Dawn Manske Of Made for Freedom: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO

Charlie Katz
Authority Magazine
Published in
14 min readDec 28, 2021


Learn and watch the numbers! I’m not a numbers person but have learned to appreciate that the numbers don’t lie. My memory might and my dreams definitely, but the numbers don’t.

As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Manske.

Dawn Manske, the founder of Made for Freedom, fights human trafficking with style. She witnessed the atrocities of human trafficking firsthand during her 10 years living in China. After meeting children who were being used as slave labor and seeing a report with girls under the age of ten being sold to men she knew she had to do something to create change. Dawn started the social enterprise, Made for Freedom, with an idea revolving around her favorite international clothing, and the company has grown into a lifestyle brand carrying clothing, bath & body, jewelry, home goods, and more. They have partnered with over 20 restoration centers/suppliers around the world and provided over 25,000 hours of dignified employment for survivors of trafficking and those coming out of marginalized situations. She has been a guest speaker for conferences, news programs, and the US State Department on the impact of dignified employment in the fight against human trafficking. Dawn’s passion, stories, and insights into the fashion industry and supply chains will not only inspire, but will also expand your view of how you can make a difference.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am not one of those people who dreamed about being in business, much less becoming a CEO. I have three degrees, two in education and one in theology. Notice the lack of business there?

The concept of Made for Freedom was really three ideas colliding together as the result of unusually overt interest from people in my favorite pants. I was exposed to the horrors of sex trafficking through meeting street kids who had been brought to the “big city” by people ready to use them as slave labor. A video I saw years later shot by an undercover reporter also revealed the world of child sex trafficking. It turned my stomach and broke my heart. I began doing research and trying to figure out a way I could join the fight against this atrocity. Fast forward a few years and I received two wedding gifts that were significant. The first gift was a pair of sandals from my husband which were an incredible example of how to use business strategies and employment to make systemic change and help people. The second gift were several pairs of my favorite kind of comfy fisherman pants from Thailand. The day after our wedding, my husband and I were at the airport leaving for our honeymoon. Of course, I was wearing my new pants and sandals! I found it interesting that a TSA agent commented on how much she liked my pants. (When was the last time a TSA agent complimented you on your clothing?) Coincidentally the flight attendant also asked where I got them. It got weirder when a stranger came and asked me about my pants while visiting a friend in the hospital, and I couldn’t deny something was going on when a woman chased me through a parking lot to tell me how much she liked my pants and asked where I bought them.

I have always been passionate about helping people, so the thought that crossed my mind after a couple of months of people commenting on my pants was, “Obviously, I’m not the only one who likes these pants. They aren’t available in the U.S. Maybe I could import them from Thailand and sell them to all these people who keep asking about where to purchase them.” Then, another part of my brain stepped in and was very adamant, “I don’t want to sell pants.” Finally, I thought about all the compliments these very comfy and unique pants had received, and I was reminded of the sandals. My conclusion was, “If these pants could be the foundation of a business that helps people coming out of being used for slave labor, I would sell pants!”

We changed the design of the pants thus giving them a new name, CREABELI (taken from CREating A BEautiful LIfe) Pants. Made for Freedom now has products from 15 partner centers around the world, all of which are providing dignified employment for survivors of human trafficking and those coming out of marginalized situations. We have generated nearly 25,000 hours of dignified employment and have fashion, bath and body, and home products.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

While visiting a potential partner center in Cambodia, I was determined to get a picture of the young ladies that were made up and seemed to be on display at the entrance of a beer garden near our hotel. These beer gardens were known for their illicit activities and not the kind of place you can just walk up and take pictures. The two very large bouncers sitting right outside the room made that clear. I had a plan. Tara, the Made for Freedom Supply Coordinator, was traveling with me. I told her that we would walk along the sidewalk, just chatting, and once we were in front of the beer garden she needed to point at whatever was on the other side of the street and start talking to me about it. I would then use the remote control for my phone in my pocket while letting my phone casually hang at my side pointing at the beer garden.

I had been practicing this sly photography technique during the trip.. We started on our evening stroll and when we reached the designated spot, we became aware that the other side of the street was the edge of a canal. On the other side of the canal was very little to look at except one lone tree. Tara adapted quickly to the situation and began pointing at the tree in the distance and talking about it. The bouncers were not happy we were standing in the entrance. Nobody was happy that I had a phone out, but everyone was more interested in what these two foreigners could possibly find so interesting. My heart was pounding, but I did what I could to snap pictures while the bouncers approached us to ask what we were doing. I tried to explain that Tara is a serious gardener and loves plants and trees! I asked if they knew what kind of tree it was in the distance. They didn’t know and we had accomplished what we came for, so we moved on.

Tara, after this outing, understood more fully why my husband was glad someone would be traveling with me! It was a little scary, and I’ve never had such a senseless conversation about a tree. But I got my picture!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A student from a local university who had heard my story invited me to join her in class to hear a special guest speaker. This guest speaker was being recognized for his extremely generous gift to the university and he was going to share some of his philanthropic activities. He had made significant contributions to a center in Thailand. Not just any center in Thailand, it was THE center we partnered with to make our pants!

I watched carefully and found the perfect moment to approach him after he got settled but still a few minutes before class would begin. He was elated to hear that I knew about the center he had funded and that Made for Freedom was having our CREABELI Pants made there. He had a huge smile on his face and casually asked, “Do you need money?”

My mind raced. I wasn’t ready for that question. Made for Freedom was a startup, of course, we needed money. But, the rambling that came out of my mouth was something about, “I’m a finalist in this business plan competition and we are in the second round for another competition.”

This became a point of amusement for my entire team. “Dawn, when someone asks if you need money, just say, “Yes”. Don’t tell them about anything else.

I wish I could say that down the road, someone asked me that same question, but I’m ready for it now!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people have played a part, but my incredible husband, Eric, has done road trips, social media, cold calling, accounting, packing, selling, and so much more. After the first couple of years, he started getting more involved and someone from the team asked why he was stepping in at that point. Eric thoroughly enjoyed responding, “I’ve always been involved, just under the covers!”

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Having lived overseas for 10 years in a very different culture, living in China as a minority in a section of my home city, and being a foster mom to kids of other races, I’ve become very aware of the fact that we all interpret life through a different lense. Bringing a leadership team together that comes from different viewpoints will keep ideas and approaches from being one-sided or siloed. None of us can see things from all angles. For example, I was having a video made and the videographer used an image to represent human trafficking, modern-day slavery. It seemed like a good visual to me, but when I sought input from an African American man, he cringed and informed me that the image being used is that which is used for Black Freedom. I was glad to receive that information so that I could find something that wouldn’t convey a meaning that was not intended.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

These are good goals, but how do we really make them happen?

Made for Freedom is built around the idea of building up those who have been overlooked, shunned, and voiceless. With partnerships around the world, it becomes clear that each society has ways of casting people aside. Our focus is dignified employment. We don’t partner with just any group that provides dignified employment. We are exclusive in partnering with those suppliers providing services, training, and dignified employment for survivors of human trafficking and those coming out of marginalized situations. Many factories have good working conditions and quality products, but they will not be represented in our product line. Suppliers who reach out to me about possibly carrying their goods may feel it is inequitable for us to not consider them.

Our focus is absolutely and completely on dignified employment for those who most desperately need it and if it seems unfair or exclusive to some, I’m alright with that. We all need to do what we can to treat people with dignity and this is how Made for Freedom does that.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The vision and the burden ultimately lie with the CEO. It’s wonderful to see a dream become reality and be part of systemic change. It’s dreadful to know that if and when things don’t go well, there is no one to own it except yourself.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I hear too many people say, “I want to start my own business so I can work my own hours and not answer to anyone.” The reality of that is, “Yes, you can work whatever hours you want. However, if you want your business to survive, those hours will likely be far more than what most people would consider full-time and you can count on having some sleepless nights.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

My leadership style might well be described as chaordic, both unpredictable (chaotic) and patterned (orderly). It is important to be candid and honest. I am well aware of my weaknesses and work at bringing on people who can fill those gaps. It’s important to be real with each other and have fun. When my team gives me grief about my shortcomings, I readily admit that I have several weaknesses, and remind them that they were invited to be part of Made for Freedom because I need great people around me.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I don’t know how much success I have, but I do have the energy and time allotted to work hard for the mission of helping those in need. I have those skills and talents God has given me, and lessons I’ve learned along the way. I use that which I do have to make the world a better place.

Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Learn and watch the numbers! I’m not a numbers person but have learned to appreciate that the numbers don’t lie. My memory might and my dreams definitely, but the numbers don’t.
  2. People will give you advice. Let me rephrase that, EVERYONE will give you advice whether they know anything about your business or not. It took me a while to just smile and say, “Thank you, I’ll think about that.”, to a suggestion that didn’t make any sense or something I’d already tried and found not to work. I also had to learn to be open when someone recommends a change that is different from what I’m doing but seems reasonable.
  3. This entrepreneurship thing is very hard. This social entrepreneurship is even more difficult! While meeting Maxine Clark, Founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, I tried to explain the plan for building Made for Freedom. She was thinking through this strange mix of for-profit and social impact. I wish I could count the number of times she said, “very hard.” When I’m overwhelmed with decisions and think that moving forward is impossible, I think back to that coffee conversation. Maxine was right, this is very hard. Somehow it comforts me and I keep plodding on.
  4. People make significant assumptions about non-profits and for-profits. It was a difficult decision to make. Both have pros and cons. I’m glad that we took the for-profit approach.
  5. A high percentage of small businesses do not make it to the 10-year mark. Depending on who you are talking to, 70 and 94 percent of startups don’t make it to 10 years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Think about supply chains!

Let me tell you about a scarf I bought.

A coworker brought in a magazine filled with lovely items for purchase. The front cover and the pages had proclamations of, “proceeds help with research to fight breast cancer.“ This coworker’s daughter had died in her 30s because of breast cancer. I looked through the magazine and found a pink scarf. I like scarves, I like pink, and would love to see an end to breast cancer. The scarf was considerably more than I would normally spend on a scarf but considering the cause, I decided to order it. A week or two went by waiting for the order to arrive and I spent a little time looking more carefully at the magazine. I found the small print that said .05% of the proceeds were actually going to research to fight breast cancer! .05%??? I was so hacked off. Not 1%, .5%, .1%? .05%! I was learning about the fashion industry at this time and was becoming more aware of garment factories that were paying poverty wages and requiring people to work in deplorable conditions so that we, in the west, could have inexpensive items. I don’t know exactly where the scarf was made, but my thought was, “Did you, Company selling these pink things, get this scarf made at a sweatshop, pay pennies on the dollar, mark it up significantly so you could brag about .05%? If you are paying poverty wages which leads to generational poverty and poverty makes people vulnerable to exploitation, you are part of the problem!”

If consumers are more thoughtful about buying ethical products which are made with dignity and providing living wages, it empowers rather than exploits those making the products.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is from Micah 6:8 in the Bible,

“No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,

and this is what he requires of you:

to do what is right, to love mercy,

and to walk humbly with your God.” (NLT)

That verse inspired one of my favorite necklaces that we carry, a stainless steel bar. Our Seek Justice Necklace has Seek Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly. engraved on three of the four sides. If my life can line up with these three imperatives, I will know I’ve done what I can to love God and love others and there is not much more I would want to be able to claim at the end of my life.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

It would be a toss-up between Blake Mycoskie and Cheryl Sandberg.

Blake, with his passion, well articulated in his book “Start Something That Matters”, has inspired me as a social entrepreneur and it’s been exciting to see someone with a similar passion fight against something in our world that needs to be changed.

Sheryl encourages me regularly (I’ve listened to “Lean In” several times) as a woman in leadership. One of the conversations she had with Leymah Gbowee truly resonated with my efforts in building and scaling Made for Freedom. She asked the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, what could be done to prevent the massive amounts of violence being inflicted on women in her country and throughout the world. Her response was, “More women in leadership.”

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.



Charlie Katz
Authority Magazine

Executive Creative Director at Bitbean Software Development