Today on the Chockalife podcast, we have Kimba Langas, who started a non-profit organization called Free The Girls, and it’s an amazing work for her that provides jobs for women rescued from sex trafficking in developing countries.
Kimba, thank you for talking to us today about taking the leap into something that I truly admire, which is starting a non-profit.
Kimba: Well, thanks, Ingrid. It’s great to be here today, and thanks so much for having me on.
What’s so interesting about your story is, like most people, probably, that start non-profits, you weren’t always working or in the non-profit sector. Tell me a little bit about what you did before you started the non-profit.
Kimba: Sure thing. For my first career, my first life, I was a producer, a writer/producer/director, and I worked in that for 20 years, doing everything from commercials to original programming content, a lot of corporate video production, marketing videos, trade show videos, training videos, that sort of thing.
Obviously, you must have had something happen that started your next journey. But first, tell me a little bit about Free The Girls and what it does.
Kimba: Free The Girls is a non-profit organization, like you said, that provides job opportunities to women rescued from sex trafficking.
What we do is, we help them set up micro-enterprises. We help them start their own business, selling, of all things, used bras, and new bras, now, in Uganda. What we do is, we partner with existing safe houses and after-care facilities, and work with them to identify women who need a job.
Most of the women who have been trafficked were trafficked at a young age, eight to ten years old, so they missed out on going to school, many of them have health problems, and they have families. Those are three major strikes against them in trying to find and keep a traditional job. The selling of bras provides something that’s flexible. They can do it in their own time while they’re going to school, while they’re healing and going through their rehabilitation restoration process with the safe house or after-care facility.
We’ve also found that just the collecting of bras is a really great way to introduce people to the topic of human trafficking, and it’s a way to connect women in the US and Westernized countries with trafficking survivors overseas. We have 21 women in our program in Mozambique, and we just launched pilot programs in three locations in Uganda and one in El Salvador.
How many people started the organization?
Kimba: There are two of us, and I would love to take credit for the idea, but I cannot do that. It was a friend of mine, and my former teaching pastor, Dave Terpstra. He approached me in the Spring of 2010, and what was weird about that — and I might be jumping ahead a little bit on that whole ‘what happened’ thing — but when I started 2010, I knew I wanted to get out of production — and I can go into that a little bit more when we talk a little bit more about my back story — but I knew that, by the end of 2010, I wanted to leave production, and I knew that I needed something else, and I was really feeling called to and drawn to being in service to other people.
So Dave approached me with the idea that he had for Free The Girls. He’d already named it. He already had the idea about used bras. They’re a commodity, they’re a luxury item, a status symbol, in the developing countries where we work, so they command top dollar in the used clothing market.
I admit, when he first approached me, it was as a video professional. He said, “Hey, I’m starting this thing. Will you make a video for me?” I’m, like, “Well, of course I will. What else do you need help with? I can write some marketing materials, write website copy, whatever you need.”
The more I dug into the topic of trafficking, the more I started educating myself and reading things, my heart was just broken by that. I knew right away that I needed to do more. At that time we were just launching and just registering, and we agreed to be partners and to create and grow the non-profit together.
I think the main point of the conversation is taking that leap. I know that your heart was really touched by what he presented to you, but there has to be — was there a defining moment? Or what actually made you take that leap and say, “Hey, I’m going to give up my lucrative — you were an Emmy Award-winning producer, it wasn’t like you were forced out of the business or couldn’t get another job –what was it that took you to make this giant leap into starting a non-profit with your pastor?
Kimba: There were a few things. For me there was not a big ‘a-ha’ moment. It was just a shift in my priorities, and a shift in my world, that really began as me becoming a mom. Wyatt, my son, was three when Dave approached me, but the three years leading up to us starting Free The Girls, I was still working as a freelance producer and I just was getting so frustrated.
So for me, it started with that wanting something different, wanting to be home with my son, and then, as I started reading the stories about the women who are enslaved in sex trafficking and even labor trafficking and the horrific things that they’ve endured, I just really felt so thankful for the opportunities that I had had as a female, a white female, growing up in suburban America. I really had every opportunity that I could want. I got a great college education, I’d had a successful career, and even as a freelancer I was making great money. There wasn’t any reason for me to leave that, other than it wasn’t satisfying me on a deeper level.
I think as we get older, you just start re-examining our priorities, and you’re thinking “Where’s that balance between what fills me up and what depletes me?” And I was finding that producing just had burned me out. I was burned out on it. I had a great career. I loved my career, I loved the work I did. It was inspiring for many years, but it was beginning to deplete me, and so I was looking for something else that would fill me up.
And when this came along, I just knew right away that that’s what it was. And a huge draw for me was, as a mom, I knew that, if Wyatt had been born in a different country under different circumstances, he could be vulnerable to traffickers. I could have been vulnerable to traffickers. I just felt so thankful for everything that I had, and I felt a deep responsibility to do what I can to create opportunities for other women around the world.
It’s interesting to see — it’s almost like you were led down the garden path. You were looking; you knew you had to do something different, and this idea presented itself to you. Now I’m curious about the practicalities of it. Did you keep on with your other career for a while? Did you go into this full speed ahead? And then, how did you finance it? How did you set this up in order to take this on?
Kimba: This is an interesting part of the story. When Dave first had the idea for Free The Girls, and when we first launched, we wanted to be a social enterprise, not a non-profit. It’s kind of this for-profit/not-for-profit hybrid, where you create a business around a cause, or a business whose revenue will serve a cause.
So we launched selling T-shirts that say “Free The Girls,” a portion of the T-shirt proceeds would go to rescue efforts and to raise awareness, and then we would do this bra collection thing on the side.
Dave and I formed as an LLC, we were a partnership. We each put in some money of our own, a few thousand dollars that we each put in to get our website launched and photography of our product and all that, and, honestly, I felt like, “This is great. This is something that I can do from home, as a stay-at-home mom. It’ll be just a few hours a week on my computer to make sure the store’s running, and every now and then, I’ll box up some bras.” Honestly, we thought that we would send a few hundred bras in suitcases a couple times a year to people going to visit Dave in Mozambique.
I have to stop you, because how many are you actually sending?
Kimba: (Laughs) We have collected over 200,000 bras, and we’ve shipped about 175,000 bras, in the last two and a half, three years. So it definitely had a mind of its own, and it was clear within less than a year.
We also thought that our first safe house that we partnered with, it would take Dave about a year on the ground to find that partner and to establish that relationship and trust. And it was, I think, just within a few months of him being in Mozambique. He had moved his family there; they’re working full-time as missionaries.
It definitely had a mind of its own, and it was very clear to us when we had collected over 20,000 bras just in the first six months, that we had connected somehow with women.
We decided, probably about little less than a year after launching, that we would convert to a non-profit. So we did that in June of 2011, and then got our 501(c)(3) a year later. That was quite a process. The challenge of not only starting a business — I mean, I don’t have a business degree, so for me to be all of a sudden running an online business, and I’m doing QuickBooks, and I’m doing a Facebook page, and blogging, and running this website and doing website updates, all of that was so new to me.
But I love it, because one of the things I loved about being a producer was each new client that came in had a different product or a different show. There was always something new to learn about something else or someone else. I’ve always thrived on that and enjoyed that. So, while it was exciting, it was also very humbling.
Humbling? In what way?
Kimba: You’re wearing many hats, and as producers, we’re used to wearing many hats. But it’s kind of a crazy thing. It’s exciting, but it’s terrifying because, after 20 years in the business as a producer, I had my groove. I knew what I was doing, was confident in my abilities, I was successful in my career.
So to start over in something, first as a business that I know nothing about running — I mean, I’d kind of run my own business as a freelancer, but that’s a different animal — and then as a non-profit, I’m, like, “I don’t know anything.” But I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and wanted to learn as much as I can about things, that you just dive in.
And I think part of the beauty of it, too, was, since we approached starting a non-profit from a little less traditional perspective and direction — most people, they get a Board of Directors, and they raise seed money, and they apply for their 501(c)(3) all in the beginning, not retroactively, like we did.
So we didn’t have people around us telling us what we couldn’t do. We’re just, like, “Let’s do this. Yeah, okay, let’s do this.” And we figured, we’ll just learn it as we go, and try. It was really super-fun and exciting.
So you didn’t go out and buy ‘Small Non-Profits for Dummies,’ or anything like that? How did you figure out how do to this?
Kimba: First off, we, as far as applying for our 501(c)(3), that application process, we had a member of our Board who had been through that with another non-profit. She’s a CPA, and so she helped get us started.
I went to a course that the IRS had put up there. It was actually on filing your 990, but there was some information about the application process and what they look for in people staying compliant as a tax-exempt organization, so I felt, it’s good to know what they want us to do, down the line, the types of things they’ll say no to, as we’re creating this and filing this paperwork.
We just looked for examples online, and we had a wonderful guy from our church who’s a non-profit lawyer. We did the work, and then he would review that and it worked out.
What would you say are some mistakes that you made that you would probably not do that way the next time?
Kimba: Oh, goodness. Before I get into that, there were also mentors along the way. Some women that I’d met who run non-profits, like Candace from Truckers Against Trafficking and Elisa Morgan from MOPS, so some really great women and men that Dave and I both knew. And Dave was the pastor of our church, on the business side of the church, so he had experience in running a non-profit already. In many regards, we weren’t going at it totally blind.
I don’t know how much I would call them mistakes, but I do feel that there were more challenges in doing it backwards. Everybody that I meet now — it’s so funny too, because I’ll occasionally get people saying, “Oh, my gosh, I want to start a non-profit. Can you be my mentor?” And I’m like, “Here’s what not to do.”
That’s what I really meant …
Kimba: Here’s all the things you need to have in place before you start: your articles of incorporation, and your by-laws, and your Board of Directors, and seed money, and filing that 1023 application as soon as you possibly can. Because there’s so much that’s required in that 1023 application, those things are required because those are the things that set you up to run your non-profit effectively, and, obviously, to be compliant with your tax-exempt status.
I definitely will say, preparation, preparation, preparation. Do it all up at the front. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
(Laughs) It’s hard, though, when you have the bras shipped, and it just took on a life of its own, is what it sounds like.
Kimba: It absolutely did, and we were fortunate in that, shortly after we converted to a non-profit, we caught the attention of CNN. At the time it was just a year-long initiative called the CNN Freedom Project, where they were committing resources to doing stories on fighting trafficking and modern-day slavery, and they somehow found us — I have no idea how — and came out and did a story. They actually included some information about our need to ship the bras overseas, and we didn’t have the financial resources to do that.
Their stories air on CNN International, they don’t air domestically, and within less than 24 hours, there was a gentleman who works for a shipping company in Chicago. He had seen the story on us on CNN International when he was traveling in Hungary, and reached out to us and said, “I can ship those bras for you.” It was amazing.
Then, the story was going viral. At one point, it was on the front page of CNN US, on their website. It was totally crazy. And then we had all the bras here in Denver, and the shipping guy is in Chicago, so we had that challenge. I reached out to my friend at Truckers Against Trafficking, and within 24 hours, we had a trucker who was going to drive the bras to Chicago for us. So you just never know how something will go viral.
We’re so lucky to be in this age, where technology — although technology adds to the issue and makes it easier for traffickers — it’s something we can use against them in the fight against human trafficking, and in our case, in getting these bras overseas to the women and raising awareness.
CNN ultimately did a follow-up story that was a 30-minute documentary. That exposure has just been a really great shot in the arm for a small grass-roots organization.
You think about a lot of non-profits that are maybe one or two people, and they never seem to take off. It’s almost as if you were in the Zeitgeist, and all these serendipitous things happened. It was meant to be. I know that sounds a little bit out there, maybe, but I think sometimes that’s just the way it is.
And then you have a lot of people that just work really hard at their non-profits, they don’t get, maybe, the kind of international or media attention that you did, but they have to grow much more slowly, which just brings me to my next point, which is, I know that it’s been a bit of a struggle to keep up with how fast this has grown. Did you prepare? Did you have any idea, and how did you handle that quick growth?
Kimba: It’s a challenge. It really is. What we’re finding, and this is common in the non-profit world, is people are attracted to the sexy cause, and right now, trafficking is the sexy cause. It’s become popular, which is good and bad.
They’re not as interested in funding the people who run the organizations. It’s harder for us when applying for grants or getting support from the public. People are really quick to give us bras, and that’s wonderful, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s something simple. If you don’t have money to donate, you can donate a used bra that’s sitting in the back of your underwear drawer. But we have one employee, and that’s me. I get paid a part-time salary. We received a grant this past year that goes just to our overseas expansion into new locations.
I’d say, the challenge is, fortunately, we have really, really great volunteers, and because of how our organization is run, they’re able to volunteer for us virtually. We have people who help answer emails, and with our social media, and we have event concierges, so when people are having bra drives and fundraising events, they have a person who’s their contact at Free The Girls that can help them publicize their event and get it on our website, that sort of thing.
But it is something that keeps me awake at night. I have these really great high-capacity volunteers who are able to put in a lot of hours, but their situations could change any day. Right now, we’re really trying to find partners and donors and foundations who will support our infrastructure, and because, if I don’t grow it on the personnel side, on the infrastructure side, we can’t support that growth.
It’s a double-edged sword. The rapid growth has been great. We laugh, because after the first CNN stories aired, we were getting a lot of attention and people reaching out, saying, “Hey, can you bring the program to my country?” That sort of thing.
Dave and I had a conversation, and this was before we expanded the Board, “Hey, how fast do we want to grow? What seems reasonable?” And I’m, like, “Well, given our current resources, we probably shouldn’t add more than one new location per year.” “Okay, great.” And here we are — we added four new locations this past year.
Again, nobody’s telling us what we can’t do. It’s, find a way, and where you had talked about the whole ‘it’s meant to be’ and that whole ‘fortune smiling on us’ thing, for Dave and I — he’s a pastor, and so the works that we do has been founded in our faith and we really do feel like there’s a lot of divine intervention. We feel like we’ve seen a lot of God working in the works that we do. We feel like that’s where a lot of these seemingly coincidental opportunities and things that have happened have come from.
Absolutely. You know, it’s funny, because I think a lot of times people look at charities like yours and they’ll see you on CNN, they’ll see you doing all these things, and they think, “Oh, that’s a well-funded organization.” They don’t see that you’re like one of those ducks with your little feet going, going, going, under the water and you’re gliding along.
Kimba: I say that all the time: “Be the duck. Be the duck.”
But, yeah, that is double-edged. You have to make sure people know that you still need funding. It’s going beautifully, but …
Kimba: Well, that’s the other thing, too. I love our website. I think it’s beautiful. And it was completely donated and built pro bono by a friend of mine who works as our IT supervisor now, and web guru. But sometimes, we’re like, “Oh my gosh. He made the website too nice. He’ll really make us look a lot more bigger than we are. Or I’ll have people be, like, “Do you mind if I drop off these bras at your headquarters or your office,” and I’m, like, “Yeah, our international global headquarters is the kitchen counter and my laptop.”
And I don’t ever see that changing. I don’t see us having big fancy offices. We don’t need them. Most of what we do can be done virtually. We have key volunteers in other states, in Arizona and Indiana and Tennessee, and obviously Dave is overseas, but we do need the people. We need people who are paid a salary and are able to work full-time for us.
Along those lines, do you have advice for someone who wants to start a non-profit, who’s had something nagging at their heart for a long time?
Kimba: I think my advice for anybody who, even if they haven’t had something nagging at their heart — trafficking was not on my radar. It was something that just kind of — I say, God just dropped an anvil on my head — it was something that was just dropped in my lap and I didn’t even realize I was passionate about that cause.
So my first bit of advice would be to just be open to opportunities and to be open to that thing that might break your heart, that you want to do something about. And I think what paralyzes people is that they feel they have to do something big, or they feel they don’t have something to contribute.
Prior to Free The Girls, I would just write a check. You hear about something awful, and you’re, like, “Oh, that’s awful!” And then you might hear about it again. You’re, like, “God, that’s awful. Somebody should do something about that.” And then you hear about it a third time, “That’s awful! Maybe I should do something about that.” And for me it always stopped with, “I can write a check.”
And Dave was the one who … I said, “Dave, can I write you a check?” And he’s, like, “You sure can. But if you do, I’m making you a partner.” So it felt like, “Oh, I’m getting pulled out of my comfort zone now, and I’m taking action.”
Fortunately for me, when we first launched Free The Girls, I was still freelancing, and financially, I obviously wasn’t getting a salary from Free The Girls — that just came a few months ago. I had to keep working as a freelance producer. So I had a three-year-old son, I was trying to help start this organization, and was working production jobs on the side. The first year and a half to two years, that’s what I was doing.
Finally, something had to give, and I just had to take that leap of faith that the producing had to give. I had to hang on to Free The Girls. I just really felt like that’s where I was supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing, and where my passion and my heart was. So I took that leap of faith and, honestly, shortly after I made that decision and stopped taking freelance jobs, my husband got a promotion and a raise at work.
We were able to buy a couple of rental properties and got a little bit of income from there. It doesn’t make up the gap in what I had from my previous career, but it definitely, I felt, sent the message that, yeah, you took the right leap and you did make the right decision. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m not doing Free The Girls to try to make the same kind of money I was making as a producer. That’s not what it’s about. The reward there is so much greater than a paycheck could ever provide.
It’s also interesting when you talk about, yes, you did keep working in your other job. I think a lot of people feel like, when they take the leap, they have to so completely take it, and yes, that’s okay, you can do it that way as well. But sometimes you can put training wheels on and put your toe in it and do it in what feels most comfortable to you. The big thing is, be open, be open, be open, and give yourself the opportunity to have that time to be able to do it.
Kimba: I always re-quote Dave on this, it’s one of my favorite things, because he said — and I think he stole it from somewhere else, too — it said, “You can’t do everything, but you can do something. So what is the something that you can do?” So when I speak to women’s groups, MOPS groups, these are stay-at-home moms with young children, they’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do this,” or people have a full-time job, and they don’t have that spare time.
I do think there’s a misconception that you have to do something big. I always thought, “Well, I can’t pack up my family and move overseas and work for the Peace Corps, be a missionary, that’s not my thing. That’s not a reality for me.” But there were skills that I have from being a producer that translate into running a non-profit.
Non-profits need all sorts of help. Maybe you have a printing company, or maybe you have some graphic design, maybe you’re a lawyer or an accountant, or maybe you’re great at admin. You’re great at writing. You can hand-write thank you notes for us, because you have wonderful penmanship.
Don’t try to do something that you don’t always enjoy doing, or that’s not a skill. What types of skills or what types of interests do you have? Maybe there’s a creative outlet that you don’t currently have at home or in your job, but there could be a non-profit out there — and I probably guarantee you there’s a non-profit out there — that could use that skill, and you can help them that way.
It’s amazing. I think people get really caught up in their own lives or just trying to get through their work-a-day, and they oftentimes, even if you just stick your toe out a little bit into the water and volunteer somewhere, it’ll open up a completely new world to you of what is possible in your life. I’ve seen this happen many, many times.
And you’re coming from an overwhelming job, which is what producing is. It’s a absolutely energy-sucking job, which is very rewarding as well, but certainly takes a lot of mental, physical, and everything else. I mean, if you can do it, and with a baby, I think it gives us all the idea that we can all do it. Let me do something.
Kimba: When I look back on that now, I’m, like, “How could I do that?” You know, there’s many people who do much more than that on a daily basis, though. I have no complaints.
I think one of the things is, too, you can’t think about everything down the line that’s going to have to happen or might happen. You just have to start. Just start, at least.
Kimba: And I think, too, for me, one of the struggles that I had — there’s an ego thing there, when you’re coming from being really good at your job and having success, to, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’m doing,” and I would look at these other organizations that were so successful, that had these multi-million dollar operating budgets and these other executive directors, who were just so savvy, and I fell into that trap of — what do they say? We’re robbed of our joy when we compare our behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel.
And that really struck me. It’s, like, “Well, I’m only seeing the best of them. I’m not seeing the duck feet below the surface of the water.” And the more I started — I got involved with the Colorado Non-profit Association. I remember, one of the break-out sessions I went to at their conference was for executive directors, and the many hats and the many roles. There were so many women in the room who were just like me, who kind of fell into this, and were just making the best of what they could. There’s very few running non-profits who have been trained to run non-profits.
I think a lot of times, like you said, we’re sort of waiting for the expert to show up, or the person who’s going to tell us what we need to do. That, as long as I’ve been alive, has never happened to me. Any time I wanted to take a new leap, I simply had to do it. I may have had mentors, or I could look at other people that had done it, but it’s still you, just deciding that you are a non-profit executive director. You are a producer. Whatever it is you want to do, it’s just doing it, basically.
Kimba: It’s so funny that you bring that up, Ingrid, because two summers ago — it was 2012 — I was at an event. That was after the first round of CNN, not the second round of CNN, and I was being really insecure and just telling people, “Well, I’m the executive director because somebody had to be.” Just that whole …
Kimba: … the caveat, like, “Okay, in case I sound like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this is why.” I would say, “Yeah, once we start getting our 501(c)(3), and we start getting some money in, then we can hire a real executive director.” This woman was so great. She’s, like, “Kimba, how long have you been doing this?” And I said, “Two years.” She’s, like, “You are a real executive director. You are an experienced executive director. You’ve been doing it for two years.” And I was, like, “Oh, wait a minute!”
That started a journey of accepting my role and having a little bit more confidence in myself in that, and realizing I don’t have to be the best, and what is the best, anyway?
That doesn’t exist anywhere. There is no ‘the best.’
Kimba: Sometimes your qualifications is that you’re available (laughs).
Well, you know what? I can’t think of a better note to end on than that. Thank you so much, Kimba, and make sure you check out FreeTheGirls.org, and everyone else, thank you for listening.
Kimba: Thank you.