Take a Stand and Making Change Happen with Abry Deshong
Abry Deshong is the founder of MAIA WHISTLE, a company that designs functional jewelry to raise awareness for ending sexual assault. In this conversation, Abry talks about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, why she took a stand to make change happen, and things she’s learned from her journey.
Where did you get the inspiration for Maia Whistle?
The first lightbulb happened in 2011 when I was living in Amsterdam with my boyfriend at the time who was in fashion and design. One of his many roles at his work was photographing models, and at the time, I was researching at a feminist institute. So imagine, we had two opposed approaches to viewing women in society in one household. I came home one day from my job, and he came home with this spread of mock up photographs. They were images of this thin woman dressed in a rather open and loosely draped short dress. She carried a submissive facial expression and posture. At that time, I was researching the global prevalence of domestic violence and was quite aware that one contributing factor to interpersonal violence against women is the cultural norms that are created through media and fashion.
I found it interesting that in one home, we were both observing and contributing to the problem.
Looking at that mock-up spread, it dawned on me, “sure, fashion and models are fun to look at. It’s exciting to look through magazines and go shopping. Of course, these things get more attention than the immediate interpersonal violence that is happening in every community on the planet”.
So there was a question that came to mind for me; if fashion is more interesting to look at, how could I use fashion to raise awareness for sexual violence?
In 2011, I came back to the United States and bought an LLC. For one year, I played around with cool branding and what the product could be. Then, one day I had the second light bulb. I was walking out of meditation class into the parking lot. I watched my meditation leader digging in her purse for her keys. When she pulled them out, she had a whistle attached to her keychain. My first thought, clearly, she had the whistle in case she needed to be heard if something unsafe were happening to her but she had to dig around for it — what good is that? The second thought, that whistle is fucking ugly, it’s orange, and it’s not even pretty enough for her to wear but at least its functional and serves a purpose. I thought, what a perfect opportunity to blend a whistle that is known as a rape whistle or safety whistle into something fashionable.
When did it occur to you that you had to step into the spotlight to help end sexual violence? How can individuals take stands for something they believe in or against something they believe?
I took a leadership course, and it focused on gaining awareness around who I am and who I wanted to create myself to be in community. During one particular session, the course leader said to the participants “it’s not enough for you to stand for a cause. What’s going to make the difference is for you to enroll, empower and inspire others to stand with you.” It’s all about enrollment. From then on, I got another way of being a leader — inspiring others to be a stand with you. This new distinction of leadership will help touch, move and inspire each person who engages with the whistle. That took a ton of pressure off of me. I realized I didn’t have to be the person shouting from the rooftops. I just have to inspire the person next to me, and they use the whistle to inspire the person next to them and so on. This builds a community around authentic vulnerability and connection.
It’s scary to go up against something that is uncomfortable. I think there is a shared experience of helplessness felt in society around this issue. In part, because there are such powerful institutions like government and nonprofits where there is a false reliance that these organizations are the ones who should be taking care ‘it.’ This reliance removes responsibility from the individual in a subconscious way, and while these institutions can and do provide support and advocacy, there is great room for personal agency in this issue as well. Statistically, the chances are high that someone in your life, if not you, will be faced with dealing with sexual violence or interpersonal violence. We all can make a difference in someone’s life if we are personally committed to believing someone, supporting them as they heal, or stepping in if it can be prevented.
So with this whistle, why not empower everyone to feel like they can ‘be’ around this issue and that they can ‘do’ something about it? In this way, it is not just me or any other single person ‘trying’ to step into the spotlight, but rather we all can be inspired and moved to take personal agency in standing united in breaking the silence.
What have been some of the challenges as a social entrepreneur? What are some of the things you’ve learned?
One challenge was entering the world of engineering and machinery after being in social sciences and human services — a world where creativity, collaboration, and communication are so important. It’s an entirely different environment. Prototyping was a real sink or swim experience for me. I went through three engineers, six prototypes, and three machinery companies and it was a challenge for me because even though I needed to get what I wanted, I was more focused on being liked by my contractors than getting the exact prototype I wanted.
So the first machinery company I worked with, I was nice, and that’s not to say being nice is a character flaw but I was trying to get them to like me, and that doesn’t work when you’re paying someone to create something for you and the product has to be exact. So that was the first lesson and the second lesson I learned — you need to be extremely clear upfront and ask a lot of questions because not being clear is an expensive lesson. I spent a lot of money the first time around. But it’s ok because I learned from it.
Also, I am faced with the possibility of failure. However, I’m a creative person in the sense that my desires and passions are very present for me in my life and they continue to open up into the material world. I will always be doing things and creating socially impactful campaigns because that’s what I do and that is my purpose for being on this earth. I know I’m not immortal to the realities of business. Everything has a cycle, but my purpose is not cyclical. It is very steady, and that’s how I will be my whole life — Continuously creating and materializing my purpose.
What is a piece of advice you would give to those who are looking to break through a challenge they may have?
In order to wake up every day and have the courage to break through challenges, you have to have a daily practice of being inspired. Read inspiring books, watch youtube videos from the greats, listen to podcasts, anything that will keep you going.