Most people seek to find a mission in life. To find a mission they care so deeply about, that they dedicate the time and effort needed to create change. But it takes the rare person who finds the mission, and then, proceeds to service it- devoting themselves selflessly and religiously to the purpose. Suzanne Hickman Sands is that rare person. Sands has created a life movement to eliminate child trafficking and labor slavery from this planet for good. And an organization, Made in a Free World, dedicated to inspiring a new generation of consumers and businesses working together to free 30-million people in slavery worldwide. This is truly a #PowerofOne story.
1. What were you like as a child? Who are you today?
For the first eight years of my life, my family moved five times and I attended four schools. I constantly needed to assimilate and become really good at making new friends and learning new languages. As a result, I became a gregarious and adventurous child. My mother reminds me that I was an outspoken and curious little girl who asked a lot of questions. We lived in several Navy towns from Honolulu to both U.S. coasts before leaving the states for the Marshall Islands. My parents decided that we would take a break from moving and finally settled us in the Philippines. There, I had the kind of carefree childhood I wish my daughter could enjoy. It was the classic “outdoors all day and home for dinner” kind of childhood. I was a tomboy who was always up in a tree, picking wild fruit, tide-pooling on coral reefs, catching tropical fish for our aquarium, and building forts with my brother, three sisters and the neighborhood children.
I left home at 19 and moved to San Francisco where I lived for 20 years — longer than any other place I’d lived previously. The people who came into my life in the City greatly shaped the person I am today. Some of them raised me into adulthood. I credit them for instilling in me the values of service, compassion and community.
So to answer the question, “Who am I today?” I’m still gregarious, adventurous, outspoken and curious. But I’m also a proud wife and mother – who happens to use every spare minute and ounce of energy I have to fight labor slavery.
2. Describe your life’s work.
That’s a tough question. In a broader sense, my life’s work is to try to be a person who embodies the values of service, compassion and community. That “work” takes many forms, but I’d like to share about my work fighting slavery as the board chair of Made In A Free World.
It all began in 2006 with an urgent phone call from my musician friend Justin Dillon. He and his band had just been on tour in Russia where, for the first time, he was exposed to human trafficking. He really wanted to talk to me about it.
So over a drink, Justin proceeded to exclaim, “There are 27 million slaves in the world and nobody knows it! I want to make some noise and do a benefit concert but I need to raise $100,000 and you’re the only fundraiser I know.” His passion was contagious and the more I learned about the issue, the more it got under my skin. Having just become a mother, the impact to me was much deeper. In the core of my being, I was disrupted, disturbed and angry that there are children being held against their will by slave owners who force them to work and do other unimaginable things under threat of torture and death. I didn’t think I could do much between naps and feeding my toddler, plus I was trying desperately to settle into our new home. But I did what I could – I called and emailed everyone I knew who might care about this issue and introduced them to Justin so they could participate in this project. The funding came and the project was bigger and better than a concert. It was Call and Response — the first-of-its-kind rockumentary film on human trafficking and modern day slavery.
In October, 2008, Call and Response was released in theatres in every major U.S. market. The following year, it was screened in thousands of colleges, universities, faith communities, and in countless cities on almost every continent. Call and Response continues to have a tremendous impact in spurning the modern day abolitionist movement. Right around that time, I started building the board and putting on any hat our fledgling organization required me to wear (human resources, accounting, development, public relations, cheer leader, etc.).
Then one day, someone from the U.S. State Department saw Call and Response and what followed was a public/private partnership between our organization and the U.S. State Department. The result was the award-winning “Slavery Footprint,” an interactive online tool that answers the question “How many slaves work for you?” We created an empirical means for consumers to determine how many slaves work to support their lifestyle based on their buying habits. To date, over 2 million people have determined their Slavery Footprint and over 24 million unique visitors have come to our site. Our supporters have sent over a million letters inviting their favorite brands to join Made In A Free World and ensure there is no slavery in their supply chains. In addition to that, they have funded the rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration of child slaves in Ghana and India through our field projects.
The success of Slavery Footprint opened the doors to our next challenge: how to make companies care about this issue. Helping companies find and eliminate the risk of forced labor in their supply chains is Made In A Free World’s current focus. We believe consumers would rather buy goods that they know are not made with slave labor. And businesses will be increasingly motivated to supply slave-free goods as the marketplace demands for such goods increases.
3. Travel has always been a necessity and passion for you. What have you gained through your journeys?
That feeling of not having my bearings and the challenge of figuring out how to navigate a new environment was an integral part of my early childhood. It developed in me a passion for adventure and an openness to new people, cultures and differences. I crave the discomfort and savor the challenge of exploring new places, making new friends and, in the process, learning about myself. Without travel, I tend to feel psychologically and culturally malnourished. I measure the richness of my life in my relationships and the accumulation of experiences over things. The more unique, the better!
My husband and I have travelled outside the country almost every year since we were married. I wish that I could visit a new country every year. We’re working on that but family life doesn’t always allow for such a luxury. I’m thankful for any travel these days. Almost every year for the last 20 years, my husband and I spend a week in hills above Ensenada, Mexico serving with a local church community that is very dear to us. We started bringing our daughter once she turned three years old. Our team sets up free dental clinics, serves local kids, does construction, and finds other creative ways to help people in that community. We go there to give but always end up receiving so much more in encouragement, perspective adjustment and the joy that comes from serving others.
All these trips provide me a much-needed break from the routine of life and challenge of work, but there’s nothing like taking myself out of my comfort zone to sharpen the perspective of how truly blessed my life is.
4. How do you define love?
Love is not just a feeling. It’s an intention. It’s dynamic. Love is sacrificial and has no expectation in return. The more life I experience, the deeper my understanding of love becomes. For example, I never truly appreciated how deeply my own mother loved me (especially during my teen years) until I myself became a mother.
I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie’s music lately and I couldn’t help but think of how apropos these lyrics from Love Song are to the work we’re doing:
Love is the key we must turn.
5. How have you integrated your life philosophies into your work life?
For the most part, I try to be a fully integrated person. My values and spiritual faith inform everything I do from family, to work, to how I contribute to my community. If you get to know me, you’re bound to see!
6. What has been your biggest curve ball? How did you deal with it?
Probably being told by my Obstetrician/Gynecologist that it would be nearly impossible for me to conceive a child. I did everything the doctors told me to do, including eliminating stress as an impeding factor. This meant easing out of my career and not working, which was incredibly hard. Once I stopped working, I gave myself the gift of doing something I really love: learning a new language. I studied French at the Alliance Française in San Francisco and it was just what I needed to keep the mood light while going through such a tough challenge. After going totally natural in my approach to family planning at the end of the third year of this curve ball, we conceived our daughter to our absolute delight. Given everything I went through to have a child, I couldn’t imagine outsourcing her care. I feel quite fulfilled by the gift of raising our daughter full-time and grateful to be part of something bigger than myself by working to free children from slavery in other parts of the world.
7. You surround yourself with a core group of strong, dynamic women- who are these women and how do you support/ inspire one another for greatness?
It’s true! The women I consider my soul sisters tend to be grounded, strong, dedicated, smart and accomplished in their own rights. What binds us together is our intentionality in cultivating our relationships and the ability to be transparent with one another. We all have our struggles and aspirations, and with each other, we can tap into a source other than our husbands or families for support. To inspire each other, we share our dreams and accomplishments, our doubts and fears, and fiercely support and promote each other’s efforts.
8. What has kept you committed to the long haul of developing an organization and helping a global cause?
My staunch belief in our solution has kept me committed. I believe that what we have to offer is exactly what is needed for this technological day and age. The work is hard but paying off. The goal of having a massive impact on labor slavery is within our reach.
9. Life is full of surprises, what have been yours?
I honestly thought I would continue moving around and living in different countries. But I fell in love with a local Bay Area DJ/lawyer whose job and family kept him, and us, in San Francisco. We never intended to leave the city but after a year of looking for a bigger place in San Francisco, a Tiburon home we could afford pretty much fell into our laps. Fortunately for me, my mother ended up moving to San Francisco and still lives there. Surprise! We live in Marin now. Never thought I’d see the day. I can’t complain. It’s a fantastic place to raise children and it’s only 20 minutes away from San Francisco! And finally, that the lead singer of a rock band and I would end up as co-conspirators fighting modern slavery, is the biggest surprise of my life.
10. Where is Made in a Free World currently? Where would you like to see yourself and the organization in five years?
Made In A Free World is at a tipping point. We started as an awareness-raising organization but have evolved into more of a tech start-up with the development of our software FRDM (Forced labor Risk Determination and Mitigation). We are leveraging big data and predictive analytics to identify the risk of slavery and provide a way for companies to protect against forced labor worldwide. Our solution has caught the interest of SAP Ariba, the world’s largest sourcing and procurement software provider.
We are in talks with them about a partnership involving the deployment of our FRDM within their enterprise software in order to offer our business tool to thousands of SAP customers. Having thousands of companies join this movement would definitely disrupt the business of slavery. They are very excited about this huge opportunity to do well by doing good.
This year, we hope to increase the number of companies using FRDM nationally and internationally through our direct sales and the SAP partnership. Once this happens, we can flourish and scale, bring on more talent and build up the business side of our operations so that we may eventually convert it to a for-profit benefit corporation. The for profit would help fund the non-profit side which would continue to focus on our anti-slavery campaigns and field projects.
By the end of five years, my dream is to see the blue Made In A Free World label on everything we consume here in California. It should be as commonly accepted and recognized as the Energy Star and LEED certifications.
These organizational goals all translate into FREEDOM. Freedom for the little girls who are forced to mine the mica in dark holes in the ground so we can have sparkles in our make-up and automotive paint. Freedom for those little boys who are forced to untangle the fishing nets for 17 hours a day. I want my daughter to live in a world where slavery no longer exists.
3 thoughts on “Suzanne Hickman Sands”
Thank you for inspiring me
Beautiful in every way! Happy Mother’s Day! XO Jenny
As always, beautiful and inspirational, Suzanne! – XO Meg
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