The Tote Project - L.A. Lady Interviews

Michelle Fergason & Fay Grant, of The Tote Project. Interviewed by Michele Carroll. Photography: Adam C. Bartlett


For the readers that are new to your business, tell us what The Tote Project is all about.

The Tote Project is based on a friendship, on a shared dream. It is a shared passion for empowerment, for restoration, for freedom. We founded The Tote Project because we believe that there is hope for the millions of victims of modern day slavery worldwide, and we want to do our part to support recovering survivors pursuing their dreams.

The blue rose in our logo symbolizes attaining the impossible, and we couldn’t think of a better way to represent our hope – no matter what the odds. Together, we believe that if we #HoldOnToHope, we can empower survivors of human trafficking worldwide, provide them with opportunities to thrive, and help them to recognize their worth and potential.

Our fair trade tote bags are manufactured by women who have been saved out of the sex trade in India. Additionally, we donate a portion of our profits to neoabolitionist organizations. 20% of the profits from our “Freedom Collection” are donated to Two Wings, an L.A. based non-profit that uses education, mentoring and life coaching to empower at-risk youth and survivors of sex trafficking in achieving their dreams. 50% of the profits from our upcoming “Hope Collection” will be donated to the safe houses that we work with to create the art for the bags. Our totes come with a card tucked inside that lists the signs of human trafficking, and the hotline number to call after you’ve identified a victim (1-888-3737-888).

How did you first become involved with the issue of human trafficking?

M: In 2008 I watched the documentary Call + Response and was incredibly shaken up. After the screening I was handed a list of practical ways to make a difference, and this gave me hope and empowered me to take action. I helped start a “Stop the Traffik” club on my college campus, which led to me writing my undergraduate thesis on ending human trafficking, and organizing preventive outreach and eduction for my community.
F: My main focus in college was working toward child abuse prevention, with the hope that I could one day make some sort of a positive impact. I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward with my endeavor once I graduated, but I later read “Not For Sale” and was overwhelmed by the extreme forms of abuse and that human trafficking was happening worldwide to millions of people. It was shocking that there wasn’t a larger focus on the topic in schools or during my studies, and that so few people knew slavery still existed.

What inspired you to open your own business for this cause?  When was this?

F: When most people think of abuse or human trafficking, they think of the strong preying on the weak; but it is in fact the broken, lost, and sick people of this world who prey on the vulnerable. Our business grew out of the necessity that people understand that those who have been abused or trafficked are not weak or cowardly; they just don’t have the help, love, knowledge or resources to use their strengths to overcome their circumstances. The Tote Project was our way to shine a light on human trafficking, and show people that in spite of how overwhelming the statistics and circumstances are, we all have the ability to make an extra effort, no matter how small, to reach out and positively impact the lives of others.

Did you have any previous professional experience in this field before starting your business?  If so, what was it?

M: Ever since graduating from graduate school I’ve worked at a start up and worn many hats. My background in fashion editorial, marketing and bookkeeping prepared me for handling the business side of The Tote Project; however, I love that Fay and I started something new. Combining our passion with our skills and venturing into uncharted territory is so fulfilling and exhilarating, especially knowing that we’re making a difference. Never let fear of the unknown prevent innovation.
F: My college studies in psychology, social work and criminology, as well as my own personal experience with abuse, were extremely beneficial in understanding the underlying causes and effects of human trafficking, and helped me relate to the feeling of vulnerability, shame and heartache that many victims face. It’s what drives me creatively when I design the watercolor art for the bags, and keeps me motivated to do whatever it takes to make sure The Tote Project continues to grow and empower others.

What were your biggest concerns/insecurities about starting this venture?  How did/do you overcome them?

I think with any new business there is always some concern for failure – but our compassion, and even the simple fact that we are aware, is what gives us the strength to overcome any fears or doubts we face. Being best friends on a mission to help others is another huge part of how we stay strong and positive. As we push forward with our business, knowing that we can reach out to each other for a hand to hold for support in difficult times is truly a blessing we are endlessly grateful for.

What was/is your favorite go-to source that kept you inspired to follow your own path, when starting out?

M: My parents own their own business, and throughout my entire life I’ve been blessed to see them work their hardest and get rewarded with success. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and the integrity they’ve maintained throughout their professional careers. I know that I can do it because they did it! Additionally, about six months into starting The Tote Project, Fay and I both read Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS.  That book covered the issues we were coming up against and answered so many of the initial questions we had. Learning why he chose entrepreneurship over charity for his business model helped reinforce why we we structured our company the way we did.

How did the idea of The Tote Project change from the very beginning of inception to what it is now?

The original idea was to sell fair trade tote bags and donate a portion of our profits to neoabolitionist companies. We never dreamt that we’d get to know the girls our bags are supporting, and that women who had been rescued from the sex trade would manufacture them. As the idea progressed we were able to make each step in our supply chain beneficial to the planet and the people living on it.

What would you say is the greatest thing you learned about owning your own business from running The Tote Project?

Anyone can change the world for the better! Starting a business that fights something as heartbreaking and widespread as human trafficking was intimidating – and people sometimes questioned how much good we could actually do. It’s really easy to become discouraged when you read the statistics, but during the short time we’ve been doing this, we’ve spread hope and changed lives. And there is no greater feeling.

What was the first ah-ha moment, when you realized that all your hard work was coming together as a reality?

Our first Two Wings event. After months and months of designing and planning, it was incredible to see our totes, made by the hands of rescued victims in India, go into the hands of people who wanted to make a difference. 100% of our proceeds went to support Two Wings and help survivors of sex trafficking in L.A. to achieve their dreams. It was an incredible moment for us, knowing that The Tote Project had the potential to do great things.

What would you consider The Tote Project’s biggest accomplishment so far?

We got asked to speak at a social justice music festival in New Hampshire called SoulFest, alongside other inspirational speakers like Donald Miller, Frank Shaeffer, Robin Lane and Switchfoot. It was such an honor to share our story and raise awareness about human trafficking through such a large platform alongside authors and artists that have inspired us for years.

Can you think back to an unexpected setback or mistake you had to overcome when starting out? If so, what did you learn from it?

M: When you start a business you become very familiar with unexpected setbacks! Perseverance and resilience are essential for entrepreneurs. One setback occurred during our Indiegogo campaign last year. We got bags signed by amazing musicians (The Doors, the Glee cast, Ingrid Michaelson, Moby and more!) to use as prizes. We wanted to use them for a raffle, but were informed last minute by IGG that a raffle on their site is considered an illegal lottery. Yikes. We had to come up with a new game plan quickly, which was daunting at first, but looking back we see now that our new campaign idea was more effective than our original one. The contributors who referred the most donations to our campaign ended up winning the signed bags!

Did you sense any difference in yourself from before you decided to pursue your own venture and after?

M: Yes! I feel much more motivated, hopeful about the future, and at peace with where I’m at in life. I felt very restless and dissatisfied when I worked at a job that I wasn’t passionate about. The Tote Project gives me hope – that we really will make an impact, save lives, and help end human trafficking for good!
F: Absolutely. There is so much joy to be found in opening your heart and helping those in need. Through our work and volunteer opportunities, I was able to cope with a lot of my own personal history by seeing the true meaning of strength, hope and courage in the survivors we’ve worked with — and I’m a better, healthier person because of it.


What are 3 words you would use to describe your journey in following your passion?

M: Faith, Hope, Love
F: Love, Courage, Faith

Where would you like to see your business 5 years from now?

We’d love to be sold in stores like Anthropologie and Whole Foods, and get the privilege of supporting safe houses all over the United States.

Tell us something about The Tote Project that most of your fans might not already know.

We love featuring photos of our customers on our social media and sharing their stories! We want to use social media to build each other up and communicate to our followers that they are enough — just the way they are. Instagram and Facebook are breeding grounds for comparison and self pity, but we want to use them to celebrate everyday women. By sharing their stories of hope, our aim is to encourage people to be proud of where they are at in their journeys, and to know that they are just as important as the models that have millions of followers.

To share your story with us: upload a photo, tell us about yourself, and tag it with #HoldOnToHope.

Which is your favorite tote style?

M: Every time Fay paints a new design it becomes my new favorite so it’s really hard to choose! However, I really love the message behind “Free to Give.” Each bag in our new collection celebrates a different aspect of freedom that we don’t want to take for granted. The act of giving is one that may not come to mind immediately, but when people are enslaved they only experience having things taken from them. In freedom, they get to follow their hearts, make decisions for themselves, and experience the joy of giving to another human being.
F: I would have to say our “Free to Roam” tote for the design and the message, but honestly it’s hard to choose! I love the message that all people should be given the freedom to roam and explore the beauty of life; and more importantly, should never be confined to a situation where they don’t feel safe, loved, or valued.

What advice do you have for those who are on the verge of making a bold life/career decision themselves?

M: Surround yourself with people who are more experienced and talented than you. Take smart risks and don’t always make decisions based on money. It’s important to support yourself, but don’t settle for a long-term career that you’re not passionate about. There IS a way to help people, do what you love, and find success…you just have to be a little creative.
F: Follow your heart. It’s so easy to get lost in the thoughts of others or the voice of your own ego. Fear prevents so many people from discovering their own personal definition of happiness. If your heart aches for something, go after it.

L.A. Lady Culture.

Favorite area of L.A.? 
M: I love the Beachwood Canyon / Franklin Village area. My friend and I enjoy going on “Secret Stair” walks and learning all about the Hollywood Hills history. (You have to check out Wolf’s Lair castle!) There’s also an amazing strip of restaurants (hello coffee shop with a forest in the back) and a comedy club that has $5 improv shows on Friday nights.
Favorite restaurant in L.A.?
M: Depends what mood I’m in when you ask me; I have so many! Today I’m feeling El Compadre on W Sunset. It has the rare combination of delicious food, affordable prices, and a non-pretentious atmosphere. You don’t go to El Compadre to be seen; you go to chow down and have fun with friends, and the atmosphere is comfortable enough to relax there and listen to mariachi music for hours.
F: That’s a tough one…but I’d have to say Café Gratitude. I love that they support local farmers and environmentally friendly practices. Their food is healthy AND delicious – and they encourage their customers to drink and dine while celebrating the beauty of life. You can’t help but walk out smiling.
Menu item we must try from this restaurant?
M: They have the tastiest salsa and shredded chicken tacos in my neighborhood, and you can’t help but have fun when you order a flaming margarita!
F: Their “I Am Glowing” cocktail made with seasonal homemade kombucha and Prosecco is absolutely divine. I’m also crazy about kimchi – so anything on the menu topped with their housemade recipe is a must-have.
Favorite L.A. weekend activities?
M: My weekdays are always pretty booked, so I look forward to relaxing on the weekend. I like checking out new exhibits at museums, going to the beach, occasionally indulging in some retail therapy, and helping out at my church.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic?
M & F: KCRW, baby!
Place or thing you want to do most in l.a. but haven’t yet?
M: I’m dying to go to the LA Central library! I keep hinting to my boyfriend to take me on a date there. 
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure?
M: That’s easy, Donut Friend donuts! I recently had to stop eating dairy and their vegan version of a Boston crème pie donut is one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Mmm.
F: In-n-Out! I can’t get enough of their animal-style burgers! It’s a bit of an obsession…and my dog Rusby loves going their just as much as I do!

-Michelle Fergason & Fay Grant, of The Tote Project

Can you relate to Michelle & Fay’s journey of wanting to start a business that goes beyond just profit margins and industry reputation? What ways would you like to make a difference through your company or passion? Tell us about it below and share this story with anyone you think shares in this mission (or who just like super cute totes)!