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Katie Ford left the helm of Ford Models, one of the global premire modeling agencies, to presue something that would have a profound impact to countless people world wide, the end of human trafficking.
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Katie Ford: From Fashion Icon To Hero Of Countless
Welcome back, listeners. I have the absolute pleasure of hosting Katie Ford. For those of you who don’t know who she is, she’s absolutely incredible. I’m going to let Katie introduce herself. Katie, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
Katie, tell us what is it that you’ve done and what is it that you’re up to now?
I’m the former CEO of Ford Models. I was at Ford for over twenty years. I opened our Paris office and many of our offices, and then became the CEO and Chairman. Ten years ago, I sold Ford and I now work to combat human trafficking.
That’s a pretty drastic shift from what’s viewed as a super sexy industry to one that’s frankly really difficult to talk about and spend your time on.
When the UN had asked me to come to a conference and to speak about human trafficking, I hadn’t even heard the term human trafficking. There was very little on the internet. I went to the conference and I was just stunned. I didn’t even know slavery still existed. I am definitely the type of person who would want to know about it. When I was hearing about it and hearing how people got trafficked and how many are brought across borders usually in search of a job and the hopes of a better life, it sounded a lot like the models that we brought to the United States. They had a hope and a dream and it was of a better life financially. Of course it included stardom, which is not what most people are hoping when they’re coming for a job. They’re hoping just to work and to receive income to support their families. It’s so basic and easy to understand. Because I worked with young women who are vulnerable, I could really understand how people could be manipulated if they were with the wrong person.
I think it’s incredible, especially you were explaining previously this experience where you and your family, to ensure that many of the models were safe and taken care of, that you’d have them live with you until they were old enough to be on their own. Is that right?
That’s right. When Jerry Hall came and lived with us, I didn’t realize we were the same age because she had already been living in Europe on her own for several years. My mother was very protective of the models. She wouldn’t let them go out. Jerry was so used to going out on her own. I think she got out of our house as quickly as possible.
You were sharing this on the anonymous interview. You actually hosted some of the most famous models of the era and you grew up with them like sisters, I guess.
Christy Turlington, when she lived in my parents’ house, she knew which step to step over because it creaked and it was near my parents’ bedroom. They did everything that any teenager would do and treated my parents like parents, as my parents treated them like children. It was a very fun place to grow up.
I also can completely see that protective streak running from your parents down to you with the work that you do now. You ended up doing this talk at the UN being completely flabbergasted by the fact that slavery is still a major global issue, that people are being taken advantage of to some degree. What happened next?
I then had to figure out how I was going to combat it because I didn’t have a background in it. It’s a criminal element. I didn’t know anything about crime. I had very little contact with governments. All of these are very essential in fighting trafficking because it’s an international crime. I first started learning about the different groups and who was good, and learning about the subject. I studied that for a year and went from group to group to understand. The first thing I did was to partner with Ford so that some of our models did PSAs for different groups around the world. Also Ford had to search around the world and we used the press from that search to talk about human trafficking. Many of the people who are trafficked come from source countries that tend to be countries where people have lower incomes and they’re not as exposed to the world. At these events, we would speak about the dangers of traveling abroad and the possibility of being trafficked, and to know where you’re going and who you’re going to be living with or who you’re working for, things like that.
It’s a very clever strategy.
We partnered with local groups who had hotlines so if anybody was in a dire situation or couldn’t find a child, they could call these groups. That was the first thing we did. Then we looked at specific problems and in specific areas. In Brazil, we started to do things related to the fashion industry a little bit to talk about it. We spoke about it at fashion shows and we had a judge there. We did a training in partnership with a school for judges so they could understand the seriousness of what happen to people when they’re trafficked. Brazil has really good anti-trafficking laws. Until recently, they really were a leader in this field and they took it very seriously. They took helping their citizens very seriously. Then I received a call from the Department of Immigration of Brazil. They asked us to do a different PSA because people were being lured with the promise of becoming a model, a soccer player or a chef. We did a PSA that they used to publicize this to warn their citizens about being promised these things when in fact it may not be a real agency or a real soccer club.
I want to give the listeners a sense of scale and scope here. It’s absolutely staggering the numbers that we’re talking about. Currently the population of the US is let’s say 320 million, maybe a little bit more. How many people are currently estimated to be trafficked or enslaved?
There are 46 million people in slavery today. That is more than the top 25 cities in the United States.
Relative to the size of the US population, if you’re on the New York City subway and you look at three seats across from you and you look to your left and to your right, that means one of these people essentially would be a slave or sex trafficked.
Think of it as all of New York City, all of Los Angeles, all of Chicago. Just think of that, how everybody you see is enslaved. It is mind-blowing. I just can’t believe it. Every time I hear a new story, even today, it’s hard to believe how people think these things up and how easily people are duped when they’re desperate. We all have dreams of doing something and we know we might succeed or fail, but we think if we work hard we’ll probably succeed. These people are working day and night and will never succeed because they’re never going to receive a penny.
I think this raises a whole slew of questions especially because I remember hearing reports that even within the island of Manhattan, you have everything from wealthy families bringing in foreign children to clean the house in secret. Is this accurate?
In New York, there are people who bring in children, adults, lock them up, and don’t pay them. We also bring in people with the promise of a legitimate job. I can speak about Shandra for instance. She was 25. She had gone to college and managed a bank in Indonesia. When the economy collapsed, she paid a labor broker $3,000, which for an Indonesian was a lot of money. She was promised a job working in a hotel. She came to New York. There was a man who held up a sign just like with any business with her name. She got on the car to go where they were staying for the night. The minute she got in the house, they locked the door and held a gun to her head and told her she was starting to work as a prostitute from that minute on. Everything about it felt like a real job. She had a visa. There was a labor broker. There were people picking her up with what looked like a legitimate sign. It would be very hard to know the difference.
As somebody who’s hearing this, what is it that people can do to protect their friends and their families? What is it that we can do to help combat this issue?
First of all when people are traveling abroad, what people can do to protect their families is know where they’re going and keep control of their own passport. Even if you have your passport and you’re taken to this house, if somebody has a gun, you don’t really have any way to protect yourself at that point. You have to know the business where you’re going to work. Visas are tied to businesses so you can look the business up and make sure you have direct contact with that business. Another way is to ask other people in that business. If you’re going into hotels, is that a legitimate hotel? If you can’t find them, if other people don’t know them, they’re probably not legitimate.
What can people do here? The most important is to give donations to anti-trafficking groups. At Freedom For All, we give 100% to our on-the-ground partners to help combat trafficking around the world. Those groups are severely under-funded. For some reason, I think this is such a scary topic for people that they really can’t face looking at it. I think it scares all of us the thought that we could be trafficked or that we feel so out of control about it. These groups are making progress. There is a solution for every form of slavery that exists today. All that we really need is funding to expand them around the world.
Are there certain places that are greater culprits, if traveling to these places are more high-risk scenarios?
I wouldn’t say that for an American traveling to those places is necessarily a risk. I would say that for the local citizens, it’s a risk. For people from India, they’re being trafficked within India and abroad. For people from the Philippines, because such a huge percentage of the population travels abroad for work, they are highly at risk. They are the fourth largest source of migrant labor. It’s first India and China. They have a population of over a billion. Then there’s one other country, and then the Philippines which only has 100 million and yet that has almost as many people who are immigrating for work. The Philippine government really does a lot to protect its citizens.
It’s such an overwhelming idea that even though I’m aware of it, every time I enter the conversation I’m dumbfounded. I think you were pointing this, I feel helpless in being able to make a difference. I donate some as much as I can. Is there anything else?
I think the most important thing that individuals can do is inform other individuals. That means within churches, synagogues, wherever because it exists everywhere, and informing people, reading about it, and knowing the signs. You can’t really go in and ask people if they’re being trafficked. For instance in New York nail salons where they found there were a lot of trafficked women, if you ask them they would have to say yes because the traffickers are right next to them. It’s very important for there to be informed groups that can come in and separate the traffickers and the potential victims. That means police training to understand it. You can check in your communities if the police force knows about it. Then there are groups that do the training like Polaris Project, which is our national hotline.
Just spreading the word right now is very important. I recommend reading any of Kevin Bales’ books about it so you can understand it more. There are quite a few TV shows and movies also. It’s worth looking at it so you understand the concept because none of us think that the person next to us could be trafficked. Today, slavery and trafficking is hidden right in front of us because the traffickers tell the victims that their families will be hurt. They usually do know where their families are. There is a distinct possibility that if they don’t cooperate with the traffickers, their families will be hurt.
Is there an element of Stockholm syndrome where the victim feels like they’re associated to the captors?
I have heard where young girls fall in love with someone and the person is appearing to fall in love with them and it’s their boyfriend. He wants her to have sex with someone else so they can get enough money for whatever. At this point, the girl is in love with him and he starts using her and manipulating her. After a while, the girl realizes that he doesn’t love her and they’re being forced to do this and they’re frequently not receiving any of the money. That’s the only time there’s something close to Stockholm syndrome. The other situations, people are being forced to do something they don’t want. They’re not empathetic but they don’t know how to get out of the situation because the trafficker is constantly threatening them and telling them the police won’t help them, that they’ll be thrown out of the country. They use all sorts of threats. The traffickers usually take their passports so they don’t have any identification and they’re new to the country.
In a situation like that where the trafficker takes their passports, if they were to somehow figure out how to get to their embassy, I assume their identity would be confirmed?
Ultimately that is true. What happens when people escape is sometimes they will run to an embassy that will protect them, depending on the country they’re in, and get their identity and help them get home. In some countries, their governments really don’t care and don’t do anything to help them and they’re just stuck. Our FBI is very good at fighting trafficking. There are ways to protect yourself. With the FBI, they’ll help you get a visa if they see you’ve really been trafficked. If you prosecute the case, they will give you a visa to stay here but it takes time and it takes getting an FBI officer.
I know that your organization, Freedom For All , you were sharing that over the past few years you have actually been able to save with your partner organizations over 10,000 people.
We have and I’m very proud of that.
That’s an incredible achievement.
Thank you. It is but it’s a mere drop in the bucket. It’s really, really great for those 10,000 people. It’s a complete difference in their life. It’s so amazing to watch somebody and meet them when they’ve been trafficked. The little girls in the Philippines who might not talk for three years and then all of a sudden something happens and they just come to life. The group that I had worked with, their sign form is amazing and they shelter them and they care for them in such a loving way. These children have been sold sometimes by their parents to be used for cybersex by American men. It’s really horrifying to hear their stories, but it is so great to watch their resilience. The first group of girls that I knew who were there, they were saved when they were nine and ten years old. They’re now seventeen and eighteen and have left the shelter and they’re working. They still come home to the shelter at night but they’re working in regular jobs. Hopefully, in the next few years they’ll be living independently. It’s amazing to watch them.
It’s also amazing to watch the men who were in bonded labor in India. There’s one person I know who was enslaved, and when he was freed he got a $500 grant from the government. They go through the legal system and have the right to $500. He started a little tiny store. The next time I went, he was building quite a large house. He was able to take a loan to build a house, put the store in that, buy some cows so we now had another business, a dairy business also. He had been working hard his whole life. He’d been working since he was about nine years old. He knew how to work. He didn’t have any opportunity, he didn’t have any money, and he was tied to one employer. When he was freed, he knew exactly what to do.
Katie, I applaud you. I admire you. Thank you for all of your work. If people want to find out more or get involved, what can they do?
Go to our website, FreedomForAll.org. If you have any questions, just send it to our info account and it will direct you.
I know you had said the biggest impact somebody can make right now besides informing their friends and families, speaking to their church, synagogue, whatever their community is, is the support organizations are heavily under-funded. Every little bit really makes a difference. Listeners, if you can provide Freedom For All some funding, it will make a huge difference in the lives of people who’ve been put in the most terrible situations possible. Katie, thank you so much for coming on. If people want to find you on social media, are you active? Can they find you on Twitter, Instagram or something?
Katie, thank you so much.
Listeners, stay tuned for the next portion where we have the anonymous interview.
About Katie Ford
Katie Ford is the founder and CEO of FREEDOM FOR ALL (FFA), an anti- human trafficking organization. FREEDOM FOR ALL partners with 11 organizations in six countries to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors of human trafficking. FFA combats sex trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor and child labor. FFA and its partners teach survivors to maintain their freedom and to advocate for themselves by providing shelter, education, job skills training and community prevention programs in vulnerable areas. FREEDOM FOR ALLS programs create long term, systemic change and provide pathways for a better life.
Previously Ms. Ford was CEO of Ford Models, the worlds largest model agency. She expanded the agencys business opening offices internationally in South America and Europe; and across the United States. The agency represented models from 46 countries. Ford Models iconic models included Christy Brinkley, Rachel Hunter, Naomi Campbell, Chanel Iman, Irina Pantaeva, Patricia Velasquez and many others. In 2007, Ms. Ford sold the family business to pursue her philanthropic interests.
Ms. Ford has BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MBA from Columbia University.
Recent feature on PBS Newshour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/human-traffickers-trap-women-domestic-servitude/#.WUl7-6AlF_p.twitter
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, my favorite part: the anonymous interview. We have the lovely and charming and charismatic, Heather, with us. Heather, thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me.
Let’s dive into it. Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York. I actually grew up on Long Island. That’s where I spent most of my childhood.
That’s not where your career led you. If memory serve, you ended up in a larger city rather than a township. Where did you end up?
As soon as I could get out, I moved into Manhattan. Then I became fascinated with Europe and England in particular. As undergraduate I studied abroad in London, and then I ended up going to graduate school at Oxford in the UK. I spent about four years there.
I hear Oxford is if there were Ivy League schools abroad, then maybe it would make it to that level. That’s a phenomenal institute of education and place to be. Was there a certain incident or teacher that had you want to go down the career that you went?
It actually was when I was really, really young, around five years old, I had this realization that I was going to die and I was really acutely aware of my own mortality. I thought, “Even if I die physically, can I still think to myself?” I asked my dad, “Where do my thoughts come from so I can keep them when I die?” He said, “They come from your brain.” I said, “How?” He said, “We don’t really know exactly.” Then I became fascinated with how the brain works, how it creates our thoughts, how it creates who we are. It just was this life-long passion that I kept pursuing. It wasn’t the only thing I was interested in. I was a Fine Arts minor, I painted and I did acting. I had all these other interests but that was the main thread that always remained throughout everything was, how does the brain work, how does it create our thoughts, how does it create who we are?
Do you feel a special appreciation for Phineas Gage?
Yes, I do. He was the foundation of the idea. He had a metal tamping iron rod that goes straight through his prefrontal cortex, and then he had this profound change in his personality and became more impulsive.
Listeners, just so you know, there’s a super, super famous case in neuroscience. It’s what they described as kicking it all off where due to an accident, I think he was a miner or something like that.
He was working in the railroad.
He had some spike go or metal rod go through his brain and he survived, which is unheard of. Usually when something pierces the brain, the person dies. He even got a weird nickname, Phineas No-Longer-Gage or something weird like that, because his personality had changed but he seemed fine.
His personality changed but everything else stayed intact: his intellect, his ability to move and walk. All these other cognitive domains remained the same except this profound change in his personality. That was the foundation case that the prefrontal cortex might be related to personality and impulse control. Actually if you’re interested, his actual skull is in Harvard Medical School in the medical school library, which is cool if you’re ever there and want to check it out.
You wanted to figure out how to keep your thoughts after you die. Then that led you to go into neuroscience in a long, roundabout way. Is that right?
Yeah. I was interested in how the brain works but also how the mind works. I always felt like, “Psychology is too much. It’s just the study of the mind.” I thought for a time to go into neurosurgery but that was just really a lot about the physical mechanisms of the brain. I was really interested in where they come together. Eventually as my interests were merging so was this new field of cognitive neuroscience, which seemed to me like to be the perfect fit. That’s where I found myself drawn to and doing work with humans and doing neuroimaging studies and some brain lesion studies, but just trying to make that connection between the physical brain, how it works and how it’s connected to our thoughts and our feelings and our sensations.
Since you started doing research and work and exploring this field, is there a certain accomplishment that you’re most proud of? Besides being a mother of two lovely children and having a husband who’s a rapper that’s super cool that you’ve performed and worked with, in your professional career, as a non-music.
I try to do things that are noble that I haven’t been done before. A lot of people in research are taking something that’s been done and then putting another slight twist on it, and then just doing another variation on a theme. I always wanted to stay away from that. You can publish a lot more if you do that, but I’d rather publish less and do things that are more original. One of the things that I did that really hadn’t been done at the time, this was during my doctoral research, was to go interdisciplinary and compare psychiatric patients to neurological lesion patients. With psychiatric patients, they’re having all these problems but there’s no place in the brain you can point to like, “That’s where the hole in the head is or something.” It’s more subtle. It’s neurochemical or perhaps about connectivity. Whereas the neurological lesion patients have this very specific place where maybe they had a tumor removed or they had a stroke that caused a specific area of damage. It basically compared these different populations on neuro-cognitive measures to see where they were similar and where they were different. That really hadn’t been done before.
Doing that, I was able to parse out the different symptoms in certain psychiatric illnesses and correlate them to specific brain areas. That’s where psychiatry is going now. It’s saying, “We’re not going to look at the overarching diagnosis, like let’s say borderline personality disorder. We’re going to look at these specific symptoms within the disorder, say impulsivity, and see what neural anatomical areas or functional areas they’re tied to in the brain and treat that, rather than the overarching disorder.” Treat these neural circuits that are involved in these symptoms versus a full psychological disorder, which can be very heterogeneous. A lot of people can fall into a category even depression, but there are all these different subtypes of depression.
To give the listeners a sense of what you look like, if somebody were to play you in a movie, who would it be?
Some people have said that I look a little bit like Minnie Driver. Others have said that I look a little bit like Gwyneth Paltrow if she had dark hair and dark eyes. Figure that one out.
A Jewish version of Gwyneth.
Gwyneth Paltrow is actually half-Jewish. Her father, Bruce Paltrow, is Jewish. A darker version of Gwyneth Paltrow or Minnie Driver. I met Minnie Driver once at a film premier and I said, “Some people have said that I look like you.” She looked at me and gave me this not-so-great look and she was like, “No, I don’t think so.”
We know that she’s not getting the invite to play you in your life movie.
She’s out. Gwyneth Paltrow is in. She has to dye her hair and wear dark contacts.
Was there a moment in your career that you felt like you had arrived to some degree?
I still don’t know that I’ve arrived. Maybe if I win the Nobel Prize one day, I’ll feel like I’ve arrived. I think that in your career, it’s just a series of small steps. There’s never one big step where you’re like, “Now I’ve made it.” I still sometimes think back when people ask me for advice or whatever I’m like, “I’m the expert? When did that happen?” You’re a student for a really long time and then you’re post-doc and then all of a sudden, you’re teaching and people are looking to you for questions. It just gradually happens. I was proud when I’ve won some awards like Young Investigator Award and that kind of thing. You always feel it’s really nice to be acknowledged for the work that you’re doing but at least for me, I keep at it and I keep doing it because I’m just interested in it. I almost can’t do anything else. After my Doctorate, I got a Master of Public Health. I was looking at things like psychiatric epidemiology and health care policy and flirted a little bit with going into more on the policy side of things. Fundamentally, I just got drawn straight back to the research. It’s like this magnetic pull. I just keep doing it because I love it. Getting acknowledged for it is always great but it’s not the reason why I do it.
It’s super cool because I feel very much the same way that I literally can’t rather not do certain things. I think somebody said it best when the difference between a job and a career is that in a job you can’t wait for the hours to end. In a career, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what you want.
That had always been my guidance throughout like if I start doing something and I’m waiting and the hours are dragging on, “This isn’t what I should be doing.” If you try to just keep doing what you love and you would do anyway, whether you’re paid or not, it doesn’t matter, you just love it so much, then you know you’re on the right path.
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
That is very difficult.
I have one for the listeners. You would think she’s related to a famous man named Irving. Are you two related? I’m assuming not.
We could be. I don’t know. I get that. If you’re in academic, some people ask me, “Isaiah the philosopher. Are you related to that person?”
Heather, thank you so much for doing this. Listeners, you have between now and the next episode to figure out who Heather is. If you guess correctly, you could win an invitation to me or The Salon by Influencers.