Freedom Through Friendship: An Interview with Elizabeth Firgeleski

Elizabeth is the founder and president of Brooklyn based non-profit organization, A Global Friendship (AGF). However, AGF’s doors extend far beyond the Big Apple. AGF currently connects 80 women from Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, India, and other parts of the United States with over 150 U.S. retail locations, providing tools, resources, and opportunities for women to build their own small businesses. For the first time ever, AGF is currently committed to two communities simultaneously– working with 8 business leaders on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, as well as communities in India.

As Chair of the Board of Directors, Elizabeth focuses on building a strong team while expanding the corporate sponsorship program to make the organization a sustainable venture. Prior to her current position, Elizabeth held various roles in marketing and fashion. However, back in December of 2004, a desire to travel and study outside of the world of fashion and commerce brought Elizabeth to Thailand. However, in her journey to find fulfillment, she was met by the South Asian tsunami that took the lives of more than 235,000 people. Her survival fueled the luck to hand a helping hand.

Elizabeth has met many hurdles before feeling empowered by her own agency as a woman. Through AGF, she has pushed the boundaries she once saw as confining. Subsequently, she has done the same for the women AGF serves– providing opportunities and support to stand on one’s own two feet, discover one’s right to self-expression, and take pride in one’s womanhood. Furthermore, 100% of profits from product sales goes directly back to the women– arming them with the financial power and freedom to make their own decisions while providing for their families’ educational and nutritional futures. AGF’s mission encompasses many sociological concerns– from environmental sustainability to economic stability to gender equality. Emphasizing the friendship in A Global Friendship, Elizabeth remains personally connected to the needs of the people and land that gave her a second chance at life.

“We help women in developing communities build their own small businesses. We do this by providing small business skills training and access to global markets. As the businesses develop, a community wide impact is created by hiring more women, thereby creating crucial jobs.”

H: What connects you to your cause and how did you come to embrace your current career/project? Do you feel that any past experiences prepared you for this role?

E: Surviving the Tsunami gave me perspective on life. Being helped by those beautiful souls on that day, gave me a nudge and a drive to do something impactful with my life– to give back somehow. I just couldn’t understand why people didn’t have opportunity to create a life they wanted– a life just even with the basic essentials. I grew up in Connecticut in an upper middle class family. I was the last child of five so, don’t get me wrong, … I always had to work for the things in my life. I worked from a young age in our family restaurant. But I always had the basics. I always had opportunity just even by being born in this country. What I started to struggle with so profoundly, was that people weren’t granted basic opportunities simply because they were born in different parts of the world. It was all chance– and I was just one of the fortunate souls. Knowing that there are women who go to bed without eating today still breaks my heart. And today I get to see the women we serve suddenly thrive– providing for their families. Seeing their transformation and ultimately their smiles is what truly connects me to the mission.

H: Was this an envisioned life goal or a beautiful plot twist?

E: If you would have asked me if I would be running a non-profit fifteen years ago, I would have without hesitation said: no. This has been a surprise– a beautifully fulfilling one.

H: Through my own experience, there lies several realms of contention surrounding social change terms like “activist, “advocate,” or “feminist,” and the implications they hold both rhetorically and conceptually. How do you define these terms and do you identify your work and/or yourself with any or all of them. If so, why or why not?

E: I absolutely do identify with the term advocate. Most of my life I feel I’ve been advocating for gender equality. But, now that I looking back at the past 10 years of my life, I identify as an activist through the work that I do. I’ve only recently begun to realize how much of a feminist I truly am. To me, I push for women’s rights and one’s ability to hold power inside her family– mainly because I was conditioned by the exact opposite. I now strongly believe that economic equality, international development and poverty alleviation is achieved through the creation of female-led businesses. This is the bedrock of AGF. I suppose it doesn’t get any more feminist than that.

My personal growth toward my identity as a feminist and my dedication as an activist in gender equality did have a starting point. I was raised in a very traditional Italian Catholic family. While I was career focused my family wanted me to focus on finding the right man to settle down. This caused an internal pull as I wanted to discover my autonomy and to become my own person before I became a “wife.” In exchange, my worth would be measured in traditional views of homemaking. I feel like I have three PhDs in home making. I constantly struggled with wanting to be more than a pretty face with the ability to keep a clean home and cook amazing Italian meals. I wanted to be like my brothers– to be stretched and stimulated intellectually. However, what I did learn from my mother within this traditional family dynamic was the true power of a matriarch. Creating life and holding a family together, while working, is not for the faint of heart. Women are, I believe, born to be strong and powerful. I just want to expand the perception of a woman’s full potential. For me giving women opportunity is not only my way of changing the roles women played in the past, but it makes a heck of a lot of sense in terms of international development.

I have no judgment to how any woman chooses to define her life path or self worth. I only take issue when a woman’s individual dream of her worth is not supported, when she is not given an opportunity to live out her own manifested destiny. A woman should feel empowered to support herself and her family.

H: How does the international relationship of your organization function? How do the artists’ products get to store shelves?

E: Originally we started with one women and helped to scale up her small business. It’s a beautiful thing to go from using a cell phone to seeing her get a computer and eventually correspond via email. Now, our model has grown in scope and we are working with a group of 20 women in Faridibad, India to build 5 small businesses– and scale those. This group of primarily mothers reached out through an Non-Government Organization (NGO) that supports children’s education. We are often receiving requests to bring our project to communities globally. I look forward to the day we don’t have to turn down anyone. The women we serve ship their products to our headquarters in NYC. There, they are checked for quality control, tagged, and put into inventory.

H: Can you share a narrative about one of the artists? What are her thoughts regarding her participation in a non-profit network?

E: A woman named Chanoknan has one of the first businesses AGF helped build. She went from independently working to employing 18 community members. It was so incredibly rewarding to see her scale up and grow into a sustainable business. Knowing I did this–by basically selling bracelets to my community–is pure magic. Across the board, the women we serve are initially wary of our intentions. I’ve had to work especially hard to gain the trust of the Native American women we serve. After the relationship grows, they see it as a beautiful thing. They are very spiritual people so they do get it. It’s like any relationship. After getting the walls to come down, you get to the good stuff.

H: Beginning a non-profit organizations appears to be a large, daunting endeavor. What was that process like and what advice might you offer?

E: I’ve said it before: the one piece of advice I would offer is to ensure you believe 100% in the mission. You have to want it more than anything in your life and if that’s true for you, you have a beautiful thing. For me, I was driven by a personal mission, an enormous amount of passion, and ultimately a need I saw. Before setting off to Thailand and before being impacted by the Tsunami, I had written in my journal a goal to “help develop poorer nations.’’ This goal is why I went to Thailand originally– I needed to figure out what this goal meant to me and my life. Once I was in the Tsunami, I knew I wanted to give back right away. I did what I thought was a simple formula– we love to consume back West and the items they were making were not yet available. I chose bracelets initially because that’s all I could afford on the shoe-string budget that was created by my personal funds. I was acting out of passion. AGF started as a personal passion project. When people loved what I was doing, and newspapers and magazines were calling, I quickly filed for a 501 C 3. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t reveal I bought the book Nonprofit for Dummies. What kept me going was the passion, vision, and strong belief that women should have choices. The road has been a long one filled with more obstacles than smooth, clear space. I’m not going to glorify or sugarcoat that it has not been fun. Had it not been for this trifecta I have going on inside, I would have given up 100 hurdles ago.

H: Has being a woman in any way positively or negatively influenced your work, your identity, your experiences, your empowerment?

E: Being a woman in my household definitely defined who I am at my core… and experiencing the inner struggle has made empowering women so important to me. I think beyond these experiences and specifically within founding and running AGF, being a woman has been important. When I was starting out, I used to feel like I would have had so much more support if I were a man. That’s changed. The focus on women enables me to create a community of like-minded powerful women. Important to note, AGF is also not anti-men. There are many men who passionately support the mission, as well as the small businesses both abroad and stateside– which in and of itself is a beautiful thing to see. True gender equality. I think being a woman absolutely has helped me connect to the women and their families. It’s allowed relationships to open up.

H: Have you met hurdles, doubts, or derailments to your plan/vision? How have you overcome struggles?

E: There have been many. I think having perspective and a strong view of the big picture has helped me overcome obstacles. I would say a big one was forming a board of directors who can truly help push AGF to the next level. There are so many people who have passion, but finding people who have the right skill set is crucial. For me, being able to discern between passion filled people and people who want to see actual growth has been a big challenge. Another fun challenge we face at the moment is getting the project fully sponsored by a group of corporations. Being sponsored year after year is the next step in making AGF a sustainable business. Another challenge we face is expanding headquarters in NYC. We want what the organization Charity Water has done in which 100% of every dollar goes to the project. We want to do a phenomenal job and have a dedicated office space so we can scale up.

H: Broadly—What motivates you in life (not just in work)? What feeds yours soul?

E: At the end of the day I am touched, moved and inspired by happiness. I think people, at a very basic level of human existence, deserve true happiness. I am so turned on by people working towards their optimum or full potential– being in the flow of life, knowing their purpose and harmoniously playing it out. This, to me, is heaven on earth. I feel everyone deserves that chance, and through AGF, I am able to help some attain it. In the vein of optimum potential, I am a big advocate for eating healthy and caring for Earth. Being in the world’s largest natural disaster was a strong turning point for me. It’s time to do our part to heal instead of continuing to take from Earth. Many of the products we create at AGF are made from renewable natural resources. I love the challenge of adhering to these principles.

H: Do you believe that you have accomplished what you set out to do? What are your current hopes and pursuits?

E: I definitely feel on a personal level. I started the project as a passion project and I definitely feel fulfilled in that sense that I gave back the gratitude that I felt in my heart. I think now, where the organization is at and where the mission is– to empower women and bring a woman into the formal market place where she hasn’t been to date– seems to be very much in line with conversation today. In terms of global leading agencies, think tanks, and foundations– they’re all pointing to ‘the woman’ as the answer for development. So, from my perspective, that makes me feel really proud to know that I started something that does make a lot of sense in terms of international development and economic development in these communities that are so much in need, I know the organization will be around for a while… long term.

H: What is your advice to other women pursuing their visions?

E: I would say: believe in yourself. You have all the tools necessary within you and certainly the ability to gather resources. I think confidence and knowing that belief in oneself can basically take you anywhere.

Elizabeth’s connection to Thailand began in mass disaster. However, that disaster fueled a greater purpose and duty to serve communities that are considered underdeveloped. How can we, as individuals and as communities, serve as pioneers while still respecting others’ cultural autonomy? Tweet using #iempower to share.

Photo Courtesy of: http://aglobalfriendship.org/agf/ 

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