Francine LeFrak spent eight years researching the devastating impact of the Rwandan Genocide. The purpose of her exploration, her film, "100 Days of Darkness," did not continue to fruition, yet she felt she still needed to work on the ground and shed light on the process of women reclaiming peace and rebuilding their lives. This journey wasn't over— Francine still had work to do.
Meanwhile, other news in Rwanda had caught Francine’s attention. She was captivated with President Kagame’s quest for reconciliation, not redemption, in the grim days after the Genocide, as well as the fact that Rwandan Parliament was composed of 56% women. Swanee Hunt, head of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and author of This Was Not Our War— which details post-genocide Bosnia and Rwanda where women were instrumental in reclaiming peace of the countries— also played an influential role. Caring deeply about gender equality and women’s empowerment, Francine saw Rwanda as a place that would embrace the employment of women in need.
It was around the same time Francine met Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. His book, Banker to the Poor, and his work for Grameen America was one of the turning points of her life; Francine acted on the advisory board of Grameen America and got to see the direct impact of microcredit loans for those in need.
She realized the power of investing in people to become self-sustainable, and knew that she wanted to dedicate her philanthropy to the cause.
Francine has a longstanding love for art and objects of beauty. With a Sotheby's education in art history and a love for the creative process, she has always sought to surround herself with things that don't just look beautiful, but feel beautiful. Some might call them "objects with soul." Moved and motivated by Rwanda's story of reconciliation, her work with Same Sky is true to her vision: to produce stunningly crafted, feel-good jewelry pieces.
In 2007, Francine’s long-time friend, Willa Shalit, who produced baskets and jewelry in Rwanda through her company Fair Winds Trading, asked her to consider designing and marketing woven-polymer mesh bracelets. Francine accepted the challenge. As she worked to develop a unique design that was both cost efficient and reproducible by Rwandan artisans, Willa happened to show her a bracelet— crocheted with handblown glass beads— designed by AIDS activist and artist Mary Fisher. Francine loved the design and quickly set about expanding on it, growing this prototype into a wide range of custom colors and collections, and Willa encouraged her to take over production and grow the project on her own.
With the groundwork laid, Same Sky was finally born when Francine had the revelation of its name. A deeply personal meaning— "Same" coming from combining her parents' names, Sam and Ethel— becomes universal, touching women worldwide, as it shares in the idea that all women see the same stars and the same moon. Every woman -- One dream.
Francine was introduced to Janet Nkubana of the weaving cooperative Gahaya Links, who jumped at the chance to become a partner on ground in Rwanda. Francine asked who the women were that were most left behind by the genocide, and Janet said it was the women who were raped, had contracted HIV/AIDS, and were living in the shadows. Francine knew she needed to begin Same Sky with this group of women.
Janet then recruited four HIV/AIDS affected women who Mary Fisher had previously trained to crochet. Francine had the opportunity to meet one of the artisans in New York before starting on production— her name was Brigitte. Though they could not verbally communicate, the women connected deeply in spirit. Francine felt an urgency to move forward. She needed to help.
Through grassroots efforts, Francine shipped the glass beads (hand blown by artisans in California and Wisconsin) to Rwanda by sending suitcases with friends who happened to be traveling in the region. It was from these small beginnings, and Same Sky's hand-up not handout mentality, that a larger business flourished.
To date, Same Sky has sold over 45,000 pieces of jewelry.
Since 2008, Same Sky has continued to grow, employ, and empower more women in need. The impact of our work in Rwanda inspired us to tap into issues of women's empowerment domestically, and in 2013 we began our exciting expansion to America.