By Michelle Pitcher
The Dallas Morning News.
Thirteen years ago, Abi Ferrin was pushed so far by her abusive relationship that she contemplated suicide. Now, several states away from where that happened, she is sharing her story with thousands of women to help others who might be in a similar situation.
Ferrin is an advocate for cosmetics company Mary Kay Inc.’s corporate cause of ending domestic violence, a cause more companies are addressing. The cosmetics giant, which has more than 3.5 million consultants and employees worldwide, is highlighting its philanthropic aims at its annual seminar in Dallas.
By the time the conference is over on Aug. 1, Ferrin will have shared her story with more than 27,000 people. While the decision to speak publicly about her past was difficult, she thinks she can serve as a role model for a largely faceless cause.
Over the course of her past relationship, her partner drained her bank account, forcing her to become financially dependent.
He beat her and, at one point, threatened her with a gun. After a stranger witnessed one of the physical assaults, Ferrin received help and encouragement to leave the relationship.
In 2005, she moved from California to Texas, where she said her life began to turn around. She won the title of Texas’ Next Top Designer soon afterward and now has her own shop in Dallas. Boutiques around the world carry her line of clothing, and her brand focuses on advocacy for women involved in sex trafficking in other countries.
Eight months ago, she partnered with Mary Kay, based in suburban Dallas, as a chief advocate for its anti-domestic violence work, which has been a priority since 2000. The company and the Mary Kay Foundation also pledge to put an end to cancers affecting women.
Ferrin said the partnership was “a natural fit.”
“You think about how 1 in 4 women are affected by domestic violence, and how many people are here today,” Ferrin said. “You think about how many people are in that room who are affected, and then how many people they can touch when they go back home.”
MARY KAY’S RESEARCH
With a sales force numbering in the millions, the company conducts its own research about abuse trends, finding in past years that the national trend of 1 in 4 holds true for its own workforce.
Since partnering with Mary Kay, Ferrin has spoken at events like the company’s first Global Day of Beauty earlier this year, where Mary Kay provided makeovers for women in domestic violence shelters in major cities across the country. She has also helped create public service announcements for a company campaign that encourages intervention.
In addition to putting a face to the cause, Mary Kay sponsors an around-the-clock text help line, geared toward younger people who need relationship advice or resources. The service is the first of its kind and is run through the National Dating Abuse Hotline.
“Most young people are not going to pick up the phone and call a hotline,” said Kirsten Gappelberg, manager of corporate social responsibility for Mary Kay. “I don’t know that I would.”
Over the last 15 years, Mary Kay and the Mary Kay Foundation have raised more than $50 million to end domestic violence.
The Mary Kay Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization, focuses its efforts on emergency relief efforts, including a grant program that gives $3 million each year to shelters that house victims of abuse. Around 1,000 shelters have received grants since 2000.
OTHER FIRMS ACTIVE
Other large corporations have taken on domestic violence as a cause, including Avon, another direct-sale cosmetics giant.
Kimberly-Clark Corp., which produces brands including Kleenex and Kotex, and health care provider Kaiser Permanente also have partnered with national movements to raise awareness about domestic violence.
Crayton Webb, vice president of corporate social responsibility for Mary Kay, said there is no denying that companies’ reputations are increasingly dependent on more than just the quality of their products.
“Gen Y wants to do business with companies that are doing good,” Webb said. “And the rest of us agree. We did this long before it was a marketing trend, and I believe customers can tell when it’s genuine.”
Over time, the company has expanded and refined its efforts. Independent consultants and Mary Kay employees lobby for legislation regarding victim support and host hundreds of fundraisers each year.
“It’s a dark and deeply troubling issue, and it is a multi-generational issue,” Webb said. “We’re staking our corporate reputation on something that may or may not be solvable. This was the cause that our founder believed in, and it has resonated.”
The cause certainly resonates with Ferrin.
“This is a very vulnerable position for me to be in,” Ferrin said, “but to feel safe with a company that’s doing such a responsible job with it and really does care is really amazing.”