By Guest Author
I am an accidental entrepreneur. I did not originally go about seeking to use business as the tool for transformation. My only goal or tentative hope was to find a way for women in India’s growing sex trade to a way to find freedom in whatever way possible.
I first entered one of the largest red light districts in India in 2002 and after making first contact with the girls and women in the red light area, I spent a lot of time listening, waiting, and waiting and WAITING. For far too long, I felt powerless to make any actual impact.
I began to care deeply about the women I met in red light area.
I met Rupa and Jiya and listened to their stories, saw through their hard eyes to broken hearts and broken dreams, saw that they were moms and sisters and daughters. I saw and I heard that there were no options for them once they had found themselves in the sex trade through trafficking and trickery. They had aged out of rescue and now they were culturally marginalized as spoiled women, social outcasts and often the primary breadwinners for multigenerational families.
These women, who became my friends had no options. The next step for these women was to become part of the cycle and traffic another female or become a madam.
How did I become a social entrepreneur? I met 16 year old Prity who had only been in the trade for ten days and was there because she had no other economic options to support her family. I saw her need and it broke my heart and I called out to God –where are you for Prity? Where are you for all these women? And I made a promise to never walk away from a girl like Prity again.
I saw the need, I felt the need with aching clarity and began to seek a solution.
The entrepreneur sees a need or in some cases creates a need and acts to fulfill it. Hopefully for the good of society. The entrepreneur can be a catalyst for change. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak changed the world with the Apple computer. Mother Teresa– aka Saint Teresa of Kolkata– another kind of social entrepreneur, founded an order to serve the poorest of the poor in Kolkata. She saw the need, engaged the problem and proposed a solution that multiplied itself into world change.
The entrepreneur sees the need or the problem, engages the problem and wrestles with it to gain understanding and then proposes a unique solution. They then give everything they have to make it work. And I mean everything—blood, sweat, tears and hours too many to count.
This is the problem that we wanted to address: A girl in India is trafficked every 8 minutes.
Bengal and its surrounding states are the poorest in India, poverty makes people vulnerable to trafficking, poverty make girls especially vulnerable.
Engaging to Learn and then Activate
The red light area that we work in is home to more than 11,000 women in a square kilometer and Kolkata itself is home to more than 60,000 brothel based women.
The women we engage have no education, they cannot read and write, they have no opportunities for work other than possibly washing someone’s floor.
Having identified the problem, the next step was engagement, to lean in and listen, observe and ask lots of questions.
Having engaged the overwhelming problem for 5 years, visiting the girls listening and waiting, we began to form a possible solution. The women we were engaging said they wanted jobs, they wanted to support their families. So a solution formed out of engagement, formed out of relationship, ultimately our solution was formed by love.
For me, entrepreneurship was compelled by love for one women to find freedom and a desire to create something lasting, self-sustaining and ultimately empowering. Starting a business was about creating opportunity for the women who had become dear to my heart and entering in their difficult and unique situation.
Freedom Business was simply the solution to the problem of providing an economic option to women trapped in the commercial sex trade who had no other options. Despite the language we often use around the issue of sex trafficking, the women we encountered in the red light area did not live as victims nor did they desire to do so. They wanted and needed economic opportunity. A different economic opportunity than sex work, one that would allow them to support their families and live with dignity, without shame.
So we started a Freedom Business. We believed that business and the empowering economic opportunities it provides, would be a powerful tool for transformation.
I believe we were created for work, there is nothing more empowering and dignity-giving than a good job.
Creating Jobs Equals Creating Choice for Women in Need
Women in the majority world desperately need employment opportunities. Employment options for women make them less vulnerable to be tricked or trafficked into the sex trade. Women are the poorest of the world’s poor. A well paying job is not only the way out of poverty, but gives a future for their children and hope for something better for their daughters.
I have often said that I have been converted. I am a fanatic. I am convinced that what the majority world needs most is life giving well paid employment opportunities for those without the education and opportunity that wealth provides. There is a desperate need for dignifying jobs that provide training and benefits instead of the slave labor that produces so much of what we consume. The women we met in the red light areas were not looking for a handout or a temporary solution to their entrapment–they were looking for a way out that would last. Business was the tool that we used to create opportunities for freedom, an opportunity for women to leave the sex trade.
More than creating employment we created a choice for women who previously had no choice.
A Business Solution Grows
We wanted to create a business that would work for the women with their unique challenges so we went with a traditional handicraft that was common to Bengal and used local resources.
Today we are a Freedom Business which provides freedom and opportunity through employment to women exploited in the commercial sex industry and young women vulnerable to human trafficking.
We opened our doors in 2006 with three women and we currently employ more than 120 women with a consistent flow of more women in training taking the next step toward freedom and a new life.
One of the greatest challenges we face as a business is the choice around the people we have chosen to employ. Employing vulnerable traumatized women with more than their fair share of health challenges while seeking to be profitable at the same time has been a challenge. In a traditional fair trade business, you hire the best people at the best wages and offer your goods at price points that reflect the skills of the artisans. We employ a challenging group of ladies with little to no skills and no or low literacy. We train them to become artisans, while paying the best wages and benefits like healthcare and retirement.
How do we balance valuing people and profit? Ultimately to survive in any business we have to be profitable right?
We walk a tight rope on cash flow as productivity is never where we hope it will be and we face unique issues in India with getting the materials we need in a timely fashion. We face the same challenges as any manufacturing business– we have supply chain and quality control issues. We have specifically committed ourselves to making quality products, we were not looking for sympathy buys…we wanted to create something beautiful that people wanted to purchase.
Going Strong Twelve Years Later
Our Freedom Business is still around almost twelve years later. How did that happen? I have to say that many, many people contributed and did their part to help grow us and build a healthy business. We were merely catalysts to the true heroes of this story.
Who are the heroes? The heroes in this story are the women themselves who believed that their freedom was possible and made it possible with their choice to come to work everyday.
We say to them, “This is your business.” and it is as 24 of the women are currently shareholders. We built a platform on which the women of our Freedom Business can stand but the next steps were always in their hands. They had to want it, to build it, to believe in it, not only for themselves but for the women who would follow them.
The entire middle management team is comprised of women who have found freedom and are now managers and assistant managers and trainers. They are leading others to freedom and building the future. They are the heroes of their own stories…no one rescued them, they rescued themselves. A Freedom Business is the safe place where they launched their freedom journey and began to believe their lives had value.