There are a lot of reasons why domestic violence victims find it difficult to leave their abusive partners. Financial concerns are often one of the largest. The abusive partner may prevent the other person from working, or may control their wages and bank accounts or credit cards, so survivors of domestic violence often need to start over financially.
“For a lot of victims, they leave with almost nothing,” says Carolann Peterson, PhD, who teaches courses on domestic violence as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Many times they don’t have any control of the funds within an abusive household.”
To help survivors support themselves (and often their children), domestic violence organization FreeFrom provides entrepreneurship training to survivors. The pilot program launched in May in Los Angeles and in June in Oakland and San Francisco with the first cohort of 30 women (80% of whom are mothers).
Similar to how a startup incubator helps entrepreneurs, participants receive pro bono legal advice, mentoring, marketing advice, and logo and website help through partnerships with organizations including Kiva, Mission Asset Fund, Centro Community Partners, Bet Tzedek, Start Small Think, and others. The weekly classroom portion lasts six months, but the survivors have access to those resources more informally after that.
So far, three-quarters of participants have either launched their business or they’re in the prelaunch stage, and all of them make a profit in their first month of business. They’re almost entirely B2C businesses building on survivors’ existing skills, including a cleaning service, hair styling, catering, and jewelry design.
Most importantly: None of the survivors have returned to their abuser.
A participant who started a handmade greeting card company while living in a shelter (for safety and privacy reasons, we’re not identifying survivors by name) says the program helped her with “picking a name, a business email, a logo, legal advice, setting up goals, and even making a plan around my finances.” She was unsure about launching a business from a shelter with a limited budget but says FreeFrom helped her tackle things step-by-step. “My finances are getting better and will continue to get better as my business grows,” she adds.
Another participant says learning about different legal structures for businesses was one of the most valuable parts of FreeFrom’s entrepreneurship program. “This idea became so real when I chose what type of structure my business will be, and when I got to talk to a lawyer about it,” says the participant, who chose sole proprietorship for her mobile hair-braiding company.
In addition to the formalized entrepreneur cohorts at FreeFrom, Peterson says some groups of survivors form business co-ops among themselves. For instance, they might start a cleaning service together and take turns cleaning homes or watching each other’s kids.
Peterson says survivors who get support in launching a business, even if it’s from peers, are often poised for success despite the financial and emotional challenges their situation poses. “Those are survivors who not only go on to have productive lives, they go on to help others,” she says. “They have the ability to be productive as role models for their kids.”
CEO Sonya Passi, who holds a JD degree from the University of California, Berkeley, launched FreeFrom in November of last year. The organization also offers a credit-building program, and Passi felt entrepreneurship would also help survivors build confidence and get on firmer financial footing.
“Survivors have a really hard time getting regular employment,” Passi says. There are a number of reasons for this. “It’s taking too many sick days because of your injuries, an abuser coming to work and causing a scene, and you losing your job as the result of that, having to flee and having to leave behind your home and your community and your job,” she explains. ”Often survivors don’t have much in the way of a resume, and if they do, it’s very scattered,” Passi says. “As we’re thinking about how survivors can rebuild, often traditional employment isn’t obtainable.” When a survivor does leave an abuser, they may not have access to childcare, which can also make it challenging to hold down a regular job. But they could perhaps make jewelry or provide seamstress services, as some of the survivors in this cohort are doing.
Passi feels that while the more flexible requirements of entrepreneurship fit survivors’ needs, their resilience and resourcefulness also makes them ideally suited to start a business. “In order to survive abuse like that, you have to have those skills, and these are the skills that are required to succeed in business,” she says.
Still, survivors of domestic violence may face challenges that most other entrepreneurs don’t: privacy and safety. While many entrepreneurs share details of their lives and build their personal brands on YouTube, Snapchat, and Facebook, survivors may have very real concerns about their abuser tracking them down, so they’ll often set up a business that doesn’t use their own name.
“The answer for a lot of our clients is having a business that doesn’t require them to put their face and their personal details online, and build it in a way that is fairly anonymous,” Passi says.
To address the safety concerns of meeting new clients, some participants use Tannia Ventura, FreeFrom’s entrepreneurship program manager, as their check-in buddy. If they’re anxious trusting new people, they’ll text Ventura when they meet with a new client, and when they’re done. “That helps me feel so much safer, and I appreciate that,” says the owner of the mobile hair-braiding company.
While these survivors may not share their names, they do share their stories of survival and resilience. “What’s so extraordinary is they want to own their survivorship,” Passi says. “So much of what our society does is it shames you for being a victim of domestic violence.” Many of these entrepreneurs show solidarity with other survivors by building community into their business model. For instance, Passi says, a survivor might say that for every essential oil kit they sell, they’ll give one to a survivor in a shelter.
FreeFrom plans to serve up to 60 clients in each city next year, and expanding its Bay Area reach to include Contra Costa County and East Palo Alto. The organization is also working with the NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence to bring its program to New York City in 2018.