Finding a job after being rescued from sex trafficking was nearly impossible, one Dallas-Fort Worth-area survivor said.
The woman said she was trafficked across the United States from the ages of 18 to 23 and only escaped when she was arrested on multiple felony charges incurred as a result of her time being trafficked. The Dallas Morning News does not typically identify survivors of sex trafficking.
The 24-year-old woman calls her arrest her “rescue” because it was the first time she was away from her trafficker and able to recognize what had occurred.
“I was so blessed to get arrested and be offered services,” she said.
Finding employment was part of the recovery process at Valiant Hearts, a North Texas-based group that provides emergency housing and support for survivors of sex trafficking. It connected the survivor with Savhera, an essential oil company that’s considered a social impact brand because of its mission to create “dignified employment” for women who are recovering from being trafficked or are seeking a way out of the sex industry.
The survivor said she couldn’t qualify for entry-level jobs with a criminal record and had thousands of dollars in debt from accounts that her trafficker took out in her name.
“I couldn’t even get hired at McDonalds because of my record,” she said. “It was kind of just like this huge moment where it was like the bondage from my trafficker was holding me back so much, to the point where I couldn’t even get a job.”
Being hired at Savhera was her “saving grace,” she said.
How Savhera got its start
Social impact brands have become more common as entrepreneurs seek to respond to concerns about the impact of consumer goods on the environment or the economy. Often, a brand’s story will reflect the issue the company seeks to remedy, such as workers’ compensation or environmental impact.
Savhera co-founder Vanessa Bouché, a Colleyville resident and associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University, said the inspiration for the company started on a 2017 study abroad trip to India, where she and her students worked at a medical clinic in a red-light district.
Bouché, with her husband Noel Bouché and fellow co-founder Usri Roy, decided to start a business that would create jobs for sex workers and those who were trafficked. They chose the essential oil industry because they say it honors Indian culture and heritage, and they planned to work primarily with women in India.
They registered Savhera in 2018 and launched an e-commerce site in 2019. The company has 16 employees, including nine survivors of sex trafficking — seven in India and two in the United States. The co-founders do not take salaries.
“We are a company that exists to employ people,” Vanessa Bouché said. “I didn’t get into this to make money. That’s not the point.”
Savhera hires women in India through a medical clinic called Shakti Vahini. In the U.S., it hires through Valiant Hearts and New Friends New Life, another North Texas group.
The impact of social impact brands
Dr. Melissa I.M. Torres, a researcher who studies anti-human trafficking efforts, said finding a job that pays sufficiently is a major component of acclimating to life for survivors of trafficking.
“Are they getting paid what they actually need to survive?” Torres asked. “Because a lot of times that was the root cause of their trafficking experience, that was vulnerability that a trafficker took advantage of.”
Others question whether or not a business model founded on meeting the needs of vulnerable people takes advantage of survivors by using their stories to market the business.
“I think a lot of organizations accidentally re-exploit the people that they are helping,” the D-FW survivor and Savhera employee said, noting that she has not experienced that during her time at Savhera and that she other survivors are not the company’s “main marketing tool.”
Bouché said the company decided to frame the brand and its website around the essential oils, not around the company’s dedication to hiring survivors, so as not to use the stories or history of their employees as the primary marketing message.
“It’s not Savhera’s story to tell,” Bouché said.
She said they don’t ask employees to show their faces in marketing campaigns or to share their stories in the media or on the company’s website, unless they want to. After hearing that Bouché had spoken to a reporter, the survivor reached out to The News to share her story.
Who is it helping?
The real test of a social impact brand, Torres said, is whether or not the employees are given opportunities to move beyond their initial employment into something else.
“Is it something that would actually help survivors survive past that agency?” she asked. “Whatever is being taught or however the survivors are being assisted, is this something that’s really going to help them in the long run?”
Savhera’s founders said they have implemented a strategy to encourage the survivors’ success beyond their employment, including meditation, business training and a program designed for Savhera’s survivor employees in India. The “P.I.E.S” model program includes basic education and training on budgeting and finding housing so the women can move out of brothels.
The survivor, whose one-year anniversary with the company is in September, said she’s starting college this fall, and her 10-year plan is to get her Ph.D in psychology and focus on research.
She moves into her first apartment this month and is working with lawyers to have her criminal record expunged and with an advocate to have her financial debts forgiven.
As she reflected on the changes in her life and the future, she said God has shown up for her in ways she didn’t expect, in situations she had accepted as part of her life.
“I am now empowered,” she wrote in a personal essay. “I know my identity, my strengths, and my worth. For the first time in my life, I have reclaimed the power of which I was robbed as a child and am committed to empowering others the same way I have been.”