Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Stephanie Giddens thought she had her future mapped out. She, along with her husband and kids, planned to move to Rwanda six years ago, assimilate and launch a social business that would employ women and teach them skills to help them out of poverty. But 24 hours before their shipment was set to travel overseas, the plans fell through. Giddens still wanted to help women in some way, though. So she opened Vickery Trading Company in 2016, where she trains mainly Middle Eastern refugee women to be seamstresses while immersing them in the English language and helping them gain financial stability. “We don’t lift them out of poverty, we help them climb themselves out.”
How does Vickery Trading Co. work? When the refugee women first come in, they go through four weeks of intensive training to get up to a professional level and train on industrial machines. Then, they move into production. They start at minimum wage, and we bump their wages up to fair wage — which for a seamstress in DFW is between $9 and $12 an hour — once they’re producing sellable goods. We try to keep that on the lower end of the fair wage range simply because we want them to be almost guaranteed a pay raise when they graduate and to incentivize them to want to graduate and make more. Really what we’re doing is buying them time. We’re buying them time to start settling in financially, to save a little, or if they’re not saving, because a lot of them aren’t quite to that point yet, just stabilize their families financially and allow them to earn an income while they’re doing all the hard work of assimilating, learning our culture, learning our language, learning what coupons are at the grocery store, that kind of thing.
Why did you start Vickery Trading Co.? Years back I was working with a nonprofit here in Dallas and did a couple projects with them. I became really interested in the empowerment of women and empowering marginalized women in particular. I’ve always wanted to help the underdog, the people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had growing up. To see that there are so many places in the world where women do not have access to education, jobs or income like we do here in the United States, it just broke my heart.
Why sewing? I knew I needed what I call a “show me” skill. A hands-on skill that you can teach someone without being able to speak the same language. Sewing is a skill that you can see each other doing and correct, despite that language barrier.
What was the most challenging aspect of getting this nonprofit up and running? Everything. I had prepared to live in a third-world country and work with African people groups and was very well-
versed in that. I was not prepared to work with Muslim women from the Middle East. I wasn’t opposed to it; I just had no experience with it. It’s a completely different worldview how they learn, how they take instruction, everything.
What have you learned from working with refugee women? I’m much more tolerant. I’m much more appreciative of diversity. Especially in a post-9/11 world, we walk around and we see a hijab and the American mind automatically thinks terrorist. That could not be further from the truth, especially with these women. Actually many of these women, their husbands helped the U.S. overseas and they’ve helped to protect us. These women are gentle and kind and the complete opposite of any of the stereotypes that we see in the media and that we’ve been trained to think in the past. I’ve learned we’re women, we are sisters and mothers and daughters and friends. We have husbands and children. We get sad and happy and hungry and all of those things, that’s the same. So to realize that there’s a person behind this very different way of dressing, speaking and eating has been the biggest change for me, the biggest lesson and the biggest blessing.
What are you most proud of? That we’ve been able to find a way to build a bridge between the refugee culture and the American culture, to start to break down that misunderstanding that refugees have of Americans and that Americans have of refugees and to watch this be a place where the cultures can come together and learn from each other and give to each other. I think that’s been the coolest part. Being able to just be a place that facilitates that. The making clothes is secondary to everything else that we’re doing here. I mean, yeah, it takes up the majority of our time during the day, but that’s just the vehicle for everything else that’s going on.
How do you balance work and personal life? None of it would be possible if it weren’t for my husband stepping in. There are some days where I have a big meeting and he has to stay home with a sick kid. So really that has been the key for us as far as balance. He’s also willing to, as I am growing into a place of earning income, let me do that and to financially take on the burden and support us as I’m pursuing this dream and trying to build this company without holding it over my head or being bitter about it. I think that has been key because it wouldn’t be possible for me to work as much as I do if he weren’t 100 percent behind it.
What advice would you give your younger self? Minor in business. Because it does not matter what you do, you are going to need business savvy. I have a health degree and a theology degree, and I need a business degree.