Founder & Executive Director, GEMS: Girls Educational & Mentoring Services
Posted on: February 15, 2012 | Go to profile
Turning her own horrible experience as a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation into hope for the next generation, Rachel has established Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) as the nation’s largest provider of direct services to girls and young women who have been victimized by the sex industry. Rachel is recognized as an expert in her field and has played a key role in the passage of New York’s groundbreaking Safe Harbor Act for Sexually Exploited Youth, the first law in the country to end the prosecution of child victims of sex trafficking. Her efforts have been documented in the Showtime documentary “Very Young Girls” and her memoir Girls Like Us, chronicling her own experiences escaping the sex industry and going on to lead GEMS. Rachel is the recipient of an Ashoka fellowship and a Reebok Human Rights Award among others.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I came to the US in 1997, originally to work with adult women in the commercial sex industry. I was 22 at the time, and quickly found myself drawn to the younger women and teenage girls who were totally ignored by society and traditional services. As a survivor of the commercial sex industry myself, I felt deeply connected to the girls I was meeting and felt compelled to do something. I had no idea what starting a non-profit would entail – which was probably a good thing! So I founded GEMS on my kitchen table in 1998 and became the first non-profit in NY State to specifically serve commercially sexually exploited girls and young women. Thirteen years later GEMS is the largest service provider to this population in the US and while we still have things to learn, we’ve built a really solid program model and I’ve grown so much as an Executive Director. Fortunately we’re no longer based on my kitchen table!
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: The willingness and courage to take risks and fail, a sense of humor about yourself and life in general, and the ability to know what you’re great at, continually work at that and develop it, and then hire people who are better than you at the other things.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: I think I tend to think very big picture most of the time and the bigger challenge for me is to make sure that I follow through and that I stay balanced between the big stuff and the day-to-day stuff. It helps to surround yourself with a team of people who are good at the small picture things too. Taking a break though from the day-to-day, or just having quiet time generally helps me be the most creative, so most of my good ideas come very late at night when emails aren’t coming in and I’m at my most productive. I think staying connected to the girls, the realities of their lives and seeing their successes keeps me inspired and keeps me envisioning more and more things. Lots of caffeine also helps!!
Q: A great negotiation can be game changing for one’s business or life. Studies have shown that men are much more comfortable negotiating and asking for what they want compared to women. What’s your advice to women who are uncomfortable negotiating?
A: Don’t be! You have to push through society’s ideas about how women should act and take your own power. I want my girls to grow up to be bold, strong and fearless. There’s a level of freedom from never being seen as ‘good girls’ anyway, but there’s also a stigma that comes along with that. It’s hard to be assertive in this world as a woman without catching some flak but I’d rather take the flak than sell myself out. Know what your bottom line is, know what you’re willing to negotiate and what is a ‘deal-breaker’ and don’t walk out of the room until you get what you need.
Ultimately, you’ve got to decide if you want people to remember you as the pleasant, polite one or the person who made things happen. Of course, you can still be pleasant and polite to people – but you can do that without allowing people to walk all over you. Offending someone, making people uncomfortable or pushing back isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The real issue is when you’re compromising yourself, your values and your integrity and staying silent when you know you should speak up. And if you can’t do it for yourself then push yourself to do it for the cause that you’re most passionate about. Ultimately, there’s no prize at the end of our lives for being the ‘nice girl’.
Q: Who has been your greatest mentor(s)?
A: I don’t think there’s really been just one. I’ve needed different people at different moments in my life and my career and I feel like there’s been so many people who taught me things and added value to my life and my work, I’d be hard-pressed to name any one individual. I’ve been lucky to get knowledge and insight from people who’ve been far more experienced than me, from people who are friends and equals and from girls who I’ve been allegedly mentoring but have taught me just as much if not more than I’ve ever taught them. I think formal mentoring is really great, but you’ve got to be open to learn and grow from whoever comes into your life at various seasons.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: I’d tell her to think about what she wanted to do as a small child and then do that or find some variation on that. Ask people in your life who love you and know you well, (maybe not your parents!) what they think you’re good at. Even if you need to find something that just pays the bills, keep exploring through volunteer work or internships to figure out where your passion is. Know that people now often have multiple careers so what you’re doing at 25 may be very different than what you’re doing at 35. Treat every job as a learning experience for the next chapter and then nothing you do will be a waste. Find what you love, even if it takes you a bunch of tries and then work really really hard at it.
Q: Is there an example in your life of a time when others were against you or your dream, yet you persevered?
A: When I first started GEMS, everyone literally told me I was crazy. There were so many obstacles in the beginning and it just seemed like a really foolish idea for me to start a non-profit at the age of 23, in a country I had only been in for a year, with no money, and only a GED. It was an incredibly hard and painful time in my life and there were people who walked away from me, and people who I had to choose to walk away from. I spent a lot of time crying on the floor. But…I felt so strongly that this was what I was meant to do that I just couldn’t really be deterred. I had to at least try. And I knew that I saw a vision in my mind of what GEMS could be and what it could do for girls. I felt very alone, but at the same time had an incredible clarity of purpose and vision. And I stuck with it and so far it’s working out pretty well!! (And most of those people who doubted the reality of that vision have since apologized!)
Q: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: Not looking for constant happiness! Keeping perspective on what’s really important. Loving and serving others. Loving you the way you are. Learning how to make yourself content. Finding joy in the small things. Surrounding yourself with people who truly love and appreciate you. Laughing.
Life is full of ups and downs and pain is inevitable but that’s ok. Striving for happiness will actually make you unhappy. As corny as it sounds, you really have to take one day at a time and just roll with it. The world does not revolve around you and your happiness! Its hard but critical to have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ about things.
Q: What simple things in life today bring you joy?
A: Lots of things but mostly my girls, my girls and my girls. They’re beautiful, smart, funny, loving, compassionate, strong, resilient young women and they bring me continual joy, even in the difficult times. They are what wakes me up in the morning, keeps me working till the wee hours and fills my heart with a level of love I never thought possible. There are so many incredible moments at GEMS every day and I am so very very lucky to be in their lives.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: There have been lots of times where I’ve experienced real challenges and setbacks, both personally and professionally. It’s hard when you don’t even feel like getting out of bed to bounce back. I remember years ago watching an Oprah special with a woman who’s face had been almost completely burnt off in a car accident. She talked about how she let herself cry every day if she needed to for a set period of time and then she stopped and got on with her day. That stayed with me, so when I’m struggling with some disappointment, failure etc. I try to give myself time to wallow, grieve, sulk, be mad – whatever it is that I need to do- and then at some point you’ve got to just get on with it.
Recently I worked really really hard for something and didn’t get it. It was frustrating, disappointing and I felt angry because in a fair world, it would’ve played out differently. I was really upset for a few days, raged at the world, vented to people close to me and basically stomped my foot a lot! And then I got perspective. I realized I could waste time and energy being angry and disappointed or I could be proactive instead of being reactive. And then I got creative and excited and inspired. Now I feel happy that I didn’t get what I originally wanted because the new plan is actually better – or at least through my eyes it is! I’ve wasted a lot of time and emotional energy over the years being upset at the things I had no control over, instead of taking control over the things that I did. Even if it doesn’t take away the setback, at least you’re not sitting around wallowing over the outcome, you’re focusing your energy on being productive, on learning from your mistakes and moving forward.
ON Letting go
Q: What do you do to unwind or disconnect?
A: Cook, talk to the people I love, spend time with my godson, watch The Wire, listen to music, write, do style makeovers for people! It’s important to do things that are totally unrelated to the work so that you don’t burn out or become a one-note person.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: I’m probably the type of person who takes the risk first and then gets a little nervous afterwards– by which point it’s too late! I’m an eternal optimist so I err more on the side of taking risks than not and just believe that things will work out if I work hard and pray. Most of the time this actually works out, although sometimes I can crash and burn quite drastically. I’d at least rather try though than regret not trying. I definitely have feelings of insecurity and fear, although they’re getting a lot less the older I get, and they’re more related to past hurts and memories than they are to risk-tasking or being adventurous. I could probably use a healthy dose of fear sometimes but if I had more anxiety about taking risks then I doubt if GEMS would be where it is. Sometimes it’s good to be ignorant and not know that you’re supposed to be fearful, because then you just jump in headfirst. I’m glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I was younger as it would’ve made me move more cautiously but probably a lot less effectively.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure.” What do you know for sure?
A: That I’m loved, and that I’m incredibly fortunate to have as much love as I do in my life. That I have a calling and that I was put on this earth to fulfill that. That no matter how good/bad things are at any given time, change is a constant. That getting older is actually really enjoyable and I’m getting more and more comfortable in my own skin with each year. That being in a position to support girls and young women and then see their growth is a true gift. That as long as you’re still breathing there’s still hope.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top values that make up a meaningful relationship?
A: Sharing a sense of humor, empathy, willingness to compromise, accepting the other person for who they are not who you’d like them to be, honesty – but with lots of love not just brutal honesty, and shared values.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: Audrey Hepburn meets Jennifer Lopez meets Faye Dunaway in Network.
Q: What’s your best buy ever?
A: That’s like choosing who’s your favorite child! Too many to choose from but I have a little black Michael Kors dress that was $200 but I got for $20 on clearance. It’s a classic LBD, always looks great and I can it wear for any event.
ON Cooking & Food
Q: If you love to cook, can you share a favorite recipe?
A: I love to cook and one of my favorite recipes that looks fancy but is super easy is a spinach salad with fried goat cheese with mangos and strawberries. People are impressed and it takes about ten minutes to prepare.
Q: Which book(s) has had the most significant impact on your life and why?
A: There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotolwitz. I read it my first semester in college and it showed me that a book could have an incredibly powerful narrative but also speak to social justice issues in a way that was readable and not preachy. It was the book I wanted to write and getting a quote from the author for my book meant the world to me as I’d admired him and his work for so long.
What’s So Amazing About Grace – by Philip Yancy – another social justice book that gave a fresh perspective on Christianity that felt like it made sense to me in a way that other books about God didn’t.
Clockers by Richard Price – just a brilliantly written book that solidified my desire to be a writer.
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: It would be about my life and the girls I serve and it would be called Girls Like Us and it would be available on Amazon.com right now!
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: Not really a beauty item but…Boots, boots and boots. Ankle-boots, knee-high boots, over-the-knee boots, peep-toe booties. Snow boots, high-heeled boots, riding boots, lace-up boots. Black, brown, leopard print, tan, grey, olive green, wine, suede, leather, patent leather. Every kind of boot! I love my boot collection and have to really stop myself from over-indulging. I love shoes too, but boots and I have a special relationship. It’s definitely the best thing about fall and winter in New York, perhaps the only good thing.