An Open Letter from Founder of Secret Projects, Fritha Mason (nee Vincent)

An Open Letter from Founder of Secret Projects, Fritha Mason (nee Vincent)

To Secret Projects Global Community,

As some know already, I began a small pilot programme in 2013, named Secret Pillow Project. I wanted to empower women in India to earn an income to support themselves and their families, but beyond that I had no firm plan!

I had spent years working as a charity manager and fundraiser travelling through India many times. I had the privilege of meeting many inspirational Indian women, both individuals and as groups, often living in very challenging circumstances with little opportunity to earn a living. Among these groups of women 2 common themes emerged. Firstly, all wanted to earn a living wage to support themselves and their families and were not afraid to work hard for it. Secondly, they all had sewing skills, ranging from basic to more advanced, many with access to sewing machines.  

This second theme gave me much food for thought. Further research and discussions with the women highlighted 3 strong reasons why they were not able take up the opportunity to earn an income through making clothing or homewares: 

  1. Women play a number of different and vital roles in their lives. Many are mothers and carers and couple this with needing to work on the land to feed their families, it gives them no time to leave the family home to seek employment in one of the many factories throughout India.   

  2. Although the women had good sewing skills, they hadn’t been trained to sell their products or think of themselves as business women and entrepreneurs.  

  3. Women, for many reasons, don’t have access to local, domestic or international markets to sell their products and therefore were under confident to take micro loans designed to help them run their own micro- enterprises.

I have always been a keen sewer myself and a thought struck me that I could help train the women to make Secret Pillows, a charming pillow that unfolds into a cosy blanket that I had been making myself as gifts for friends for a number of years. 

I worked with some of these inspiring women and together we produced a small first order, selling 12 of the Secret Pillows. At this stage, I still didn’t really have much more of a plan than when I first began Secret Pillow Project, however, something quite wonderful happened. The women who had made the Secret Pillows told me they wanted to make more to sell and our customers made it clear that they wanted to buy more and were actively telling their friends and families about Secret Pillow Project

It was at this point that my vision became crystal clear. I would help women to make and sell clothing and homeware giving them the confidence and resources to make their own choices for themselves and their families. Alongside this, my mission took shape to empower and drive micro-enterprise.

8 years down the line, we have achieved and learned so much. By far the biggest challenge has been to actually sell our products in a very difficult retail climate. Despite this, our customer base has grown significantly and this growth has given me confidence to work in this ever changing market place and plan strategies to address and overcome the issues that face us.

Whilst I think of myself now as a social entrepreneur rather than a fundraiser, my background in fundraising has equipped me with some excellent skills that are invaluable to Secret Pillow Project. For example, I ran many successful rewards based Crowdfunding campaigns to sell Secret Pillows and more valuably, tell the Secret Projects story over and over again to an ever wider circle of customers. 

In the early stages of Secret Pillow Project, the going often got very tough. What helped to get me through though was to reflect on our customer base and their support and desire to see Secret Pillow Project grow, coupled with our Makers in India who held the same strong desire. 

As I moved forward with Secret Pillow Project, we have been able to take advantage of many incredible life-lines. I discovered the books of Professor Yunus, an expert on Social Business and I also had the great fortune to recruit two very patient and supportive Volunteer Advisors, whose business expertise has helped Secret Pillow Project enormously. We knew that we had a loyal customer base and a number of our customers became social investors and I met Nirmala Rani who has since become my trusted and expert Indian business partner.  We never tire of hearing the sound track to our project, which comes from the women we meet. It is their call “we can work, we want work.” This call forms our backbone and is what drives Secret Projects, as we now call ourselves. 

When I first founded Secret Projects, I set up a UK registered limited company that was owned entirely by myself and ran as a not for profit because there was no other business model suitable for a start up of this kind. I purposefully did not want to run a charity because I knew our Makers wanted to feel like business women not beneficaries. (Note: I still believe in the charity model.) For me though, this was always going to be a temporary business structure until I was able to have the time and resources to formulate a more appropriate business model. Once again, another life-line was given to Secret Projects in the form of Banke Ajayi, a highly experienced management accountant who Nirmala and I were introduced to in 2017 and who has since become a much valued member of the Secret Projects team. Working with two of the UK’s leading law firms Banke and I explored options for a new, international business model. Banke and I have, I am delighted to say, found an excellent alternative way forward for our mission to empower.

Excitingly, our new way forward involves everyone who has ever been involved with us! 

Makers – customers - investors – volunteers – staff members -big business supporters

I am proud to invite you to own Secret Projects with me and become a member of our 

COMMUNITY BENEFIT SOCIETY 

This model runs like a cooperative, in a similar way to John Lewis in the UK. In November/December 2019 I will run a community shares sale on the crowdfunding platform www.crowdfunder.co.uk   Click here to watch a short clip that explains more about Community Benefit Societies, CBS. Click here to read in depth about the CBS business model.

The funds we raise from selling shares in Secret Projects CBS will allow us to invest in much needed resources to grow our Maker Network and develop our production operations in India. We will also be in a position to recruit skilled staff to sell our products and services globally to support our new commercial strategy that amongst other areas will give our global community of customers further opportunities to play a greater role in our mission to empower. 

It is with great excitement that I am also able to tell you that we have now become a provisional member of the World Fair Trade Organisation and we are on a strict timetable to become a full member by the spring of 2020. This is a great honour for us and our Maker Groups and will underpin all our future plans and activities. 

If you would like to know more about becoming a member of Secret Projects CBS or about buying membership for a child or young person you know, please click here or request more information from us at invest@secretprojects.org and Banke or I will respond.  I have my crowdfunding white board ready to take names of people who would like to invest.

I look forward to owning Secret Projects with you all. 

So very excited and so very determined 

Fritha 

With special thanks

To all Makers of Secret Projects – you have inspired me in so many ways, what I have found most inspiring is your collective determination to ensure your children know a life of less hardship than the ones you have experienced. This is the reason I give my life-long service to helping find solutions to overcome the challenges that prevent trained women in India from running thriving micro businesses. Giving them the resources and the confidence to make their own choices for themselves and their children

Accenture India - to the Wow Group - thank you for your enthusiasm and we look forward to working with you in the future
Adventure Ashram - for enabling me to do both 
Aimee Faunt - a true change maker and I don't think there are many other people that would commit weeks of their life to spending 14 hours a day in Old Tube Station in the freezing cold. I have loved every minute of working with you.
Alison Fitzgerald Lucas - for starting off our embroidery, exciting times lie ahead….
All our stockists around the world; Jungle Hut and Sabrina's Shop - thank you for being the first ones
Amalia for being our Head of Shopping for Raja market
Amelia Singh and Bambooty Real Nappies - we have learnt so much from you
AMMA - for showing me that my favourite colour is rainbow
Ammachi Labs and your amazing team. Special thanks to Kripa aka Chris Coley - imagine if you had not responded to my email!!! None of this would have happened the way it has
Anita - thank you for trusting me to deliver on my promise to you and your mum 
Annabel - for our beautiful lotus logo…
Banke - what the hell would we have done if you had not come along? You have enabled this transformation
Bates Wells and your team that gave us Option 3 - you know who you are! 
CAPA and Bristol University - thank you for matching us with incredible young people
Cinnamon for running the New York Marathon and weaving Inge into Secret Projects forever
Contributors to our Training for Empowerment Activities and the development of our Production Support Unit 
My Dad - for posting out Secret Pillows for years, unpaid
Diana from Wessex, Dave Boyle and The Hive - thank you for the welcome to the world of Co-Operatives
Dr Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas for my invitation to join as a lecturer at London College of Fashion 
Ella Vincent for always helping me with my work, modeling and designing the Little Secret Sari Dress - to be launched in 2020! Jack for always running ahead of me and turning the lights on at the unit.
Facebook Community - thank you for sharing, posting and commenting - you enable this next stage to happen
Fi - thank you for calling me that day…it quite incredible how far we have come.
Fiona Bird, our wonderful accountant - thank you for constantly going the extra mile
Gordon Robinson for your unshakeable belief in me from the very beginning and a special thank you for introducing me to Nirmala
Gunner for Life!!! you make Bangalore a great place to be! Hurray to friendship 
Heather Findlay - what can I say big cousin - you quite literally rocked Secret Project's world!!!
Hogan Lovells for being pro bono lawyers and helping us every step of the way in more ways than just the law
Jackie Ordish for bringing your business expertise, your patience and your determination for working out a way forward. A special thank you for introducing us to Banke 
Jamie Monson for suggesting our name change - drop the pillow and add an s to the word project - a genius solution
Jargen - for seeing the future of Secret Pillow Project before we could and for having complete faith in the Nirmala Fritha combo!
Jo Langston for making us and Secret Projects feel like a pair of newly shined shoes. Your love is so patient and endless.
Joan Pollock, Spiti Projects Charity - you have taught me so much, including how to help a lady give birth! Delighted we have plans to work together into the future.
Julia Neal for taking the first professional photos of me that we have used constantly ever since
Katy Putzker for waiting patiently to drive our USA community
Lesley Pearce for designing our Secret Shopping Bag and starting off our Teacher's Trip. What a god mother! 
Levian for my Sunday ice-cream, for brightening my day always and for welcoming Secret Projects guests like long lost friends. You are the youngest but the wisest amongst us
Lissy for working so hard, against so many odds to hold your position at Secret Projects - we are delighted to have you on board full time
Manor House School community for embracing the Secret Pillow Project and helping it get going
Margaret for encouraging me always and laughing so much with me
Maria for being a bright light in our India team
Maria in UK for volunteering as our book keeper
Mary Pace for your guidance on building a global wholesale network
Middlecrows  for giving me and Secret Pillow Project a warm welcome and a home for so long
My Mum for never ever, ever doubting this journey
Nirmala - what can I say except here's to a bright future. I am so proud to lead this Social Business with you
Olaf for never doubting my vision or challenging my commitment to India 
Old Street Tube Station and Appear Here for helping us prove concept through access to the general public
Party Hosts for inviting your friends to hear the story of Secret Pillow Project
Patty for endless cups of tea, for egg dosas, for loving me and the Secret Projects crew like we were your own
Professor Yunus for writing all your books about Social Business
Rachel - thank you for being our first sampler, you paved the way for others to follow….
Rich for our killer commercial strategy - I am so excited about activating it! 
Richard Branson and Virgin Start Up for loaning us £25,000
Rose for bringing humour to our harder days, looking out for us all and battling so hard to make it possible for us to post out from India
Royal Society of Arts Catalyst Programme - with special thanks to all members of the Cataylst team past and present 
Ruth Sacks for bringing Secret Projects into university life for the first time 
Sarah Raskino - you are my hero - you push me forward
Sarah de Lange from World Fair Trade Organisation for helping me understand that we could become a member and holding our hand through the process
Secret Projects Interns - Elsa, Hannah, Pickney, Ella, Sarah, Sarah B. Thank you for working very hard to help us get better at marketing and e-commerce.
Secret Projects Investors - thank you for investing in our mission empower! I could not have gotten this far without you
Secret Projects Maker Group Leaders - I am very proud to call you my colleagues 
She Rocks Influencers - thank you, we did it, can't wait for what is next…watch this space... International Women's Day 2020
Shin - you are a pioneer, you show true commitment and are a great team member
Sneha - welcome to the team, we are excited about working with you
Solomon Daniel for shifting Secret Pillows for me so bravely
Sophie, Georgina and Kirsten for being our first Guardians of the project - the role of guardian paved the way for the role of member
Sophie - thank you driving our PR. Your flare is making such a difference
Stanly and Parashu and everyone at Odanadi Seva Trust for always flying the flag for Secret Projects and my vision to grow the business 
Stephanie - thank you for showing me what a Secret Pillow was, for being the first glamorous entrepreneur I ever knew and for giving me the Secret Pillow instructions so many years later. Thank you for your beautiful daughters, Anna, Alexa and Natasha who have been so supportive all the way.
Taja Mckinney Zisler for breaking the first ground for Secret Projects in USA 
The Abundance Crew of November 2018 - you were the first customers to travel and show us that it was a great idea to expand because everyone got so much out of it
The Clarins Family - thank you for the With Heart Award, for £30,000 (it was a lifeline.) Everyone I have met at Clarins from the lady that runs the counter in Heathrow Duty Free all the way to Mr Clarins himself, are charming and fun. A special thank you to Shoshana and Momina. You put a smile on my and my mums face when we really need it
The Godbers - thank you for our life on Crowborough Road
Julian and Vivian - for always being my friend and always walking me safely home
Tim - thank you for storing everything and always helping with set up
To all our lorry drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers and airplane drivers. Thank you for safely getting us to our training sessions in some very remote places and sorry for making you carry so much fabric all the time.
To all Secret Projects Customers from over 30 countries across the world 
To all the children who owned and loved their Secret Pillows…it kept me going
To all the journalists and bloggers who have covered our story over the past 7 years - special thanks to Rebecca Chandler-Burn for the article in The Business Telegraph, Lucy Siegle for her article in The Guardian. I would like also to say thank you sa well to Lisa Smosarski and Hannah Keegan of Stylist for publishing and writing an amazing article and Christina Salzano for getting us on BBC World News
To all the Shopify gurus! We salute you….
To Anna, Alexa and Natasta for connecting me back to Stephanie
To anyone that has ever backed one of our crowdfunding campaigns - without your backing I would not known how to continue on this journey
To my best friends - Amy, Antonia, Camille, Cinnamon, Laura and Sophie - my choices have not been straight forward or easy to work with. Thank you for your never ending support and understanding 
The Crowdfunder Team - I truly believe that you care about where Secret Projects ends up. Thank you for your on going, consistent and timely support.
To the group of women from Palakad who created the space and energy for me to have my epiphany moment
To the original 12 customers who responded to my first Secret Pillow Project Film - you know who you are!
To the team at Jacobs Well - you are an inspiration to us and we have learnt a lot
To those that have connected Secret Projects to our Maker Groups - Brother Thomas, Birds, Grace Charitable Trust, Suresh at AMMA's Ashram in Meppadi, Justice and Care and Ralene Enterprises 
To Webleaf, Service Tick, Mapline, Brunelit - thank you for you pro bono services that help us run smoothy on a daily basis
Turquoise Amy for designing Secret Sari Dress 
Whitney Ribbins - your infectious energy is like a motor inside our project - keep going….