significant amount on various certification and licensing fees. Mandala is certified by three different bodies: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), FLOCERT (a global certifier for Fairtrade International, or FLO) and, most recently, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) for endeavors employing local artisans. She says these fees can cost Mandala as much as $15,000 a year — enough to hire 10 more entry-level seamstresses.

“It is expensive and certainly a factor for smaller companies who don’t have the means to pay for these certifications,” she says. Yet they’re a necessity. While Schiavina knows her supply chain is mindful of people and the planet, the certifications provide transparency and credibility with her customers.

Rajlakshmi Mills’ Jaipuria agrees. His company has five certifications to satisfy European and U.S. customers who contract with him to manufacture organic cotton clothing in his factories. He estimates that, together, the certifications can cost upwards of $40,000 a year. He has them because his customers demand them, and they make it possible for his garments to fetch a higher price. (Read more about the value of certifications in Are Certifications Out of Control?)

Under the leadership of Rajat Jaipuria, Rajlakshmi Mills’ employee engagement has increased, resulting in a low, 1 percent turnover rate.
Photo courtesy of Rajlakshmi Mills

“You have to find the right customers and partners to do it. But once you do, it’s a much better way of life. The environment in our factories is calm, pleasant. It’s not tense, stressful like it would be elsewhere,” Jaipuria says. Zara and other fast-fashion brands probably aren’t going to be the right customers, he says.

Satisfying and Finding Ethical, Fair-Trade Clothing Customers

U.S.-based Shamini Dhana launched her eponymous children’s clothing line, Dhana, in 2008. She sources all of her company’s garments from Mandala because of its business practices. Dhana believes the number of shoppers demanding transparency and superlative ethics in business practices will continue to grow.

Being transparent means paying attention to supply chains, so, when Dhana launched her brand, she took multiple trips to India seeking out suppliers. She whittled down a list of a dozen potential suppliers to a few. Mandala made the cut after a factory visit.
“I remember walking into the factory and seeing smiles, and workers laughing and enjoying their work. That’s because they’re treated like decent, respected humans, not just workers,” Dhana says during a phone interview from her Northern California office. “I was blown away by the integrity, conviction and celebration of life.”

Mandala’s staff includes women who are single mothers with limited education and some who are handicapped. “These women may not have university degrees, but they’re smart, passionate and willing. They need an opportunity. And for them, that was Anjali [Schiavina],” Dhana says.

Dhana’s Shamini Dhana visita Anjali Schiavina at Mandala Apparels’ factory to review the factory workers’ conditions in person.
Photo courtesy of Dhana

Third-party certifications matter to Dhana when she markets her apparel. “The standards do help explain to a customer that this T-shirt or clothing has been made in a mindful and ethical manner.”

Schiavina says that’s exactly why she’s put so much time and money into getting the certifications that attract socially conscientious customers. WFTO certification, for instance, demonstrates that Mandala sources from fairly compensated rural artisans. Most recently, she worked with a group of Lambadi tribespeople in the Sittilingi Valley, reviving a traditional embroidery technique.

While working in rural health clinics in the region, Dr. Lalitha Regi, an obstetrician by trade, came across tribal women who embroidered in a unique, beautiful style. Recent bouts of drought had forced farmers to migrate to cities and take on low-wage jobs. Regi wanted to find a way for them to make more money without having to leave their community.
“Health and social problems come up with people migrating. Families have to separate. The working conditions in the cities are generally worse, which means they get sick more quickly,” Regi says.

She put the women to work: Elders taught younger women the technique. Now, more than 50 women in the valley are employed and earning incomes of 4,000 to 5,000 rupees, or $60 to $80, a month — a good living by the standards of the region. The women have named their group “Porgai,” which means “pride” in their dialect.

The program is in its early years, says Schiavina, who supplies the women with organic cotton on which to stitch their designs. The embroidery has also opened new opportunities for Mandala: Mela Artisans, a U.S.-based company that sources artisan-made products from India, commissioned a line of embroidered pillows to sell on its site. “I want to do more of these projects where we employ workers from the villages, as much as in the factories,” she says.

This article originally appeared as “Worker Abuse Is Out of Fashion” in the Summer 2016 issue of B Magazine. Read more about the companies in this article in Revolution in the Organic Cotton Farming Industry and A Real-World Story of How Ethical Fashion Brand Sudara Is Empowering Women.


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