Going places. Together.

“Dear Judith, Thank you for your email and interest in working for █████. At the moment we only offer internships at our offices…“ ─ It’s been more than 4 years since I graduated from one of Europe’s well reputed universities with a Bachelor of Arts in European Studies. Granted, I did not exactly take the conventional road, which would have led me into politics or PR or even law. Instead, I took the risk and decided to give the creative industries a try. It wasn’t the entrance into this industry, that posed the problem. I was able to find an internship with a film agency fairly quickly and after a brief month I was promoted from intern to trainee. Not that it made any difference to my pay, but it sure seemed like things were headed somewhere. Now, four years later I’ve held all sorts of “positions” and have quite a nice array of beautifully scripted reference letters appraising my value, but I have yet to find out what it’s like to be paid the minimum hourly wage.

Most recently I worked as a manager of a shop turned showroom turned fashion agency. I wasn’t paid very much - to put it nicely. From what I can tell after a few months behind the scenes, it seems that the costs for upkeeping a showroom are very high, so, to be fair, even if the will was there the ways to an increase in wage would be fairly limited. What’s more, as an integral part of my duties I oversaw and worked with several interns, who happened to be unpaid (surprise!).

I’m not disputing that there are two sides to every coin. Perhaps have not upheld my point in discussions on wage or I may also be reaping the results of switching the direction of my career at such a late stage. That aside, it seems that, in fact, internships no longer serve the purpose of education and an entrance into the workforce. They have become the norm and entire businesses are built on their existence. (Of course there are exceptions.) 


I am one of the founders of Redemption Collection [redco.], a project based on the idea of creating fashion out of redeemed materials to support the cause of The A21 Campaign - fighting human trafficking. Once every week a group of people come together in my room turned office to discuss the next steps for redco.. Over the past few years this team has changed and evolved. Whereas some members have played an integral part since the very beginning, others have carried the vision only for a while and have passed on the baton to someone new. The project has advanced and taken shape but most importantly, it has been built on the heart convictions of the people involved. None of these beautiful people have ever seen a single dime. Fair enough, neither have I.

But still, how in the world can I justify this? How can I do the exact same thing that I have spent the last few paragraphs criticizing?

YES, I do believe that being part and getting involved in something bigger than yourself (such as the fight against the global injustice of human trafficking or becoming a pro-active part of the debate surrounding sustainable fashion) is a privilege.


Figuring out how in the world to avoid falling in this trap has been and continues to be an interesting journey. Over the past couple of years I have made some realizations and while I wish I could say I knew exactly how to bridge the gap between fair conditions and unpaid work, I am aware that I’ve still got a lot of things to learn. However, I believe that while I can’t offer money at this point (yet), what I can offer is a leadership that places value on every individual on the team and desires to see them move forward in their personal journey as we together move the vision of redco. forward. In the next couple of paragraphs, I would like to share some of the values and ways I am learning to lead by in hope that they would serve you well. I’ll be happy to receive your thoughts.


One of the values I adhere to in my leadership experience with redco. is simply: "It's all about people". This concept has fundamentally changed how I look at redco. I have come to believe that I’m not actually building a project, I am building people. People build projects. If the people involved in this project feel valued, they will place value on the project and its vision. I am learning not to expect my team to serve me, but to look for ways to serve my team.

As a leader my role is to
1. Place value on people. 
2. Speak to the potential of people.
3. Point people to the vision.

In that order.

First, I help people understand how valuable they are, not just to the project but as a person. I remind them of all the ways they are gifted and equipped. Placing value essentially looks like caring about people.

Second, I help them discover how much more is inside of them. Most people already know their shortcomings and don’t need to be reminded. Few have even considered that they are capable of growth or great achievements. It is my desire and responsibility to see this in them and open their eyes to it, to help them believe they CAN, not CAN’T.

Finally, I point them to the vision. Primarily to the vision of the project, but also beyond that. I show them how their particular situation, ability, desire can move the project forward and in doing that contribute to a much bigger picture - whatever that picture may be. Pointing to vision is perhaps the most challenging part of my role. Vision has to be communicated in infinitely different ways, from different angles, individually adapted to every situation and person.

With redco. I get to release people. My job is to use what I do as a tool that equips the people in my team to be empowered for what they want to do with their lives. This is a huge privilege but equally a huge challenge. While it is amazing to watch people discover their potential and grow in unexpected ways, I have often struggled with wanting to hold onto people. I do not own people - they have been entrusted to me, even if it is only for a season. Yes, at times I have felt as though all my efforts have been in vain, because I have invested into people just to watch them get empowered and then move onto different things. Yes, I have been frustrated. But at the end of the day I have to remind myself that the results of a project are never worth more than the lives that are changed in the process.


Leadership is about lifting people not tasks. Always. It sounds simple. But it’s not. There is a fine line between elevating the task above the person and missing a chance to empower someone to grow their capacity. I desire that as a redco. team we do everything out of the overflow - not out of strive. Strive has been defined as doing things that don’t line up with your values. That’s where vision comes in again. If the vision has become a part of someone, the tasks needed to accomplish it will flow out from the inside naturally. It is good to stretch one’s capacity, if it happens in a healthy way. As a leader I have to understand that everyone on my team is at a different place on their journey. I try to understand where each person is at and then help them figure out their next (personal) step towards the goal. I have to allow people to grow at their own pace. Growth is only sustainable if it happens from the inside out. Most importantly, I have to commit myself to my own personal growth. I can only take people where I have been before.


Ultimately, if I can’t pay people, the least I can do, is assure that they enjoy what they are doing. Part of that is discovering and promoting people’s strengths. Rather then pressing them into a task, I try to find tasks that fit their abilities and allow them to feel valuable as they add value in whichever particular way only they can. To do that I have had to let go of control and allow the project to take shape according to the people that are involved in it, all the while still making the tough decisions that will move the project forward in the intended direction.


Which leads me to my next point: I have to be the culture. Vision and culture, can’t be communicated. They are caught by being around someone (just like a cold or a virus, but without the negative symptoms). Whatever is on me, will be on the people I work with. My motivation for what I’m doing will be reflected in the people I work with. If I want people to be enthusiastic and hard-working, I have to be enthusiastic and hard-working myself. It always starts with me, whether that concerns the vision (How passionate am I about the fight against human trafficking?) or the culture (Do I value people above tasks? Am I serving and helping people? Am I making sacrifices? Does my work show that I value excellence? Do I make things happen by finding solutions for challenges?).


The biggest lesson I have learned and my biggest challenge to date is learning to reproduce leaders. It starts by doing things through people (as opposed to doing things by myself). I constantly try to increase the responsibilities I give to the people on my team. Asking someone to complete a task, that I may feel I could do better and quicker myself is difficult, because I have to give up a certain level of control over the outcome. It often looks like a lot of investment at the beginning as it can sometimes take more time to pass on skills or explain the desired outcome, than if I had just done it myself. However, I believe that this decision will pay off in the long run and it is actually the only way to build something in a healthy, sustainable way. Unless you intend to build a business that is centered around yourself as a person (which I wouldn’t recommend). I am always looking out for people who understand the vision. This not only increases the output exponentially, it also leads to empowering people to become leaders themselves. There is nothing better than seeing people begin to grow, multiply themselves and take others along for the ride.


And finally, one last simple piece of advice: encouragement goes a long way. I want to choose to see the positive in people and I believe in speaking to potential, not to behaviour. I realize that growth is a process and I remember that ultimately it is about who we are becoming in the process. This not only helps others but takes the pressure off of my shoulders as well.

That being said, I am excited for the next steps ahead for redco. in 2015 and I am certain that as every individual involved grows in their personal life, they will take redco. forward with them. 

Image source from left to right: one line drawing by Quibe via Pinterest;  women in hats by unknown source, altered by me; remaining images from redco., photographed by Cora Wöllenstein, model: Thea Sawon; the redco. team 2015.