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Mardi Bras Celebration Helps Free the Girls Support Women Entrepreneurs

C’mon, ladies. We all have a drawer-full of new or lightly used bras from two sizes / appropriate ages ago that is just taking up space. Imagine applying them to support women entrepreneurs in the developing world instead!

It’s a simple premise, really. As explained by Sarah Davenport, Free the Girls’ operations manager, the group’s mission is two-fold: to offer a safe economic opportunity for women who have escaped hardships ranging from sex trafficking to abusive relationships along with counseling and support leading to what they call “holistic restoration.”

The way the program works is that for two years, women who participate in the program sell gently used bras in second-hand markets. Free the Girls receives donated bras and lingerie from around the world to create inventory for this part of the program. ”The women do not work for us, but for themselves as entrepreneurs,” Sarah explains.

“The starting inventory for a woman is 100 bras. Once she is ready for more inventory she has the option of purchasing them at just under wholesale prices -- either a bag of 80 bras or a box of 200 bras,” she adds. For reference, selling three bras in Mozambique is equivalent to making minimum wage for one day. In El Salvador, the equivalent is four bras.

Because they’re put into a situation where their clients are other women – an environment in which they feel more comfortable following some of their experiences with men – women often do well enough to exceed the minimum wage with their businesses. The program isn’t intended to support women indefinitely – it ends after two years when “graduates” are given a matching grant, up to $1,000, equivalent to the amount of money they are able to save from their business.

Many women are able to invest that money in their education or in starting another business, from which they can help support other women who follow them on a path to financial freedom.

Shawn Mitchell, owner of Modern Mechanical, loves the program and has supported it for seven years through first the Ashburn and now the Broadlands – Dulles South Rotary Club, and his Ashburn headquarters serves as a collection point year-round. To better focus energy behind donations, however, the concept of “Mardi Bras,” a play on the Fat Tuesday celebration, was created.

“As with the traditional Mardi Gras celebration, the event was a fun excuse to get together and eat king cake, enjoy a drink and prepare for Lent. But as I learned more about the program there were many things I really liked about it. Number one is that the program isn’t a handout program.” Survivors of human trafficking, typically between the ages of 18 and 25, often with children, are taught how to run a business – how to manage and sell inventory and repurchase more to expand their market. “I really like the entrepreneurial part of the program.”

Then, too, “We can all support survivors of human trafficking. That this even exists is a terrible tragedy. It’s more prevalent even here in Northern Virginia and D.C. than most people are aware of.... It costs so little to donate, and it does so much good,” Shawn added.

Lori Collette, president of the Broadlands – Dulles South Rotary Club and owner of Automotive Quality Solutions in Ashburn, says she’s drawn to the program out of empathy for the women helped by Free the Girls and an understanding of how hard it is to get ahead in many third-world, male-dominated societies. “Free the Girls gives women an opportunity to start their own business essentially selling to other women, instead of to men by whom they may feel intimidated. Bottom line, it allows them to start their own business and support themselves and their families. Then, as time goes on, they're able to get back into the free the girls program to help other women in their community.”

Best Rack Around, a specialty women’s bra and lingerie boutique in Leesburg also sponsors Mardi Bras this year, which will take place March 1st starting at 6 p.m. at Tarbenders Lounge, 10 S. King St., in Leesburg. Buy tickets at https://bit.ly/MardiBras2022; all proceeds benefit Free the Girls (https://freethegirls.org/).

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