Why I Left a Corporate Career to Found a Fashion Line That Fights Sex Slavery

Sudara’s founder shares how a trip to India changed everything.
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Sudara’s founder shares how a trip to India changed everything.

Life wasn’t bad; in fact, it was good. Ten years ago, I was working in sales for a pharmaceutical company and covered the Orange County area. My day to day involved training, meeting with doctors, and enjoying many beautiful Southern California sunsets. I met some wonderful people, overcame challenges, experienced success, and learned a great deal about the medical field.

The tricky thing is, we can all be successful at a variety of things in life, but just because we’re successful doesn’t mean we’re fulfilled. I had no complaints, but somehow I felt a yearning for something more.

Then, in 2005, I took a trip to India. I have always been passionate about justice for women around the world, especially where gender inequality and divide have been prevalent, but no experience has affected me the way that trip did.

While I was traveling with my husband and a nongovernmental organization, I found myself working in a small rural village filled with women who were enslaved in sex trafficking and prostitution. India was previously ranked the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women, and it is one of the global hubs for human sex trade. UNICEF estimated that three million women are being exploited for prostitution in India, and 40 percent are minors.

These women were mothers to many children, all of whom were fatherless and severely lacking any kind of education and stability. Girls are particularly disadvantaged—families often value boys over girls, and as a result, female family members often lack an education. Sixty percent of girls who do have the chance to attend school drop out before fifth grade. Lack of education inhibits their independence in the quickly urbanizing India. Witnessing firsthand the severe poverty and injustice was both shocking and heartbreaking.

Sudara / Paula Watts Photography

Sudara / Paula Watts Photography

I had an idea of what prostitution was, but it never truly hit me until I was completely immersed on that trip, until I was walking down the streets of a small red light district in India. India's caste system creates a divide in the fabric of their society, leaving some women and children in the "untouchable" caste more susceptible to being trafficked. What is seen as an opportunity to escape societal constraints instead traps women in situations of abuse, dark and dirty living conditions, poor health and unwanted pregnancies. Myths still abound among many in India that sex with a virgin cures STDs, making the demand for child prostitutes high. Although laws have been enacted making sex trafficking a criminal offense, they are not enforced, and police are often paid to stay quiet.

Instead of feeling helpless and inadequate, I felt something very different—inspired. “What kind of human would I be,” I asked myself, “if I choose to do nothing about this tragedy I have come face-to-face with?” I was overwhelmed with an urgency to find a solution.

I realized that I must be having this inspiration for a reason. I had gifts in my corporate world. Maybe I could apply them to help alleviate the suffering before me. If I were able to create jobs and opportunities for these women, then they could have the chance to bring themselves out of sex slavery. The reason people fall into the industry is sometimes very simple: lack of financial stability and opportunities. India has over 1.1 billion people and approximately 37 percent of them are below the poverty line. Women are lured by traffickers with the possibilities of employment and independence. 

The situation was tragic, but just as I was thrust into a world I felt desperate to help in some way, I simultaneously found myself experiencing profound and polarizing beauty in India's culture. I experienced firsthand the bright and intricate Indian textiles and saris, which so perfectly reflected the beauty in Indian culture. I saw the way clothing complemented the architecture and bustling streets. 

The aesthetics and crisis I saw both gave me an idea for a business—one where women could create and sell products that share internationally the splendor of their culture. My hope was to see the community thrive, with the ultimate goal being to end sex slavery.

Just a year after my visit to India, I partnered with a like-minded sewing factory in India and hired my first six employees, who were all individually trained to become skilled seamstresses. My company, Sudara (at the time, the International Princess Project), was then born. The idea was that these women were princesses; they just weren’t treated as such—yet. 

Sudara / Paula Watts Photography

Sudara / Paula Watts Photography

Today, my company employs more than two hundred women in various parts of India. These women have more than three hundred children, which means that together, we're bringing more than five hundred individuals out of poverty and into incredible opportunities. My coworkers and I don't often realize the impact we're having until we visit these talented women in person during our trips to India. There, we hear their stories and spend time with them in our centers. Some are more reserved, while others share their journeys openly. 

One woman, named Aadita, is a 29-year-old mother of two boys. She has been married for more than a decade to an abusive alcoholic who recently stopped working. Concerned about her family, Aadita came to one of our partner sewing centers in search of sewing classes that would allow her to work from her home. What she found instead has been life-changing for her. Because of the partnership with Sudara, Aadita’s center is able to provide steady employment for her and the other women of their community in a nonjudgmental setting, and with her job, Aadita has become the breadwinner in her family, paying for basics and providing for her boys’ educations. She communicates the significance of her work in words like these: “I feel like I’m being exposed to a bigger world. Just now I am knowing what the world is all about.”

When Aadita talks about her sons, she speaks like any mother who wants more for her children, but the changes she is making in her home are further reaching than that. Children who grow up in homes with abuse are far more likely to abuse their spouses or to be abused. Seeing an empowered mother who is taking steps to better both her life and theirs sends her sons a message that is countercultural in India: Women are strong, they are capable, they are able to meet life and excel in it. Every step Aadita takes to better the life of her family today improves her family’s future: educated sons who respect their mother as a woman and a person will one day be men with a wider, more balanced view of women and what they can accomplish.

As I listen to Aadita, I see common ground. The goal for both of us is to create opportunities for our children that can change the world they live in. We at Sudara know we're creating a positive impact with a model that works when we open new centers—there's a new one opening this year! That moment really hits home that Sudara's model is in fact working.

Of course the journey I’ve described here was easier said than done. I’ve faced many challenges along my path of social entrepreneurship: funding, learning how to do business internationally, and issues with cultural barriers, to name a few. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. While enduring these situations, just remembering the courageous and strong women in India give me strength.

I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and the perspective I have gained from facing the suffering I saw on the streets all those years ago. I believe that all of us have something to offer the world to make a difference. Having brought my business knowledge to the problem I saw in India, I am more confident than ever that putting our minds together and bringing our positive gifts to the table, we have the power to break cycles of abuse, injustice, and, yes, even such stubborn black markets as sex trafficking. Women may be among the most exploited people on earth, but interacting with these remarkably strong women reminds me that we can also be among the most transformative and powerful forces as well. And that knowledge is what keeps me going. 

Photo Credit: Sudara / Paula Watts Photography