If you’re familiar with the statistics of human trafficking, you’d probably think that the problem is of such magnitude that it cannot be tackled easily. That doesn’t faze Mitzi Perdue, as she is determined to #WinThisFight against human trafficking through awareness and concrete action. Being born, raised, grown, and married into privilege is no cause for Mitzi to lose the heart to serve other people, which she learned from her iconic father. Whether in investing in an industry she had no prior experience with to tackling a worldwide evil that escapes prosecution everywhere, Mitzi does not fear putting herself on the line for what she truly believes. Joining Jen Du Plessis for a chat, Mitzi shares her journey to success and significance – something that we certainly need to take cues from.
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#WinThisFight: Winning The Fight Against Human Trafficking With Mitzi Perdue
I am delighted to introduce our special guest, Mitzi Perdue. She likes nothing better than sharing her insider secrets of what made Frank Perdue a success, but we’re going to talk more about her too. During her several years of marriage, she was able to ask her husband in real-time why he was making the decisions he did, and carefully recorded those attitudes that led to his growing a father-and-son operation that now employs over 19,000 people. Mitzi herself is no stranger to agriculture and management. She’s a former rice grower in California and the past President with the 35,000-member American Agri–Women organization. It was the largest American farm women’s organization. When Frank and Mitzi met back in 1988, they decided that chicken and rice go together. That’s exactly how the two of you met. That’s how it all worked together. Welcome to the show, Mitzi.
Thank you. I feel as if I’m talking with a soulmate because everything that you say, I endorse. We’re not going to quarrel in this session.
I’m going to ask you quite a few questions, but take us back to your childhood because you were in rice. Were you in rice with your family? Did you get into rice separately? Did they do something different? Tell us a little bit about that part first.
No, I did not grow up in a rice farm. My father and my uncles were cofounders of the Sheraton Hotel chain. This was in Boston, Massachusetts as opposed to California where I grew rice. I grew up as a hotel heiress. I got to see how my father and my relatives built a company from no employees to 20,000 at the time of my father’s death. We did sell the Sheraton Hotel chain, but rice-farming might be as far away as conceivably possible for somebody growing up in the hospitality industry.You don't get your identity from spending money. You get it from service to others. Click To Tweet
Tell us a little bit about your childhood then. We’ll get to the rice farm as well because this is somehow how you met Frank. Growing up in that privileged type of thing, tell us about the parenting that you received versus the type of parenting that you subsequently gave to your children.
I tried hard to imitate what my parents did because I was happy with their approach. They were strict. I’m exaggerating when I say this, but one of their biggest goals was not to have spoiled children. It’s easy if you grew up with wealth and privilege to be monsters. My father moved his family to the country, to Lincoln, Massachusetts. I grew up on a farm. The reason why he moved is he wanted his children to have farm values. I’ve mucked out a great many barns in my life. My first chore was with chickens, which is funny given who I later married. With chickens, when they’ve laid eggs and it’s in a chicken house, you reach under their breasts and you pull out an egg. It was during World War II and that was my chore. Whenever I wanted something, my father’s automatic reflex answer was, “Earn it.” My siblings and I to this day, we go economy class rather than first class. We use subways and buses. My mother emphasized this so much, but my father certainly went along with it. It’s that you don’t get your identity from spending money. You get your identity from service to others.
I grew up with that too, with work ethic. We call it the curse because we’re such workaholics. We love working. As you and I were talking about my eldest uncle, at this particular time, the family is 87 years old. He still works. It’s what he loves to do. That’s super important for values. That goes through your whole life. Was your maiden name Sheraton?
No, there’s a story of how Sheraton got its name. This is an additional example of how my parents tried hard to have children who I can’t say that they succeeded, but I can promise you that they tried not to have spoiled children. An example of my father’s attitude was in the Great Depression, nobody was buying hotels. There were a lot of them in the market. When he bought his first hotel, he was able to make enough success of it that he had money to buy a second. By the time he got the third hotel and they weren’t Sheraton Hotels at this point, the third hotel had a great big top of the roof $10,000 neon sign saying that the name of the hotel was Sheraton.
As a good New England Yankee, my father couldn’t bear to tear down the $10,000 state-of-the-art sign, but you want to have the same name for all the hotels because it’s easier to advertise three hotels with one name. He could have decided that they would be called Henderson, but he had several reasons not to do it. The first one was he had enough modesty to realize that Henderson doesn’t have a ring to it. Sheraton sounds good. I loved it that he was modest enough that he didn’t have to have his name on his company.
I would love to share something else from my childhood since you were kind enough to ask. I have an absolute vivid memory of my father one day and I might have been twelve years old. I wander into his study one weekend. He’s got all these books around him, like ledgers and accounting stuff. He’s going through it and studying hard. Little me asked him, ”What are you doing?” He said, “I’m giving money away.” He was going through requests from charities. I’m little and I don’t understand this so I asked him, “Why are you doing that?” His answer was, “The greatest pleasure my money ever gave me was in giving it away.” That is what we were brought up with, that we were here for service. We get our identity by serving, not by spending.
As we look at the world now, we have five generations in the workforce. The last generation, Gen Z got into the workforce. The eldest of them are 25. It’s interesting because the values that everyone has about that are interesting. I find that there’s a lot of community in the younger generation. They want to be part of the community. They want to make sure that the company is giving to the community, but it’s a different approach to how it’s given. The Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation or even the Builders, whatever you want to call that generation, they gave money and the younger generations are giving time. I’m finding that they are still the same focus but a different way of giving. That’s a great story. It’s wonderful to hear that.
The Sheraton is everywhere, lighting different versions of them and all of that. I’ve told you that I live on 21 acres and not that I have a farm. I’m not working on them. Most people don’t know that you dig up potatoes, little things in life. Is that where potatoes come from? You dig them out of the ground. That’s where they come from. We’ve taken people to our local farm. They’re like, “I never knew that you dug them out of the ground.” Those kinds of things are neat. You have more respect for everything that you consume. You grew up and you went to California. Did you start this rice farm? Did you work at a company? Were you in sales? What happened there?
My father died when I was 27 years old. He died suddenly at age 70. He had a heart attack. It was totally unexpected. We sold the company. There were 400 hotels and it was family-owned. Suddenly, I’ve come into a great big inheritance. There were five of us but none of my siblings went out and bought fur coats, race horses, airplanes or yachts. Every one of us invested it in one way or another because we had been taught that we’re stewards. It’s not a good thing to spend all the money. I was living in California at the time that I got this inheritance. I could just have put it in the stock market, but it seemed to me a lot more interesting and maybe even a lot more fun to invest it in agricultural land because of my roots that go way back to my childhood growing up on a farm.
I spent four years before buying any agricultural land, but I spent that four years taking courses at the local university, agricultural, accounting, rural appraisal, agronomy, all sorts of things that would prepare me to make this investment. When I invested in the first piece of agricultural land, it happened to be rice. I looked at 30 farms before I bought the first one. I didn’t just plunk down money. I researched it as if I was writing a doctoral dissertation. It paid off incredibly because part of my inheritance was in a trust in a bank, and part of it was what I could control. I was calculating that what I’ve done with the money that I inherited, I increased it 600 times versus what the bank did, which might have been five times. I’m a huge believer in putting the work, the skill, and the knowledge to research your investments. The odds of you doing well if you put the effort in yourself is a good strategy, but only if you’re willing to do a lot of research and listen to a lot of advice.
In counsel, not opinion. Counsel from experts because there’s a big difference there. “What are you doing, doing a rice farm? Are you crazy?” versus “Let me show you how you can make this happen.”
I developed a theory that you almost know what advice you’re going to get before you get it depending on who you ask. I made it my business to get to know a lot of farmers and I loved them so it worked out. I suppose if I had asked a Wall Street broker, “Is this a good thing?” They might have said no, but a farmer who’s doing it can give me good advice.
You had your rice farm. You had some other investments. How did you meet Frank?
I had a dozen rice farms by the time I met him. I began investing in ‘74 and I met Frank in 1988.
How did you meet him? What was it like?
He was the love of my life.
As we know him, Mr. Perdue, was he that at that point, or was he like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders, he was out trying to make it happen? Where was he in his process when you met him?
He was the second generation. He was born in 1920. He started out with his father. They were one of 5,000 chicken growers on the Delmarva Peninsula, which is part of Maryland and part of Delaware. It’s also a little bit of Virginia. By the time of Frank’s death, he was in the top three chicken producers in the country. He started out with no employees. His story is quite similar to my father’s, but he employed 20,000 people at the time of his death. You asked about where he was in this journey. When I met him, he employed 16,000 at that time. He was already famous.
Did you know him then?
I was thinking you would say, “You’re Mr. Perdue. I love your chicken.” I wasn’t sure if that’s where that all came from or not, but you didn’t even know him so that’s good.
No, because I was living in the East Coast back in 1988. He didn’t sell chickens on the West Coast. It was a party. I’m going to guess there are 80 or 90 people there. I saw this guy. I could tell that he was famous because everybody was crowding around him. I didn’t have a clue who he was, and there was a line of people to meet him. In general, I never line up to meet celebrities.
I speak with a lot of celebrities and I know them, but I stand off and let everybody else go gaga because I know I’m going to have my moment backstage.
I didn’t even know I’d have my moment, but he was so attractive that possibly for the first time in my life, I wanted to shake the hand of a celebrity. When the line reached me, we started talking. He was very interested that I was a rice farmer and that I was divorced. He was divorced. I don’t even remember what happened to the other people in line. Our first five minutes, we were talking about how we both been divorced, that neither of us would consider the possibility of the notion of the concept of remarriage because we thought that marriage was an institution that made people miserable. Somewhere around five minutes of the conversation, which we were enthusiastically agreeing that we’d never remarry, we also started agreeing that that was unfortunate because it meant growing old alone, but we didn’t have a choice because we’d never trust anybody again. He looked down at me and he said, “I believe I could trust you.” I looked up at him. He’s got a trustworthy face.
You said he look down at you. How tall was Frank? From the commercials, he looks like a short guy.
He’s over 6 feet. I’m 5’6” so he was looking down at me.
What’s your fondest memory of Frank?
Frank was a very romantic person. He’s a captain of his industry and totally busy, but he would go to the florist himself, get two dozen roses, and then write a love note in French. I know that he could have had his secretary do that, but he did it because he was aware of the extra effort it took to do that makes the gift 100 times better.
Does he speak French? Did you speak French or he just knew that one phrase and you would have to translate?
He learned it in high school. In my case, my parents sent me to a school in France for about half a year. He had a retentive memory. Whatever he studied, he kept it in his mind.
As I was reading about him doing some research for this show, it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t born a little bit earlier because I could see him sitting around the campfire with Ford and Vanderbilt hanging around and masterminding together. I get the impression that that is the case. I wanted to switch gears with you as we wrap up our time together. I know why you live where you live. That was one of the questions I was going to ask you. I don’t ever say where people live. I know that there’s something that’s important to your heart. As your father had said, giving back to charity and working with people less fortunate and it’s important in all of our lives to find something that we’re passionate about that we can help other people with. In doing that, whether you have money or whether it’s volunteer, you’re always growing, you gain wealth and wisdom from that in your heart. I know that you work a lot with combating human trafficking. One of the things that you’ve been working with is human trafficking awareness. Tell us how you got into this, where this passion came from, and give us some awareness so that we can share this with the rest of the world as well.“It's immoral to be discouraged by the magnitude of a problem. The good that we can do, we must do.” – Mother Teresa Click To Tweet
I will tell you that up until 2:00 of April 11th of 2019, the words human trafficking didn’t mean anything to me. You could hear them, but it didn’t resonate.
It was someone else’s problem.
I didn’t even quite pay attention enough to know how big the problem was. Here’s what happened that changed everything for me. I heard a lecture by a guy named Paul Hutchinson and his specialty is rescuing trafficked kids. He showed a video at a business leaders conference that I have to be giving a talk at. He spoke after me. He showed videos of children who were about to be rescued. I saw things that I couldn’t unsee. There are ten kids around twelve years old. They were little girls and the sight of the absolute fear and terror on the faces of these little girls because they were brought together. They were thought to be part of an orgy.
These were little girls who wouldn’t even know what that mean but they’d experienced it because they would have been forced to have sex with strangers 10 to 20 times a night. These are little girls 10, 12 and 14. They did get rescued so it has a happy ending, but even one adult raped one time, it stays with them for life. What would it be like to have it happen 10 to 20 times every night, 365 days a year? I learned further something that is too awful to grasp. I’m not going to dwell on it but I’ll say it briefly. The life expectancy of a twelve-year-old child who is being sex trafficked is seven years. They will be dead within seven years, and it’s going to be suicide, overdose, disease or murder for organ harvesting.
I watched something about this some time ago. I have a lot of friends in the circles that you and I talked to that we work with and our colleagues. I got introduced to how bad this was. I was watching something about this. If I’m not mistaken, I want you to correct me because you’ve done much more research and you’re much more involved. I don’t want to speak out of turn. You know how fish are grown in a fish farm. I’ve heard that women are impregnated and sold their child for money. They raise that child until they’re at the age that they can put them into this environment. That’s where I wanted to stop things. It’s like stop it where it start.
What you’re describing does happen. Human trafficking is very complex. The number of ways that this evil can express itself is breathtaking. It’s horrible beyond imagination. The effort that I’m involved with is somewhat new. I have to tell a little side story. Several years ago, one of the larger software companies was having a terrible problem. In a way, there’s a connection with its problem in human trafficking. Their problem was counterfeiters or pirates. People were stealing a $200 program and it cost them $0.09 to buy one of these disks to replicate it. They could put individual pirates or counterfeiters in jail, but it was so lucrative that the moment they put somebody in jail, somebody else would take their place. It was an utter whack-a-mole, which is a lot of what goes on with human trafficking. That’s what the parallel was.
This software company effectively doesn’t have a problem with piracy. The reason why is because there’s a group of super experts in following money. Whether it’s using the dark web or artificial intelligence or whatever, they can track the pirate or the counterfeiters. They can track the money flow until they get to their bank account. They freeze the bank account. The banks always cooperate with this because the banks don’t want to get in trouble. It can mean fines or a horrible reputation. The banks pretty much always cooperate. The end result was that this software company stopped having a problem with pirates because they’d taken away the economic incentive. If you’re not going to make money because your bank account is going to be frozen and returned to the software company, it effectively ended the problem.
It would require a lot of fine–tuning, but what if we could get the human traffickers who are making $150 billion out of this atrocity? What if we could freeze their bank accounts? There are people who are able to do this but they can’t work for free because they may be making $250,000. They’ve got these extraordinary skills and they’ve got mortgages and kids to put through college, one thing or another. They can’t do it as a volunteer. We have to find money to pay them. Imagine if we could do the thing that was done for software piracy for human trafficking?
It comes in many forms. It’s not just children. It’s adults too. There are all kinds of trafficking going on. In comparison to and not to diminish or say anything that it wasn’t horrible, but of all the slavery in the United States, this is some multitude of X, whether it’s 5x, 12x.
I can even give you a statistic. This is not in any way to minimize the harm of slavery. Nevertheless, there are statistics that say the North Atlantic slave trade was fifteen million people starting in the 1600s until it stopped. It’s worth $40 million. Anyone who considered slavery horrible a century and a half ago should pay attention to what’s going on right now. If you would have been an abolitionist back then, you should be an abolitionist right now.
I understand there are some undergrounds, railroads, and quite a few things for this. It’s sad because it’s right in our backyard. It’s not human trafficking, but it’s no different. For example, I live in the wealthiest county in the United States. We have over 28,000 homeless children.
They are prime targets for traffickers. They’re vulnerable.
When you think about a county that has so much wealth and money flowing in it, you would think that no one would be homeless. Everybody should be okay, but we have 28,000 homeless children and it’s growing right now. It’s growing with the women as well because of COVID. It’s growing because we have an organization called LAWS, which is the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter. It can’t accept any more people. There are no more people to accept, no more women with their children. They are now trying to figure out where they’re going to live or be homeless, and live in cars. This push has been around for a while for LAWS and for the homeless children in our area, but it’s got bigger because now it is prime picking for these human traffickers.
I talked with a woman who looks at trafficking from a global point of view. I’m repeating statistics, I can’t know that they’re true but I tend to trust her because she studies this. She said that COVID-19 has pushed a billion additional people into actual poverty. Poverty is defined by the United Nations. I forget what the cutoff is. It’s something under $2 a day. I don’t know what the exact figure is, but one billion people who were not in abject poverty now are. It’s the poor that are most vulnerable to traffickers.
What can we do to help the organization that you’re involved with? Maybe it’s the global organization, but what can we do to help? Can we donate? Is there a place to donate or is it information you’d like to get out there and increase that awareness?
First of all, I love the question and thank you. The second part of my answer is all of the above. There is an easy way. We have in the neighborhood 500 volunteers and I’d like 10,000 volunteers. I wish you get out your smartphone or pencil and paper or something to write down because I’m going to give you a number to text WTF, which stands for Win This Fight, but it also stands for something else.
That’s how I feel when I think about this.
It’s not an accident that I would like you to text WTF to 51555. Here’s what happens when you do that. Number one, here’s an easy way to participate. Bunches of people have been doing this. I bet you won’t easily guess what this is. This is paying tribute to Rosie the Riveter. This is a 21st-century version of it. Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to go out, work in the factories, and make it possible to destroy the Nazis.
Rosie the Liberator wasn’t my idea. A volunteer named Margo Dusterhouse had this idea. What if we have men and women look sideways and make a fist? It’s all to the good if you’re wearing this. We want people to take a snapshot and please don’t make it fancy. Do it with your cell phone and then post it to social media with the #WinThisFight. That’s part one. Part two is to encourage your friends to do it and encourage everybody to donate $5 to the anti-trafficking organization of their choice. However, if you don’t know of one, donate it to us and we will spread the word. I’m not terribly about raising funds, but the more funds we have, the more we can do.
Thank you so much for sharing that. I hope that this gets out there to a lot of people. We’ll be pushing it out there on social media like nobody’s business. The awareness is going to start happening. There are a couple of new social media platforms that are becoming popular. I did notice that there were some topics around human trafficking in those different meetings that were being held. Let’s hope that by God’s grace, we are able to stop this and prevent it. It’s going to have to start grassroots in our local areas and recognizing that it exists.
They will send their Rosie picture to WinThisFight.org, they can upload the picture and they can vote on other people’s pictures because some people are artists. Some people decorated their dog.
I will probably do something stupid like silly. It’s about doing it. It’s about participating and not just watching the game, get in the game.
If they go to my website, WinThisFight.org, I would love for you to volunteer. I make a promise to every single person who volunteers that I will do my absolute darndest to give you assignments that don’t take more time than you want to give. We’ll use your skills and background so that you’ll have a satisfying experience knowing that you’re making a difference in people’s lives. I’d love to have people join. I also would like them to sign up for my blog because they’ll find it fascinating. I interviewed people like psychiatrists who say, “Why do the bad guys do it? What are the signs to look for?” There are a hundred blog posts and I write a new one every week.
I do think I have that link to your blog.
WinThisFight.org and they’ll see the blog and sign up for it.
Mitzi, what do you want to leave us with? Do you have a quote that you’d like to share with us as it encapsulates all that we’ve talked about that you’d like to share with people to inspire them?
It comes from Mother Teresa and she treated lepers in India. People said, “The problem is so big. You can’t make any difference.” She was Sister Teresa at that time. Here comes the quote. She said, “It’s immoral to be discouraged by the magnitude of a problem. The good that we can do, we must do.”
It is so apropos for what we’re all experiencing here in the United States with all these transitions that we’re all experiencing. There is so much stuff going on. We think, “I’ll just forget it. Now I do like COVID. I’m going to go in my little hermit crab shell and I’m going to forget the whole world.” It’s very apropos that the only way that we move forward is when we start taking the steps. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing so much with me. What a great story you have to tell and I love the inspiration. I love the work that you continue to do and what you’re giving back to the world. Thank you so much for being here.
It’s been pure joy. Thank you so much.
Everybody, we’ll catch you next time. As a quick reminder, please write a review and let us know what you think about this episode and other episodes and give us a five-star rating too. This woman deserves that. She deserves a five-star rating for all that she’s doing in this world. I want to say thank you so much for joining us and taking time out of your day. I’ll catch you next time.
- Mitzi Perdue
- Paul Hutchinson
- Blog – Win This Fight
- @MitziPerdue – Twitter
About Mitzi Perdue
Mitzi Perdue likes nothing better than sharing insider secrets for what made Frank Perdue a success. During their 17-year marriage, she was able to ask her husband in real-time why he was making the decisions he did, and she carefully recorded the attitudes that led to his growing a father and son operation into a company that today employs 19,000 Mitzi herself is no stranger to agriculture and management.
A former rice grower in California, she is a past President of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women, the oldest and largest American farmwomen’s organization. When Frank and Mitzi met, back in 1988, they decided that chicken and rice go well together!