Kristy Norbert | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kristy Norbert

Background:  

The Empower Her Network helps survivors of human trafficking find their way out of the vulnerable circumstances that led to exploitation. The EHN team conducts a needs assessment with survivors and collaborates on an individual empowerment plan that acts as a guide to a journey to independence. The organization recently joined forces with jewelry brand Lulu Frost to create the empowerment bracelet, which features the Diwali symbol, with all profits going to support services provided through EHN. The organization currently supports human trafficking survivors in Rhode Island and New York. Before co-founding EHN in 2017, Kristy Norbert served as the executive director of Girls Hope Boys Hope Baltimore for seven years.

The Mistake:

The biggest mistake that I have come across is running a charity and making clients feel like they’re victims of that charity. I’ve misjudged language that I’ve used and the influence my words have had on clients or young peoples’ lives.

As a new executive director in Baltimore I had to walk the line between marketing the program to fund it, and not exploiting the children or the clients in the program. It’s a tricky balance because funders want to hear from the people you serve and they want to hear about the program.

One day the girls in Girls Hope sat me down and said, “Hey, when you use the word ‘at-risk’ it really makes us feel stigmatized.” That was my first aha moment, and I said, “Tell me more.”

I explained that as the leader of the organization, I feel like you were in an at-risk situation because of your circumstances. I never meant to say that they were doing anything personally that was at-risk, it was just because of the circumstances.

We had a wonderful heart-to-heart conversation that continued throughout my time there about the right way that they wanted to be talked about. They understood that I needed to talk about the program, but they wanted to be comfortable with the language. So instead of “at-risk” we started calling them “motivated high potential scholars.” Instead of “disadvantaged,” we say “Let’s help change their narrative.” Instead of “poor” we say “marginalized” because it helps describe the populations we work with. At Empower Her, instead of “victims” we use “survivors.” Those tiny tweaks in language are very important when someone looks at our website or hears the leader speak.

Everyone has the right to their own story and their own interpretation of their story. For young and vulnerable people especially, it’s important to make sure that they’re comfortable with what I share and the way I talk about them, and that they’re also proud of themselves as time moves on. It’s about putting them at the center of the service and not just about the best marketing for a nonprofit.

I’m trying to be really careful, and really strong and steadfast in the language we use.

The Lesson:

One lesson I’ve learned and that I try to do now is to treat anyone I’m working with the same way I’d treat my supervisor or colleague. That shows that we understand that everybody has the right to their own dignity and value, regardless of circumstances. That levels the human being playing field. We’re all the same on this Earth, we’re just given a different set of circumstances.

The other thing I’ve learned is I feel really strongly that on any given day my role could be reversed with the people we’re helping or serving. I would always want another person thinking about how they could partner with me if I were in that situation. That’s at the core of what we’re trying to get across—it’s just circumstances that separate us from the other people who have had a very difficult journey. We have the chance to be partners in changing these circumstances as we go on our journey. That’s a really important piece of how I do business and how we make the Empower Her Network, even though it is a nonprofit, a true partnering experience. I’m taking as many labels out as I can.

At the Empower Her Network we put the women we work with at the center. I’m trying to be really careful, and really strong and steadfast in the language we use. We want to be making sure that we’re showing the highest respect and dignity to everybody in our organization, whether they’re clients or colleagues.

The Empower Her Network is on Twitter at @EmpowerHerUS.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's.