A Fort Worth group launches a business to help women in India break the bonds of slavery

Beginning in 2014, TCU Associate Professor Vanessa Bouché started taking groups of Texas Christian University students to India as part of a study-abroad program on transnational human trafficking and developed a close relationship with the India-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Shakti Vahini, which works to combat sex trafficking and violence against women.

Among other things, Shakti Vahini runs a medical clinic that provides free services to women in prostitution on GB Road, the main red-light district in Delhi.

This is where Shakti Vahini has taken Bouché and more than 25 students since 2014 to meet with women stuck in the brothels, roughly 90 percent of whom were trafficked there between the ages of 13 to 15.

“We sit down on the floor and just talk to the women that happen to be there. Sometimes it's only one woman, sometimes it's 15; we never know how many are going to be there,” Bouché said.

But in May 2017 something different happened.

“One of the women spoke up and said, ‘Why should we talk to you? People come here to exploit us for our stories. They want us to tell all about ourselves, so they can publish books and articles, and yet we're stuck here.’ ” Bouché said.

Bouché told her she agreed and asked her through the interpreter what the women wanted or needed.

“And she said, ‘We need jobs.’ Emphatically. And I said, ‘OK, well, what kind of job do you want?’ And she said, ‘I don't care, we just need dignified employment to get us out of this dirty business.’ "

Maybe someone else would have been seized with a little guilt or embarrassment and eventually put that conversation out of her mind.

But not Bouché.

She returned to the United States so disturbed that she literally lost sleep over the issue.

Now, she and her husband, Noel, are on the verge of opening a freedom business ¬– that’s an enterprise that is designed to allow people in the tragic conditions of sex trafficking or modern slavery or crushing poverty to earn enough money to change their lives.

For the women in Delhi, it has seemed to take forever. But in terms of business, the speed is almost blindingly fast.

In less than 18 months, the Bouchés have developed a business plan, secured a production facility in India, found raw material suppliers, established potential markets, filed the paperwork for incorporation in the United States and in India and hired their first few people.

MODERN SLAVERY

For most people, the very concept of slavery – human trafficking – is difficult to grasp. Maybe in the past, but surely not in today’s more enlightened world.

Not so, says Alliance 8.7, a global partnership committed to achieving target 8.7 of the 20130 sustainable development goals.

“Slavery isn’t merely a historical relic,” says the Alliance. “In 2016, around 40.3 million men, women and children from every part of the globe were victims of modern slavery.”

The organization takes its name from the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030, Goal 8.7:

Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, eradicate forced labor, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms including recruitment and use of child soldiers.

At any given time in 2016, the organization says, 4.8 million people were victims of forced sexual exploitation. On average, they would be held for 23.4 months in their situation before escaping or being freed. The vast majority are women and girls. Children represent more than 20 percent of the victims.

Bouché is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at TCU. She earned her Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University, a master’s degree in public affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and her undergraduate degree from Columbia University.

She is an internationally recognized expert in the field of human trafficking.

She’s married to Noel Bouché, a lawyer and UT School of Law graduate who for 10 years has been an executive leader of a nonprofit called pureHope, whose vision statement is “A World Free of Sexual Exploitation and Brokenness.”

“We actually work in similar fields, except his from a faith-based perspective and mine from an academic lens,” she said, “but our faith is our motivation and grounding.”

They have two daughters, 10 and 8.

They also are friends with Melissa and Jamey Ice, both deeply involved in Fort Worth. They are in the ownership group of Brewed, and Jamey Ice is co-owner of 6th Ave Homes as well as a musician performing with Green River Ordinance.

Melissa Ice is founder and executive director of the nonprofit The Net, which among other target audiences works with women who have been sexually exploited.

As part of that work, The Net created a social enterprise called Worthy Co. that sells candles and jewelry made by the women it is trying to help.

That connection would become important as Bouché considered the challenging conversation she had with the prostituted woman she met in the clinic on GB Road.

Bouché went back to the Shakti Vahini offices that day to tell the president and founder of the organization, Ravi Kant, about the discussion. She asked him whether there was some social enterprise in Delhi that could employ these women, but he told her, "There is nothing in Delhi for these women."

Bouché refused to accept that. She reached out to a friend who is involved with the Freedom Business Alliance and runs a freedom business called the Polished Pearl that does some production work in Kolkata. She reached out to another friend who works with street children in Delhi. After exhausting their contacts and connections and her own, it became increasingly evident that there was no program available in Delhi to employ these women.

In the meantime, a woman named Usri Roy relocated from Kolkata to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and was interested in working in the anti-human trafficking field. Through Google searches about human trafficking research, Roy found Bouché and sent her a cold email offering to help however she could.

Roy, who has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and decades of international development experience in India, began working with Bouché on research. But her confidence, experience and enthusiasm also catalyzed Bouché into action. When Bouché told Roy about her problem, Roy simply said, “Vanessa, we will start something!”

Through discussions with Roy, the Ices and Ravi Kant, it quickly became apparent that the only solution to the Delhi problem was to start their own version of a freedom business.

“This is exactly what The Net has been doing through our new employment program called Worthy Co.,” Melissa Ice said. “We recently sold our candles for the first time at our Survivor Leader Luncheon at the Fort Worth Club and within an hour sold 60-plus candles.

“Worthy Co., our empowerment program, employs women coming out of sexual exploitation in Tarrant County. They make candles, bath products, body butter and jewelry starting this summer,” Ice said.

Could something like that work in Delhi?

SETTING UP A BUSINESS

In June, a year from when Vanessa Bouché first heard the challenge, the Bouchés, the Ices and Roy left for Delhi to meet with Ravi Kant and explore whether their idea would work – to set up a repackaging project that will sell essential oils for profit, staffed by women who wish to work from GB Road.

It was, says Bouché, “an absolutely amazing trip.”

Vanessa and Noel Bouché are the founders and majority shareholders in Savhera, which they have personally funded so far but are busy raising capital through a seed round.

“Our real dream would be to turn over some percentage ownership of the company to our employees,” Vanessa Bouché said. “There's a lot of education that needs to take place before that can happen. They need to be financially literate, they need to be living on their own. There's a lot that needs to happen before we could do something like that, but that is the goal.”

But the June trip was important because a sequence of events needed to occur for the effort to move forward.

They needed a production facility close to Delhi’s red-light district so the women could easily get there, but they were warned that landlords might not want to be involved in their project for a variety of reasons.

They found and visited a site, having been instructed to not be too open about the purpose. But that turned out to be an unnecessary worry.

The building’s owner, Aarti Boudh, was enthusiastic about the project and told them she couldn’t think of a better use of the space. Her family had been trying unsuccessfully to sell the property.

“Now I know why we weren't supposed to sell it, because you are supposed to be here," Bouché quoted her as saying.

Aarti – she’s legally changed her name to use only her first name because her last name is too hard to pronounce – has been working in the airline industry but her degree is in psychology. She told the team that she’d be interested in doing some volunteer counseling for the women.

A couple of months later, the Bouchés were looking for a production manager. They were specific in what they wanted.

“Our philosophy on hiring a production manager was we need someone who has a background in social work, psychology, counseling, more than someone who has a background in production. We can train them in the nuts and bolts of production,” Bouché said. “What's really important is that they know how to create and maintain a trauma-informed work environment that will facilitate the health and healing of our employees.”

Once the job description was finished but before posting it, Bouché sent it to Aarti to get her input and to see whether she knew someone who might fit the qualifications and be interested.

Turned out that she did.

“She emailed me back and said, ‘Did you write this job description for me?’ Long story short, we ended up hiring her,” Bouché said. “She gave up a very good stable management career in the airline industry to take a risk on this startup. She is just top of the line.”

THE MISSING PIECE

There was another significant breakthrough on that June trip.

They met Swati Maliwal, the chairwoman for the Delhi Commission on Women, whom Bouché described as “a dynamic young leader.”

Empowering survivors of human trafficking is complex, and jobs are only one part of the equation. Maliwal, Bouché said, has been passionate about economic empowerment and economic inclusion for sex trafficking survivors for a long time.

“When we met, she said this is going to be one of the best private-public partnerships the world has ever seen. She said we're going to create a model for people to follow,” Bouché said.

The company would provide the jobs – the economic empowerment piece – and the Delhi Commission on Women would provide transitional housing, counseling, financial literacy classes and remedial education.

Bouché said: “Wrap-around services for victims is critical. Our proposed plan is that we provide the jobs, the Delhi Commission for Women providing the social services, and the NGO, Shakti Vahini, provides empowerment and mentorship.”

But jobs are an important first step.

“Most people and corporations are not willing to take a risk on this population. And it is risky, there's no question about it. But as a public benefit corporation we are able to have the interest of our employees on the same level as the interest of our shareholders,” she said.

The “bottom line” is more than just profit.

“The bottom line is, are these women flourishing? The beauty of a public benefit corporation is that we can do both/and. We can be financially profitable for our shareholders while also ensuring the emotional and vocational profitability of our employees. And as long as we find investors who are like-minded and understand that, then we're good to go,” Bouché said. “But the reality is that is what consumers want these days. They want to know that they are supporting companies that are genuinely making a difference in the world.”

THE PRODUCT

The concept is simple – buy essential oils in bulk and repackage them for resale in smaller containers.

Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants through a distillation or cold pressing process that captures the plants’ scents. They are used in candles, soaps, aromatherapy and, in some cases, direct application to the skin.

Some common ones are extracted from citrus – lemon, lime, orange, tangerine – or plant leaves – lemongrass and patchouli – or the entire plant – lavender and rosemary – or flowers – jasmine, rose and ylang ylang.

There’s very little peer-reviewed research on the benefits of essential oils, but they are wildly popular as potential alternative therapies over a range of uses including for sleep, stress and other uses.

According to Grand View Research, the U.S. essential oil market was valued at more than $3 billion in 2015 and projected to grow at 9 percent annually through 2024.

The Bouchés decided early in the process to deal only with suppliers who had been through the lengthy process for U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification.

“That narrows down the suppliers that we can use because not all of them have USDA organic certification, but we think that is important in the U.S. market,” Bouché said,

It already has proven a successful strategy, with the very real possibility of their company becoming the essential oil supplier to Thistle Farms, a 20-year-old freedom business based in Nashville that provides jobs and training for women survivors of sex trafficking, prostitution and addiction.

There is also Worthy Co. in Fort Worth – an operation of The Net – that employs survivors to make soy candles and jewelry and possibly other products that could use real essential oils rather than chemical fragrances.

“Our interests are directly aligned with Thistle Farms and Worthy Co., and we can create a freedom business supply chain. We can provide oils to them at a significant discount,” Bouché said.

THE POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES

Once the idea was firm, Kant of Shakti Vahini set up a Skype call with Bouché and some of the women from GB Road.

“I said, ‘Do you remember me?’ And they were like, ‘Yes. We can't believe you're doing this.’ "

She told them that she wanted them to come up with a name for the business.

“This is your company, this is your business, and I want you to know that we're doing this for you and that you have ownership over this,” she said she told them.

A week later, they had the name: Savhera.

It means “new beginning” in Hindi.

“We first told them back in March or April that we were going to be doing this. It was over a Skype call. They were so excited and I think had the expectation that it was going to start immediately,” Bouché said.

But it takes time.

“Then we didn't get to India until two months later, in June, and we’re, like, ‘We're doing this.’ Some of them came to the production facility,” Bouché said.

But in June the business wasn’t officially incorporated in India or in Texas.

That’s done now.

In Texas, the business is Savhera PBC, a public benefit corporation, under a law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017 that lets business owners set up a corporation that requires its board of directors to consider social factors as well as the financial interests of shareholders.

In India, the company is Savhera Wellness Private Limited. The Indian entity will be a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. entity. Bouché said. “We're in the process of finalizing that. It just takes a while.”

Noel Bouché returned to India in September; by then another three months had passed.

“At that point some of the women were very emotional. They were saying, ‘When are we going to start working? You keep coming here. We keep talking to you. You keep telling us you're going to have a job for us, and nothing is happening,’” Bouché said.

So even though they are not completely ready for production, the Bouchés decided to put five women on the payroll in mid-October. Their first day of work was Oct. 15.

Bouché went to Delhi for the women’s first week on the job. “These women have never had a job in the formal sector, so we don't want to just start them at work right away. We want there to be a kind of a transition period for them.” The first week comprised orientation and team-building exercises.

However, one missing piece is that the woman who initially challenged Bouché with the call for dignified employment is not among the first employees. They have not been able to find her.

“I have complete faith that we are going to find her. She will be involved. I feel like she's going to appear at a time in the story when it's just right, like there's going to be this climax, and that's when she appears. We're building up to it now,” she said.

EPIPHANY MOMENT

Vanessa Bouché’s encounter with this woman was an epiphany of sorts for her.

“I was so impressed,” she said. “She spoke with such confidence, such vigor. She was intelligent and articulate. If she were born in a different country to a different family, or even in the same country to a different family, she would be running for office. She would be successful at whatever she did.”

Bouché said she was humbled by the experience, realizing that her personal success has a lot less to do with anything special about her than the circumstances of birth.

“The parents to whom I was born in the decade that I was born dictates so much of who I am, and what I've been privileged to have and experience. I don't believe that there's anything special or unique about me,” she said.

Bouché says she has had that conviction since college, and one reason she likes to teach at the university level is the opportunity it gives her to pass that understanding on and to encourage her students not to hoard their privilege but to use it to privilege others however they can.

“But I needed this woman to give me the push to do it, in this particular context. So I'll always be grateful and thankful to her. I’m also thankful for Usri, who showed up in my life at just the right time and said ‘Vanessa, we have to do this,’ ” Bouché said.

She was struggling with whether she could afford the time because of family, children and full-time work commitments.

“It's the right team, it's the right people being put around you at the right time,” she said.

That is also true of Melissa and Jamie Ice going to India.

“They were the right people to be with us in that moment, in that time. What they've done is different, but they have, in certain respects, gone before us,” she said. “They were just the right people to be there – just the encouragement, and the synergy, and the ideation, all that took place while we were there together was just really, really special.”

The idea is to eventually create a Savhera Foundation. They’re working on the by-laws around what percentage of profit they are reinvesting into the social mission, plus some regulations around salary structuring to create a fundamentally different kind of company.

But it has been a team effort, bringing together people with different skill sets who want to join something that they think is genuinely worthy and is making a difference in the world, she said.

“When we tell people what we're doing, they're like, ‘Absolutely, I can help,’” she said.

The Bouchés take an annual beach vacation with some college friends, one of whom is a private equity attorney.

“I asked him, ‘Dipo, what do you know about PPMs [private placement memoranda]?’ He said, ‘Vanessa, that's what I do for a living.’ He went through our entire PPM and provided extensive feedback. It was a huge blessing to have that expertise,” she said. One of his recommendations was that investors were going to want to see more than just the two Bouchés on the board of directors.

So just this month, they approached Dawn Bertsche, a family friend and former CFO of Multi-Color Corp., a publicly traded label company with a current market cap of $1.2 billion. Bertsche was instrumental in Multi-Color’s growth and international expansion before retiring several years ago. But when the Bouchés invited her to join them in providing leadership to their startup, she quickly agreed, citing the opportunity to innovatively empower exploited women through dignified employment.

“She's amazing, and brings extensive expertise with respect to regulatory compliance, mergers, acquisitions, forecasting, and financial management. We could not have imagined a better board member,” Bouché said.

“And Noel's been working with another corporate attorney in Dallas who's provided significant pro bono assistance with the equity offering and governance matters.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Melissa Ice and Vanessa Bouché say they can visualize global partnerships.

“Together we want to offer Fort Worth two beautiful justice enterprises that support and empower women in need and partner with one another,” Ice said.

“These are women who deserve dignified employment beyond being bought and sold for someone else's pleasure,” Ice said. “Whether women are right here in Fort Worth or women in the red-light district of Delhi, our hope is that these two businesses will make a big impact, here and abroad.”

And Jamey Ice, explaining why he would drop everything for a trip to India spoke perhaps on behalf of others who have signed on to the idea.

“When you have two powerhouse women, who are crazy passionate about fighting for women, and they ask you to go to India to help support them as they create a sustainable enterprise that helps bring women out of sexual exploitation – globally and locally – you have to say ‘yes,’ ” he said.

“Vanessa and Melissa are both doing amazing things and have a big bold vision for what Worthy Co. and Savhera will become. I am excited to see it all unfold.”

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