"My Actions Started With Inaction"
I am beyond excited to kick off this series of interviews with the story of Britt Adams, founder and creator of Whitby Handbags! I first learned about Whitby only a few months ago when I was having dinner at a friend’s house and she mentioned that she had a friend making these gorgeous leather handbags that were lined with the artwork of girls being rescued from human trafficking. I was struck immediately by that visceral YES feeling you sometimes get, somewhere in your middle, maybe a little bit of the heart and gut reacting together to say, “that’s good”. I thought, “wow, I am so glad that someone has found a way to do that! That sounds incredible. I have to meet her.” Shortly afterward, I found the opportunity to do just that.
Britt and I met over the phone, and she was kind (and brave!) enough to be the first person I interviewed for The Kairos Tribe. It was a pleasure to meet her and to be an audience of one to her incredible story of faithfulness in the pursuit of justice. I hope that you'll find her story as resonant and impactful as I did.
At the end of Britt's story, you'll find a list of resources that she's suggested for people who want to go deeper in studying human trafficking, as well as some business-related items. With that there's also some ways that you can stay connected to Whitby, plus one small action step you can take to give back.
T H E N E E D
“Back in March of 2013 was when it happened for me. I was working my first full-time job out of college, doing community outreach and corporate volunteerism for a technology company. The work wasn’t very exciting, but it was a great season in my life to dream. I was a little bored, maybe you could say. But, the huge upside was that because I wasn’t overburdened by work I had a lot of capacity to imagine what my life and my work could look like, and I really took that to heart.
I started using some of that spare time and brain space to study human trafficking -- I’ve never felt so passionately overwhelmed by anything in my life than when I first learned that little girls are being sold for sex. Seeing that that was happening...it wrecked my entire world. It wrecked my understanding of what the world was. I just had to know more. By that time, that spring, I had been studying human trafficking on my own for about a year -- I read books and watched documentaries, I set every Google alert that I could think of, I was just trying to consume as much information as I possibly could. Through my study, I became specifically interested in how young girls in high-risk areas could be protected from ever being trafficked; in the prevention of human trafficking.
My actions started with inaction, I guess you could say...I was filling my mind with this subject that broke me, that I wanted to move towards, and continuing to live normally, working day to day because I didn’t have a plan or a clue for how to act.
And then, one night, I had this dream.
I dreamed that there was a little girl walking down a dirt road. She was carrying this enormous, heavy bag. I walked up to her, and I asked if I could help her carry it. She kind of just shakes her head no, and points back at it, as if to say, “look inside”. So I looked inside, and when I open it up I begin to see these scenes from her life; a kind of metaphor for the millions of girls in her same situation. I see that she’s one of six kids and her parents are really poor. That her siblings all get to go to school and she doesn’t. That her parents might have to sell her in order to support the rest of the family, and that she’s at an age where she can become a child bride or domestic servant in a wealthy home...her future, in that moment, is extremely bleak. A burden far too heavy for any child to bear, ever.
And then I woke up. I didn’t know what to think or what to do...so honestly, I just started praying for insight, journaling my thoughts...and then into my mind came this question: “what if someone else could carry this for her?” And that idea stuck. It became the metaphor that has essentially shaped the course of Whitby -- that women on this side of the story, like me and you, can carry the weight of something as heavy as exploitation, trafficking, bondage, labor...all the things that little girls should never have to carry; so that she never has to."
Top left + bottom right images by Nathan Lee; top right + bottom left images by Claudia Bost
T H E A C T I O N
“After having that dream, I began to ask myself, “what can I create that people can carry?” the idea for a bag of some kind struck me, and pretty much hand in hand with that I decided I needed to go back to school. I thought, if I was going to be able to sustain any business with a huge non-profit arm, I needed to learn exactly how I was going to be able to do that in a sustainable way. So I found this program and within a year I got my masters’ certificate in nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship. Now I partner with five nonprofits and what we essentially do is prevention of human trafficking for girls in five different countries around the world.
I started out with a web of ideas -- actually, the first idea I had was to design luggage. Then I began to look into that and I got really overwhelmed, really fast! Honestly, luggage did not interest me at all, and you have to be excited about what you're going to create. Thinking about creating handbags was a natural fit, it both excited me and interested me -- and it certainly fit the metaphor I was working with. I still had a long way to go towards deciding what type of handbag to make -- there are so many different options, and I think that’s the thing that I love about them -- every woman carries one, even if it came from Goodwill and cost her a dollar! Everyone needs a bag. I was sketching a little here and there, but I was mostly working on the business side, figuring out how I was going to partner with non-profits. I think I trusted that the bags would come in time.
Then one day, I was sitting in the airport in Amsterdam. I was on my way back from India, where I’d gone to work with a nonprofit organization that serves women who have escaped brothels in the red light district. I was sitting there in the terminal, of course just flooded with emotions, trying to process everything I had just seen. There were all of these European fashion ads and magazines around, and there were a couple of images that really stood out to me. That was when the first bag -- the satchel -- came to my mind for the first time. I sketched it out right there in that layover in that airport, and that was the first bag to become a reality.
One of the next steps in the process was when I was trying to figure out how to incorporate the girls in a prominent way. I was brainstorming one day with my friend Brad, wondering out loud how I was going to do this. My friend Brad is really gifted at taking a really serious topic and putting it in the eyes of a child -- he’s shown me, and a lot of people, that things sometimes aren’t as scary as we make them out to be if we just talk about them with an open curiosity. He said to me, “at the end of the day, Britt, the bags are all about these little girls. How can you make them more childlike”? So I started to think about the bags in a way that better related to them. Plus, to take this serious bag to work with you and to open it up and see the artwork of a child...that just automatically makes you happy. Of course it took multiple iterations to get placement of the artwork, the scale right -- all of those things changed countless times before I got to the one I ultimately decided to go with. It is really different, but people who get it it, get it, and if they don’t, they don’t, and that’s okay. It absolutely feels right for what we are trying to do with and through these bags."
S T E A D Y P E R S E R V E R A N C E
"Honestly, I can’t take the credit for Whitby, in a lot of ways. I feel like God stirs our hearts for things that he wants us to do. Before Whitby began I reached a place where I said, okay, I can continue this life of living for myself and climbing the corporate ladder, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the person I was, and I’m certain that I could have had an impact on the world in that way. The other choice for me was to take a risk and follow what I believe God was calling me to in life. The beauty there is that working on Whitby marries a lot of passions in my life: I love art, I love design, I love fashion, and I love these girls that I get to meet through this program -- we have thirty-two girls in Haiti, for instance, and there is a lot that can happen in the lives of these girls through this company. They have access to an education, they are safe from being exploited, there’s pride that they can take in who they are and what they’re becoming. I’m not perfect, I make mistakes, and there’s hiccups along the way, but I think at the end the day that God looks at our hearts -- he sees what we are after. So I’m just pushing forward until there’s nothing left. I still wake up every day, excited to think about Whitby, with new idea in my head, and the day that I don’t is probably the day that we’ll be done. But I believe this doesn’t all lie in my hands, which is a comfort."
E N C O U R A G E M E N T
"I would just say that for any problem to ever be solved in the world -- and there are a lot right now -- we must show persistence. Show up and stick around. Because it’s the people who stick around that really make the biggest difference in the world.
We have really short attention spans these days. We’re prone to write something down on a napkin and say, “let’s do it!” and then in six months we want to do something else. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re not going to build something truly meaningful that way, because to do so takes staying power. You’re going to get told no so many times, but understanding what you want to do and how you want that action to impact the world in a meaningful way, that really matters.
One of the best exercises you can do to help yourself with this is to write out a business plan, and then at the end of that, decide if you’re still committed. Not only will this aid you and the people you seek to serve, but it will help the people around you who you are going to need support from to know exactly what your goals are.
It’s not the most exciting answer maybe, but it’s realistic and it’s a very good thing that other people did for me, when I was getting started. My business plan doesn’t look exactly the same way that it used to, it’s evolved over time, but having one in the beginning gave me legs to stand on, for sure."
D E E P E R A C T I O N
STAY CONNECTED TO WHITBY:
You may also reach out to Britt directly at email@example.com
HUMAN TRAFFICKING RESOURCES:
Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery | Human Trafficking Interdisciplinary Perspectives | White Umbrella | Collaborating Against Human Trafficking | Half The Sky (also a documentary) | Little Princes | Preemptive Love
BOOKS ON BUSINESS/CALLING:
The Ivy Podcast | Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Podcast | The Harvard EdCast Podcast | How I Built This Podcast | Conscious Chatter Podcast