Portrait de Jenny McGee, fondatrice de Starfish Project

Making a bigger splash in China

Profile of Starfish Project founder

Based in Beijing, Starfish Project provides holistic care and support to restore hope to exploited women. K magazine caught up with the founder Jenny McGee and Shirley Jiang, her business mentor from Qeelin – a result of Starfish winning a Kering Foundation Social Enterprise award last year.

A young man is throwing beached starfish back into the ocean. An old man scoffs at his Sisyphean task. “There are thousands of starfish and only one of you,” he says, “what difference can you make?” To which the young man replies, “I made a difference to that one.”

Portrait de Jenny McGee, fondatrice de Starfish Project

What does this parable mean to Jenny McGee, founder of Starfish Project? “We thought it was a good story, it says what we’re doing well,” she said, delivering her answer with a characteristic mix of humility and optimism. “It’s not like we’re going to solve the problem of exploitation of women,” she said. “But you can make a complete difference for this one person.”

McGee has an easy, unpretentious laugh which she emits when I express disbelief that she’d leave idyllic Hawaii, her native state, for landlocked Beijing, a city often choked by smog. But she and her husband were interested in China so they moved here initially to learn the language.

Through a friend who worked in philanthropy, McGee started visiting places that worked with exploited and trafficked women. “I started to meet girls who were in bad situations and saw they needed other employment,” she said. Most of these women were from rural China. Some didn’t have any formal education or were illiterate; others worked desperate jobs so their brothers could go to school.”

After hearing their stories, McGee decided to do something. In 2006, armed with nothing but her fierce determination, she founded Starfish Project.

A gem of an idea

Since domestic violence was outlawed in China in 2001, enforcement has remained inconsistent. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, nearly a quarter of married women have been the victim of domestic abuse, though the percentage is probably higher due to under-reporting.

It’s a long process. But having patience and looking holistically at people’s lives. You have to look at the whole picture.

It is now easier for victims to seek redress in cases of physical and psychological abuse. However, the law is silent on cases of sexual abuse and abuse in same-sex partnerships. Although the situation is improving, there is much room for reform. For the time being, social enterprises and individuals must work to help those who fall through the cracks.

I met McGee at Starfish Project’s new digs in northeast Beijing. The office was bright and open, with modish exposed ceilings and one wall painted a charming turquoise. Starfish now employs around 40 people in Beijing, with another 20 at their branch in Henan. But in 2006, none of this existed. All McGee had was a rented apartment. “We basically worked there, ate there, lived there,” she says. “Now looking back, it was kind of crazy.”

The idea was simple: help exploited women by selling jewellery. It was practical too. Jewellery was cheap to produce, easy to ship and people wanted it. China offered a variety of materials and online shopping made it easier than ever to procure.

Portrait de Jenny McGee, fondatrice de Starfish Project

But Starfish was never meant to be a jewellery company. Even in 2006, McGee had bigger plans for her organization and the women it helped. “My thought was to have them make jewellery while they learned to do something else,” she told me.

Tooling up

So in addition to employment, shelter and counselling, Starfish also offers classes in skills like photography, graphic design and accounting. The women attend computer class every afternoon where they can work toward a Microsoft Office certification.

“Employing people to make something forever is not that thrilling to me,” McGee said. “But seeing them be able to do things they never thought they could do before is quite fulfilling.”

McGee tells me a story about a woman called Amy (not her real name), who came to Starfish from an extremely abusive situation. She began by making jewellery but McGee soon noticed that Amy was quite creative. So Starfish paid for her to learn Photoshop. A few months later, Amy ended up teaching all the other Starfish women Photoshop, and even schooled the Microsoft Office tutor.

Looking at Starfish, I see yesterday’s Qeelin. […] I really like things that are just beginning.

“It was encouraging to see,” McGee said. “Not just people leaving a bad situation but achieving something more than they thought possible.” Amy has since left Starfish and set up her own design business.

I ask McGee how this dramatic rehabilitation comes about. “I think some companies or NGOs try to help large amounts of people but that hasn’t been our focus. We try to make sure we can provide good services for the people that we’ve taken in and employ.”

Even if it means they can’t help as many women as they’d like. McGee continued, “It’s a long process. But having patience and looking holistically at people’s lives, not just feeding them or providing shelter but seeing what their needs are and trying to support those needs…. You have to look at the whole picture.”

A sparkling story

Since its founding, Starfish has empowered more than 100 women with this strategy of holistic care. Its efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, the organisation was selected for Kering Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur Award in China, receiving a grant of €30,000 and mentoring by a Kering Group senior manager.

That manager was Shirley Jiang, head of China PR for international fine jeweller Qeelin. Jiang has worked in cosmetics and fashion and is now in jewellery. She’s had to learn the business from scratch each time. Not that she minds; in fact, she enjoys the challenge. She was Qeelin’s first employee on the mainland. “I like to go from zero to one”.

Portrait de Jenny McGee, fondatrice de Starfish Project

Jiang’s skill in guiding businesses was on display at a meeting between her and McGee that I sat in on. They talked about Starfish’s entree into China and all the branding and marketing which that entailed. One part of their conversation revolved around how to tell Starfish’s story to Chinese consumers.

“If you tell them that the maker of the jewellery they’re wearing has had an unfair and difficult history, they will feel very sad,” Jiang explained. We help them retell the story.”

Vocational

Jiang and McGee also debated the design of the packaging and when to launch the brand. Jiang offered to share her media contacts at the top Chinese fashion magazines. They made for an odd but complementary couple. I got the sense that McGee wanted to help those in need and would find a way to do so even if she had nothing. Jiang wanted the same, but was more willing to leverage money and influence.

Portrait de Jenny McGee, fondatrice de Starfish Project

Jiang’s commitment to helping Starfish was personal as well. “Looking at Starfish, I see yesterday’s Qeelin,” she told me after the meeting. “We’ll help them take the first step but their future is limitless. I really like things that are just beginning. I feel they are very valuable.”

McGee has been in China for 15 years. She’s different from others I’ve met in the NGO sector, foreigners out to ‘save’ the Chinese people without understanding their circumstances. She wants to help because that’s who she is. “I felt almost like a calling, you know?” she told me. “This is what I’m made to do.”