Women-led startup turns domestic abuse survivors into entrepreneurs

Financial insecurity keeps women trapped in violent relationships. FreeFrom, a California not-for-profit, wants to break the cycle.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Women-led startup turns domestic abuse survivors into entrepreneurs” was written by Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd November 2017 12.00 UTC

A month ago Christine and her children were living in a shelter for survivors of domestic violence.

Now she lives in her own apartment and runs a business selling aromatherapy products on the side while working as an admin assistant.

She credits that transition to a not-for-profit called FreeFrom, which helps women who have left abusive partners launch businesses and become financially independent so they can build new lives for themselves and their children.

“FreeFrom gave me the opportunity to be myself and be good at something. My whole life I’ve been told ‘you can’t do this or that’,” she said. “But I can and I’m doing it.”

The organisation runs a six-month training and mentorship program to coach the women through setting up their business, getting their first customers and coming up with a branding and marketing strategy. The FreeFrom team also helps them rebuild their credit and win compensation for the harm they have suffered through legal aid.

Sonya Passi founded FreeFrom in 2016.
Sonya Passi founded FreeFrom in 2016. Photograph: FreeFrom

FreeFrom, which was founded in 2016 by lawyer and former investment banker Sonya Passi, is currently working with 30 female entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland and will launch in New York early next year.

“There’s a common misconception that these women are weak, emotionally fragile bad decision makers, but they are resilient, resourceful and talented,” said Passi.

Passi was inspired to help survivors of domestic violence after learning from one of her law professors at Berkeley in 2013 that about 50% of women who leave abusive partners lose custody of their children. No one appeals those cases because it’s too expensive.

“So I went to my professor and said ‘let’s appeal those cases’,” she said. That’s how she came to launch the Family Violence Appellate Project, a legal aid program for survivors.

Some of the entrepreneurs are building jewellery businesses.
Some of the entrepreneurs are building jewelry businesses. Photograph: FreeFrom

The first case they worked on was a dispute where the abusive partner was given custody of his three-year-old child despite the fact that he had molested her.

“One of the main reasons was that the abuser was the more financially secure parent. That really started me on a whole new course,” she said. “There’s so much pressure to leave, especially because of the impact on the children, but then they leave and lose their kids.”

Passi launched FreeFrom to try and tackle that dilemma.

One in four women in the US will experience severe violence at the hands of their partner during their lifetime. On top of physical abuse, most survivors (98%) are also financially abused, with income taken away from them and debt racked up on credit cards taken out in their name. It’s the financial insecurity – no job, no cash, no credit – that can make it very difficult for victims to leave their abusers for good.

FreeFrom’s Oakland program, which launched in June, is helping 15 women turn their business ideas into startups through individual and group coaching sessions.

FreeFrom has encouraged Paloma, whose ambition is to have her own food truck selling Tex-Mex vegan nachos – to find her first paying customers and plan her menu and branding.

“It’s given me a sense of confidence,” she said during her one-to-one mentoring session with FreeFrom’s entrepreneurship program manager Tannia Ventura at the Alameda Justice Center. “I want to be able to prosper and pass it on to my kids.”

Tannia Ventura is FreeFrom’s entrepreneurship program manager
Tannia Ventura is FreeFrom’s entrepreneurship program manager. Photograph: FreeFrom

Julie found out about FreeFrom from a poster in a domestic violence shelter in San Francisco. She wants to provide transportation and care services for the elderly, and FreeFrom has helped her come up with a marketing plan, design business cards and get a smartphone.

Helen found FreeFrom when she was losing custody of her daughter and couldn’t afford a lawyer. “I wanted to start my own business, but it’s so hard to get out of the welfare system.”

She wants to open an Ethiopian restaurant in Alameda and is seeking smaller catering jobs in the interim.

“The common theme with all these women is that they are incredibly capable,” said Passi. “All we really do is say ‘we believe in you, you can do this and we are here to support you’. That little bit of encouragement has such tremendous impact.”

The children’s beds in Christine’s new apartment.
The children’s beds in Christine’s new apartment. Photograph: FreeFrom

In addition to providing mentorship, FreeFrom also creates Amazon wishlists for supplies that people can buy for survivors to help them rebuild their lives. It was one such wishlist that helped Christine furnish her apartment with a futon sofa, beds and books for her kids and a TV.

She now frequently finds herself sitting on the sofa with her children and marvelling at what she’s achieved.

“Just enjoying the peace and safety and knowing that no one can take this away from us,” she said. “I didn’t get this through any government program, I got it through my own hard work.”

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