Kristine Acosta didn’t have a choice.
“I guess I felt like this shell of a person that was just walking around letting life happen to me, and not in control of any of it,” Acosta explained to me last week, while we gently went over the traumatic origins of her company’s founding story. “I felt like I needed to do something to take control of my life back.”
At a young age, Kristine was molested by her step-father. As an adult, she decided to press charges against him, and after her testimony, Acosta’s step-father was sentenced to life in prison for his behavior with her and two other children. When the trauma and fallout from the trial created rifts in her family, and an almost unbearable amount of anxiety that left her unable to function at a high-pressure marketing job, she knew she had to make a change.
“I fell into depression, and I really felt it coming down hard,” she remembered. “I decided I was going to make positive out of the negative thing that had happened.” She began to take action even without a plan fully in place. Within a matter of weeks, she’d quit the marketing job and planned a volunteer trip India, determined to dedicate the next 40 days to working with Sambhali Trust to help young girls without access to schooling maintain their education.
In India, one out of every two children is a victim of sexual abuse, and one of Sambhali’s initiatives is the No Bad Touch Project, which seeks “to educate the community and raise awareness about child sexual abuse.” Learning about the program cemented Acosta’s decision that she was being drawn to India for a reason.
But her initial days in India were a reckoning of their own. For one thing, she’d never been away from home for forty days, let alone to a foreign country where language, cuisine, and culture were utterly at odds with her Southern California upbringing. “The only familiar thing in this very foreign place was myself,” she said. “So I needed to get to know myself better in those quiet moments.”
Seeing the poverty the girls she was mentoring lived in only brought a different kind of aching into her heart — maybe she wasn’t focusing on her own trauma anymore, but the sadness was still there. “Once I got past the sadness I was like ‘Ok, what can I do to help them? Because there’s so much need here,’” she explained. “And when I leave, I leave, and there’s nobody else that’s going to be here if there’s no volunteers. So I thought ‘When I leave, I need to do something.’”
At that point, the real choice became abundantly clear. A couple weeks before heading home, she filed the paperwork to found GRL Collective, a venture designed to make her support of these girls in India a lifelong venture. Before leaving, she’d done some fundraising for her trip by making trendy tassel earrings, and even after she left for India, people back home were still hitting her up to buy them.
Beginning with the simple process of making and selling earrings, and donating funds from each sale to a scholarship fund for the girls in Jodhpur, GRL Collective has grown from a jewelry company into a massive empowerment platform for women that includes travel, networking, volunteering and mentorship.
When she’s on home soil in the US, Kristine makes jewelry and organizes photo shoots to promote the earrings, and has found particular success with Latina-focused and Latina-only shoots that help increase representation of her community — one that is so rarely reflected in the fashion world.
“I think there’s a small community of Latina entrepreneurs right now that will continue to grow,” she said. “Whether or not that was my target to have a predominantly Latina following, that is the case, and I think it’s because a lot of Latinas can relate or see themselves as business owners.”
But Acosta’s work extends far beyond the jewelry and photoshoots here in California. The main focus, for her, will always be supporting the girls back in India facing impossible circumstances. Since her initial trip in 2017, Acosta returned to India in 2018 bringing two more women to volunteer along with her, and is currently planning another return trip for 2019 with a group of eight girls.
“My goal is to have girls going at different times, each leading small groups traveling there so all year long there are volunteers,” Acosta explained. “People always say that money makes the biggest difference, but volunteers being there, showing them that they care, and speaking to them in English — that’s their ticket out of there, being able to communicate in English.”
One of the defining facets of Acosta’s life, and a major reason I was so drawn to profile her for our platform is how she refused to accept her role as a victim, wallow in the past, or allow present pain to shut down her future. Instead, she moved forward to help those struggling even beyond her own experience, taking her power back by striving to empower others. Honoring and acknowledging that kind of behavior out in the world is the core of this magazine; it’s imperative that we let people know when we see them, and Kristine’s work is something that inspired me to continue my own through Cinnamon.
“I think taking your power back is a huge thing for women in general, and a huge thing for women of color, especially,” she said. “I feel like it’s my purpose to elevate women of color, because not a lot of people do it, but it’s so woven into the fabric of what GRL Collective does.”
Fate is a funny thing sometimes, and the inevitability of its force in our lives can leave us feeling helpless. Or, alternatively, it can function like a calling — a mantle of purpose. In Kristine’s case, surviving the sexual trauma of her molestation, and the public shame and horror of litigating it in court, became an impetus to look beyond her own pain.
“To me, it’s not really an option anymore,” she said. “I was given this path, and this opportunity, and this experience for a reason. And there’s no option now to forget it. These girls are up against so much more than even me dealing with my own trauma was up against. Like, I still live in a place that allows me to start my own company. I felt like, you have to do this, because you can, and there’s so many women out there who can’t — and you can do this to empower them.”