October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it’s an issue that impacts countless Americans. Survivors of domestic violence recently received some assistance from New York City legislators, who just passed a bill that will grant “safe time” for victims by requiring employers to let employees use their paid time off for issues related to domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking, and human trafficking. But survivors in California are also getting some help from a startup that focuses on regaining their power and using it to gain financial independence — a factor of domestic violence that’s often downplayed.
California law already protects victims of domestic violence, as long as they are employed by a company that has 25 people or more on the payroll. These employers must allow up to 12 weeks of leave for victims of domestic violence for the purposes of counseling, medical attention, or relocation. But FreeForm, a domestic violence organization, is meant to help survivors who haven’t been allowed to work or who have dreams of starting their own business after they leave their abuser.
Back in May, FreeForm launched their pilot program in Los Angeles, with programs in Oakland and San Francisco launching a month after. Participants in their programs (around 80% of whom have children) gain access to pro bono legal advice and professional mentoring, as well as guidance in the realms of brand marketing and website design. Through six months of classroom sessions, participants gain both confidence and financial independence. FreeForm partners with local organizations like Kiva, Mission Asset Fund, Bet Tzedek, Centro Community Partners, Start Small Think, and more to provide these resources to women enrolled in their programs.
Around 75% of FreeForm participants are in the prelaunch stage of their venture or have already launched their business. For those who have already launched, all have made a profit during their first month of operations. Most ventures are B2C businesses and range from jewelry design and hair styling to cleaning and catering. The U.S. catering industry employs around 261,189 people, but there are clearly plenty of opportunities within the industry.
Creating businesses designed around these women’s skills has paid off in more ways than one: not one of the program participants has returned to her abuser. And although there are some protections in place for survivors, FreeForm CEO Sonya Passi explains to Fast Company that these women face countless challenges along the way.
“Survivors have a really hard time getting regular employment… 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.” Passi says, “Often survivors don’t have much in the way of a resume, and if they do, it’s very scattered. As we’re thinking about how survivors can rebuild, often traditional employment isn’t obtainable.”
That’s why the FreeForm model focuses on more flexible, independent entrepreneurship. Still, these women have to be extremely careful about their privacy and safety, especially when promoting their businesses online. As a result, many participants form businesses that don’t require their identities to be at the front and center of their brand. Some participants will even check in with entrepreneurship program manager Tannia Ventura when meeting with new clients, cementing their partnership with FreeForm even after the initial six months of classroom training has ended. And even when they don’t share their personal details, these survivors are still eager to share their stories and how they’ve overcome the obstacles in their way.
Next year, FreeForm hopes to serve 60 new survivors in each of their already established programs. The organization also plans to expand its reach in the Bay Area to include East Palo Alto and Contra Costa County. Organizers are already working with the NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence to bring their program to the Big Apple in 2018.