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St. Louis apparel company Made for Freedom combats human trafficking

Dawn Manske

Dawn Manske, owner and founder of Made for Freedom, adjusts a product at her headquarters inside her home in the West End neighborhood in St. Louis. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

Social enterprise is hard — hard to succeed in, even hard to explain to those ensconced in dog-eat-dog capitalism. Just ask Dawn Manske.

In 2011, she launched Made for Freedom in the city of St. Louis. It’s an online apparel company that sells jewelry, bags, shirts, pants and more, all produced by women — mostly overseas — who have escaped human-trafficking situations and live in safe houses where they’re trying to work their way to a better life.

Sound like a nonprofit? It’s not. True, Manske’s company has a nonprofit arm; that entity uses donations to train the women in sewing and other apparel-making skills. But Made for Freedom is proudly for-profit. It’s founded on a mission to make money by tackling a societal problem — the very definition of social enterprise.

It’s also a company that’s hungry for capital. The problem is that impact investors who are willing to accept relatively low returns in exchange for social benefits are not exactly banging down her door here in the Midwest, Manske said.

“In Europe, you don’t have to explain it,” she said. “Here, it’s like, ‘Social enterprise? What are you talking about?’”

Perhaps the best-known example of social enterprise in the United States is TOMS Shoes. It launched about a decade ago on a buy-one-give-one model: For every pair of shoes sold, the company donated a pair to an impoverished person.

Manske’s model is different, she pointed out. The societal benefit that she seeks to confer is not primarily a donation (though the company does in fact donate 20 percent of its sales revenue to human-trafficking prevention and rehabilitation programs). Rather, Manske is chipping away at human trafficking by offering victims a way out: by joining her supply chain.

“I think what TOMS did was change how consumers think about what they purchase,” Manske said. “‘Hey, I can buy something and help someone!’ But where is the thing made? If it’s made in a sweatshop, you’re part of the problem. We’re providing jobs and training.”

Doing all this is not easy, Manske said, and the eight-year history of her company has been a series of highs and lows, victories and defeats. But she’s pushing forward — and she has good reason for optimism.

* * *

Manske’s circuitous path to social enterprise began in her mother’s living room in the late spring of 1989. She stood there, fresh off her junior year at Missouri State University, watching television broadcasts of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which by then were churning toward their bloody conclusion.

Made for Freedom

Jewelry is displayed in a case at the Made for Freedom headquarters inside Dawn Manske’s home in the West End neighborhood in St. Louis. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

“I was praying for them,” recalled Manske, “and as clearly as God ever spoke to me, he said ‘They’ll never be free until they know me.’ So I started checking my college catalogue for Chinese courses.” She studied Mandarin, went on a summer-study trip to China and graduated in 1991.

During the next 15 years, with the exception of time spent in Georgia earning a master’s degree in elementary education and administration, Manske lived in China, first as an English teacher and then as a director of an international Christian church in Beijing. In that city, she got her first up-close look at human trafficking: She had a friend who ran a center for children who had been lured from the countryside on the promise of good jobs in the capital, only to be used as slave labor.

But her real epiphany on human trafficking came a year or two after moving back to the states. While earning another master’s degree — this time in theology at Covenant Seminary in Creve Coeur — she attended a pizza lunch presentation by International Justice Mission, a human-rights nonprofit organization. Part of the presentation was a screening of a documentary about child prostitution in Cambodia.

“I stopped eating,” Manske recalled. “It just tore me up inside. It weighed on me so heavily.”

For years afterward, she said, the footage in the documentary haunted her as she worked at a variety of jobs, trying to think of a way to fight that social ill.

Then in 2010, she reconnected with an acquaintance, Eric Manske. They married in April 2011, whereupon Dawn received two wedding gifts that inspired her to consider a future in social enterprise: The first was a pair of sandals made by Sseko Designs, which employs, mentors and sponsors Ugandan women to encourage them to attend university.

The second gift, from a bridesmaid, was a piece of clothing she had fallen in love with while in Asia: Thai fishermen’s pants, which are a loose, flowing garment tied around the waist. This particular pair was tie-dyed. The day after the wedding, she wore them to the airport, en route to her honeymoon. A TSA agent complimented her on the pants, as did a flight attendant — and many more compliments followed.

A thought occurred to her: She could employ women victims of human trafficking, train them and also provide them with fair wages to produce these pants. She started shedding her various gigs (which included Trader Joe’s, real estate, a part-time job at her church) and in October 2011 filed the papers to establish a limited-liability company, Made for Freedom. In January 2012, Manske went on a research trip to India and visited safe houses that seemed like a perfect fit for her project. Through her network of contacts, she also found a center in Thailand with which to partner.

At first, she said, Made for Freedom had only “the Manske fund” to work with (for example, her husband gave her the Microsoft Office Suite and QuickBooks as an anniversary present). But then she started hunting for startup capital. She organized several funding rounds on Kiva, the microfinancing platform, and eventually raised $25,000 in loans there. She also raised $7,500 from the crowd-sourcing website Indiegogo.

In 2013, Manske applied for grants at both the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis and Arch Grants, a nonprofit organization that provides grants and support  services to entrepreneurs who locate their early-stage businesses in St. Louis. She was rejected in both cases.

The next year, she tried again — and prevailed. She won $25,000 through Skandalaris and $50,000 from Arch Grants. (Two key deadlines in these competitions were so close together — and preparation so hectic — that in the rush of events, she received her first shipment of fishermen’s’ pants from Thailand and didn’t even have time to inspect them.)

Some of the Arch Grants seed money helped Manske to go on another research-and-networking trip to Asia. On that trip, she visited safe houses (or as she calls them, “centers”) in eight cities in Cambodia, India, China, Nepal and Thailand. Some of these centers she has found through her network of contacts, but others find her. For example, after Forbes.com published an article on Made for Freedom in 2018, several centers reached out, asking to be a supplier.

Dawn Manske, Made for Freedom

Owner and founder of Made for Freedom, Dawn Manske, shows off soap crafted by women victims of human trafficking and is sold through her organization. Photo by Nicholas Phillips

Manske said that while other social enterprises use only one or two large suppliers, she has so far opted for smaller groups in a wider variety of locales. Made for Freedom is working with about 15 suppliers, Manske estimated. When deciding whether to link up with them, she requests a test run of whatever products they make. This allows her to confirm their quality control and shipping reliability.

“We can come to fledgling groups that are making an impact and help them get to market,” said Manske. “Though sometimes I wish we had our own centers.”

* * *

On a November afternoon, Manske made time for an interview in between business trips to Colorado and Indiana. She sat in her home office, on the third floor of her brick home in the West End neighborhood of St. Louis, reflecting on some recent disappointments. For example, some part-time employees had left for various reasons. In addition, she recently failed in her attempt to be one of 15 entrepreneurs that Arch Grants would allow to pitch to investors at an event.

“I hadn’t done a pitch in a while,” Manske said. “It takes a whole different muscle to do a pitch. But I got some really valuable feedback. To be completely honest, God has not gifted me with the ability to pore over spreadsheets. That’s not my strength. It’s expressing passion and getting people excited about it.”

The passion didn’t win over the judges in this particular case — partly, she believes, because of people’s lack of familiarity with social enterprise.

“The typical business plan is ‘What’s the problem, and what’s your solution?’” Manske observed. “But I won’t say, ‘Americans need more stuff.’ The problem is that women are being exploited. But that’s not what business people want to hear.”

That kind of message, however, is exactly what the U.S. State Department wanted her to communicate when it invited her to India in September to speak to the business and civil-society communities there. During a two-week period, Manske visited five cities and gave a presentation entitled, “Social Entrepreneurship: Building a Business around People, Planet & Profit.” (After she fulfilled her obligations with the State Department, she also visited some safe houses, one of which produced soaps she liked so much she bought an extra suitcase to bring samples home.)

Despite occasional struggles and setbacks, Manske said she sees a bright future for Made for Freedom. Her company is in the black, she said, and she has totally overhauled her bookkeeping system this year.

Asked what advice she might have for a young Dawn Manske out there reading this story, she paused for a long moment and reflected.

“It’s going to be very hard,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “But I don’t know of another job that I could be as passionate about. I mean, do I want to work in a cubicle? Am I going to be passionate about that?”