Female Founder Change Maker: Blythe Hill | Dressember
- Kristiana Tarnuzzer
… Blythe Hill, a powerful, passionate force with an incredibly genuine and gracious heart who used the power of a pun and her own personal experience to form a movement and opportunity for others through Dressember. Have a deeper read into her story, and how she says a lack of having a role model was one of her challenges along her journey. Pregnant, with a baby on the way in June, I think we can all agree that her soon-to-be little one is about to have one of the most incredible role models as their mommy!
TCB: How did your journey with Dressember begin?
BH: I was nineteen years old when I first learned about sex trafficking. I learned that women and girls are bought and sold for profit, against their will, in places like India, Cambodia, and Thailand. Three years later, in 2008, the film Taken -- in which Liam Neeson plays a former government operative who springs to action when his teenage daughter and her friend are abducted by traffickers in Paris -- hit box offices and made the conversation around sex trafficking mainstream.
The more I learned about human trafficking, the more I felt compelled to get involved. I was not merely interested; I felt a sense of personal urgency to do something to stop the exploitation of women internationally. People have asked why I care so much about this issue. The answer points back to my childhood.
I was four years old the first time I was molested. It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that the memories surfaced, and the trauma began to set in. For years, I carried the weight of guilt and shame, and wrestled with questions no teenager is equipped to answer. “Am I lovable? Am I disposable?” It took years for me to process what had happened, release myself from the burden of shame, and ultimately forgive my abuser. I feel lucky to be able to say I have moved forward to a place where my abuse experience does not define who I am or who I will become; but to this day, when I hear the stories of women forced to perform sexual acts -- sometimes servicing as many as 40 men per day -- the fire inside me grows stronger.
…I was in college, trafficking was an issue I perceived to be happening in far away countries. I felt an uncontainable amount of passion to do something, yet at the same time felt powerless to do anything. I wasn’t a lawyer, a social worker, a cop, or a psychologist -- what could I do? I sat feeling powerless for no less than four years.
But in 2009 everything began to change, and I didn’t even know it at the time. It started with a dress.
Still in college, I decided to create a personal style challenge. I came up with the idea to wear a dress every day for a month, just for fun. The next month happened to be December and, being a lover of puns, I came up with a name for my style challenge: Dressember. Then, I did it. I wore dresses everyday for an entire month, never planning to do it again.
But the next year, some of my girlfriends said they wanted to do it with me. So I did it again, thinking they were either also bored or humoring me. The next year, in 2011, my girlfriend’s girlfriends wanted to join. It was at that point I realized people liked Dressember apart from knowing me, and I started to dream about what more it could be.
It was an easy choice for me to align Dressember with anti-trafficking and, after researching, I chose to partner with International Justice Mission (IJM), the world’s leading anti-trafficking organization, for their commitment to rescuing and restoring victims of violent oppression. I reached out to IJM and to my surprise they responded that they loved it, and would help promote Dressember.
In 2013, our first fundraising year, I set what felt like an ambitious goal: $25,000. We hit that on the third day of the campaign, and proceeded to raise over $165,000. Since then, the Dressember movement has snowballed. We raised $465K in our second year, then $925K, then $1.5M, then $2MM, and this last year, roughly 8,000 people across 6 continents registered and raised roughly $2.4 MM. In 6 years, we’ve been able to raise roughly $7.5MM toward this fight. Something that started as a silly idea, born out of boredom, has become a global movement.
…Who are two women that have played a major role in shaping who you are today, and why?
BH: My cousin/friend/life coach Julie Jones has taught me that you can be a powerful force for good while still being tender hearted, gracious, and nurturing to yourself and others. My friend and consultant Nada Jones has shown me how to approach a big vision in bite size, actionable steps. She’s encouraged me and taught me a sense of calm, balance, and organizational strategy I hadn’t known until working with her. She’s also been an incredible example of a boss lady running and growing her own brand while being an equally incredible wife and mother to her three kids.
TCB: Were there any challenging experiences throughout your entrepreneurial career specifically because you were a female, and how did you respond?
BH: One of the biggest challenges has been not having many examples or role models to look to. There are plenty of female entrepreneurs, and a growing number of women leading brands and nonprofits, but it has been hard to find others in my space who are a few steps farther down the road who can help guide and mentor me. Most established brands/nonprofits are run by men, and men have a very different way both of leading and of communicating how they lead and run their companies/organizations. I’m sure there have been other obstacles I haven’t even perceived -- such as being paid less to give a talk than a man might be, or not being taken seriously by potential donors or sponsors for the mere fact of being a woman. I try not to think about that too much, but it is a bummer because there’s a lot of research to back the reality that that happens to women.
…You are going to be a mom -- congratulations! Has life as an entrepreneur changed since learning you are going to be a mom?
BH: Thank you! I’ve spent the last few years wrapping my head around that question, since I knew I wanted to have a family and continue to devote myself to my work as well. Not much has changed yet, but I know a lot is going to change once I give birth in June. I’m fortunate to have an incredible team of people now at Dressember, where I feel supported and I also truly trust them to carry the work while I’m on leave, and perhaps pick up a little slack while I learn to balance work and motherhood. Even though we’re a nonprofit, I’ve tried to build into our culture and benefits both an ethos and practical approach to supporting women in every phase of life. Sometimes this means explicit benefits like paid maternity leave (still not as long as I’d love to be able to offer, but it’s a start!) and a Dependent Care FSA (to help offset childcare costs), and sometimes it means offering underrated benefits like flexibility in hours, work location, and meeting times -- seemingly small factors non-parents often take for granted that end up mattering a lot to someone who is either parenting young children or managing a health crisis within their family, or any other number of situations that normally fall on women to bear. It’s shocking to me how few companies offer comprehensive insurance, paid family leave, or any number of other supportive benefits that inadvertently cause women to off-ramp from their careers. I am hopeful the tide is changing, but nowhere near quickly enough in my opinion.
TCB: What would you tell someone reading this who is considering starting their own thing about the journey?
BH: Go for it! Sometimes just starting is the hardest part. But develop a strategy and then put yourself on the hook somehow. With Dressember, I paid $2,000 in legal/registration fees to set Dressember up as a 501(c)3 years before I ever took a paycheck. I believed in the work so much, and even though I kept my full time job for the first 3 years, I went all-in in other ways. If you believe in an idea, go for it. Often, I’ve had trouble going all-in on an idea because (now, looking back,) the idea is really about me and my personal success. Dressember was different from the beginning because I’m not doing this work for me, or how I will look to anyone. I’m doing this work because I have a boundless passion to restore dignity to women and girls around the world. Find that bigger-than-me passion, and find others who can partner with you on the journey, and go all-in.
If you’re as blown away as we are by Blythe’s movement, head to Dressember today to DONATE, SIGN UP for their upcoming 5K in LA on April 13, or SHOP their marketplace of ethical fashion supporting human dignity -- a few of Blythe’s favorite dresses you can wear in December to support the movement below!