FRANCINE A. LEFRAK
In Case of Emergency
I am a big admirer of Dr. Joyce Brown and the work she has done as president of FIT. Over the years, I have attended and been inspired by exhibitions at the FIT museum, by the annual Couture Council luncheons I attended with great designers, and by the talented student interns we have had working with us at the foundation.
During the pandemic, so many people were suffering. Jobs were lost, families were hungry, and people were sick. Many parents could no longer afford to pay the cost of a higher education. They had really begun to lose hope. When I learned there were 400 talented students who were at risk of not being able to complete their education, I wanted to do something to help them stay in school and graduate. It was exciting to establish the Student Emergency Fund, which is based on microgrants. Our first gift was successfully used as a matching grant; it was rewarding to see others join us in support of FIT students achieving their dreams. With our most recent gift, we’ve doubled our support—and, again, we are challenging others to stand with us … and double our impact.”
The power of microgrants
A microgrant is a small sum of money that is distributed to an individual or an organization in the form of a grant; it is not a loan, and does not require repayment. The idea is to help recipients achieve a goal, such as developing or sustaining an income-generating enterprise.
Our foundation first started using microgrants to help formerly incarcerated women get back on their feet. Receiving this kind of financial assistance was the key to their success, enabling them to afford their first month’s rent, do what they needed to get a job, and pay for transportation to and from work.
In the case of FIT, it became clear to me that many students work so hard to excel, but they suffer when there’s a gap between what they can afford—including scholarships and loans—and what an education actually costs. I saw an opportunity to fill that void. While microgrants are small amounts of money, their impact can be huge. If you need $300 to finish paying for tuition and you don’t have it—or any way to get it—it might as well be $3 million. Whatever the amount, the feeling of hopelessness is the same. The microgrants we give to FIT students are enough to close the tuition gap. But, even more importantly, they also say, “We believe in you. We support you. And we want you to use your talents to find success.” Microgrant funding is a beautiful way to create immediate impact that is transformative and life changing.
The greatest philanthropy is the dignity of work
In 2008, I began working with women artisans who had survived the Rwandan genocide. These women had lived through the horrors of war and were trying to rebuild their lives for themselves, their children, and their community. Did you know that 250,000 women were raped during this conflict? Many of them ended up being HIV-positive. They had no work and no hope. They couldn’t even get the free HIV medicine that President Bush had sent to Rwanda, because they couldn’t afford the cost of transportation to the clinics.We began working with four artisans, whose talents were simply amazing. We taught them how to make jewelry and we paid them 50% above the hourly wage others were making. The transformation of the women was incredible! They developed a community of artisans (now in the thousands), and they gained respect from their community at large. The women were safer because they were valued, and you could see them walking with pride. They became healthier. They purchased mattresses, books, and school uniforms for their children. When the women’s doctors noticed how much better the HIV numbers were, they asked, ‘What are you doing to be so healthy?’ The response: ‘I have a job.’
The dignity of work is vital for people to feel good about themselves. As a philanthropist, giving people access to meaningful employment allows you to be fully engaged with those you are helping. Simply writing a check doesn’t engage all of me, but providing opportunities through education, job training, and financial fluency programs does.
Of course, these ideas apply to all people, in all corners of the world. I believe that talent is everywhere and opportunity isn’t. So I felt it was important to help FIT students continue the education that will carry them into lives of financial stability, creative expression, and personal pride.
“During the pandemic, so many people were suffering. Jobs were lost, families were hungry, and people were sick. Many parents could no longer afford to pay the cost of a higher education.”
“The dignity of work is vital for people to feel good about themselves. As a philanthropist, giving people access to meaningful employment allows you to be fully engaged with those you are helping.”