Her father was an iconic New York builder who never took “no” for an answer. Her mother told her she could do anything she put her mind to. Both had a philanthropic nature and a strong sense of “giving back.” Put it all together and you can see why Francine LeFrak has become a tireless advocate for the underserved, especially women.
As a successful film, theatrical and television producer – whose productions have been screened at such major film festivals as Cannes and Sundance, and have won Tony, EMMY and Peabody Awards – Francine has been using her talents and resources to shine a light on social issues of global significance, including HIV/AIDS, conflict and intolerance.
“I feel compelled to help people, and I was particularly motivated when I learned about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, especially the horrible treatment of women,” she says.
In 2008, Francine founded Same Sky, a socially conscious jewelry line that enables female artisans to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Same Sky’s inaugural project in Rwanda provided training and employment to HIV-positive survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. One hundred percent of net proceeds from jewelry sales are reinvested into expanding the business to other regions of the world, spreading the organization’s “women helping women” mission. So far, Same Sky has helped more than 200 women in Rwanda get out of poverty. As a result, they are less likely to be abused and more likely to help their children get an education, including college.
“IDB is about amazing service – their helpful and personal approach makes them easier to work with than other large banks.”
“The women in Rwanda were so poor, they couldn’t even gain access to ‘free’ medicine for their families, because they couldn’t afford transportation to get to the clinics,” Francine explains. “I was born with many blessings and feel a moral imperative to do this.”
“Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not,” she continues. “Same Sky gives artisans the opportunity to demonstrate their talent and connects them to customers. We show people how something as simple as a beautiful piece of jewelry can act as a ribbon to the courageous artisan who crafted it.”
“This is more than jewelry; it is a symbol of good health, of fresh water, of education, and of the power and dignity of employment. This is the power of connection, and this is the good feeling that Same Sky gives us,” she says. On a practical level, buying one necklace can pay for a child to attend school for a year.
“Many nonprofit organizations have the best intentions but often create more stumbling blocks, even as they try to do good,” Francine says. “Everyone is an entrepreneur,” she adds, quoting micro-financing expert and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus. “And we can use entrepreneurship to help many, many people.”
In recognition of her humanitarian work, Francine has received the Women Together Award from the United Nations, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Human Spirit Award from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French Government, among other honors.
In 2013, Francine formed Same Sky America to employ women in America who are working to rebuild their lives after incarceration. Working closely with the Hudson County Jail and its NJ reentry program, Same Sky America has helped create a career path and hope for over 200 women. Despite the overwhelming national trend, where nearly 70 percent of offenders, end up back in prison within the first three years, none of the women in the Same Sky America program have become repeat offenders and all of them have a second chance at life and freedom.
While Francine uses her own resources to fund Same Sky, she is a customer of IDB for her personal finances. “They’re so supportive, you don’t feel like you’re dealing with a big bureaucracy,” she adds. Kind of like the way Francine is helping to lift women out of poverty.