Industry Watch

Jonathan Sipola & Mandy Multerer (center) in Kathmandu. Photo by DIWAS Photography.

My Sister product fashion shot by Athena Pelton

My Sister ups the ante for Minnesota’s social enterprises

Six percent of the top line fights sex trafficking and exploitation

By Brian Martucci
Monday, February 22, 2016

Minnesota’s polite, well-kept face hides a seamy underbelly. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is the sex trafficking capital of the Upper Midwest — the regional hub of a $40 billion global industry. Sex trafficking affects at-risk youth, mostly girls, across the state — not just in the Twin Cities metro, but in county seats, small towns and rural communities, also.

A November 2010 Schapiro Group study found that nearly 50 under-18 girls, and more than 200 women and girls overall, are sold in Minnesota for sex each day through Internet classifieds and escort services. Those figures don’t include hotel, street and gang activities, which St. Paul-based Breaking Free estimates traffic 8,000 to 12,000 women and girls daily. And the FBI identifies the Twin Cities as one of 13 United States metros with “a high incidence rate of child sex trafficking,” putting the region alongside much larger United States population centers like Los Angeles and New York.

Jonathan Sipola understands, from bitter personal experience, how vulnerability and dependency promote exploitation and tear lives apart. His sister, Katie, long struggled with chemical dependency and other issues. He hasn’t heard from her since summer 2007. He doesn’t know what happened to her. But he knows that far too many other families, like his, lose sisters, daughters and mothers too soon.

Sipola and marketing guru Mandy Multerer founded My Sister, a Minneapolis-based social enterprise that sells T-shirts and other merchandise emblazoned with bold anti-exploitation slogans, to empower others to “think of vulnerable women and girls as our own sisters.” They tapped renowned social entrepreneur Wayne Zink — who grew Endangered Species Chocolate into the country’s #1 organic/natural chocolate brand — to serve as chairman and mentor.

My Sister is incorporated as a Specific Benefit Corporation. The company’s articles of incorporation require it to give 6% of its gross income — top line profits — to partner organizations on the front lines of the anti-exploitation fight. Locally, My Sister contributes to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s MN Girls Are Not for Sale anti-trafficking initiative and Maiti Nepal, an NGO dedicated to trafficking prevention, advocacy, rescue and rehabilitation.

“[Contributing from the top line] has allowed us to ramp up faster,” says Sipola. My Sister’s ecommerce portal launched last May, says Sipola, and they began the endeavor by contributing $10,000 of their own money to the My Sister Fund (the name of the Donor Advised Fund at the Women’s Foundation of MN).

Most social enterprises reduce balance sheet risk by contributing from net profits — the bottom line. But the bottom line is notoriously unpredictable, and a bad stretch can leave partner organizations holding the bag.

“At Endangered Species Chocolate, we thought we were doing a wonderful thing by giving back 10% of our net profits,” explains Zink. “The problem with net profits is that sometimes there’s nothing there, especially early on.” Endangered Species guaranteed at least $25,000 in annual contributions to wildlife-protection nonprofits, regardless of profit, but such guarantees aren’t universal among social enterprises.

The scope of the trafficking and exploitation industry mutes the tangible impact of any one individual’s actions, leading many well-meaning supporters to “back away” in frustration, says Multerer. My Sister is taking off because it sells great products with catchy taglines — “Feminist,” “Stop Traffic,” “I Don’t Buy It” — and makes no bones about its mission.

My Sister’s brand is intentionally sunny. “Talking to prospective customers, we learned that this is an issue that resonates with a lot of people,” says Multerer. “But it’s also a very dark issue that’s difficult to engage with.”

The company’s logo, a soaring bird eclipsing a stylized heart, is uplifting. Its color schemes are warm and rich. And its clothing is stylish — a requirement for a sustainable social enterprise that aims “to feed others, not create another mouth to feed,” says Zink.

“We strive to be as fashionable as possible with our designs,” says Multerer, “so that our customers buy them over and over. We hope people feel comfortable wearing our T-shirts to work under their blazers.”

My Sister has a small team, with an eye to promoting from within and building a survivor-run organization. And though My Sister gets most of its inventory externally, through a fastidiously exploitation-free supply chain, the company hopes to recruit more survivors to ramp up in-house production. My Sister has jewelry handmade by survivors of trafficking in Nepal and fair trade and organic beauty products but would like to expand its offerings and add additional clothing items in the months and years ahead.

Also being discussed is co-branded merchandise: items produced in collaboration with partner organizations, with 100% of the proceeds donated. The first co-branded item, a shirt designed with input from The Link’s survivor board, is debuting soon.

My Sister gives back to MN Girls are Not for Sale and other partners through the My Sister Fund, a separate, donor-advised entity at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota that vets and audits partner nonprofits. As of year-end 2015, the company had contributed about 50% of its gross revenue, a nearly unheard-of ratio in the social enterprise world. But Multerer, Sipola and Zink are betting that My Sister’s resonant message, transparent commitment to ethical production and unimpeachable quality will keep it in business for the long haul.

“We want My Sister to be around for generations to come,” says Sipola. “Once you get your hands on our merchandise, you know you’re part of something bigger.”