A New Way to Fight Modern-day Slavery: Just Businesses

It was difficult to believe that human trafficking could be so close to home, but that's how forced labor works. It's pervasive. It preys on a community's vulnerabilities and blind spots. Perhaps most troubling, it afflicts the economically vulnerable.
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In January 2000, as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco my friends and I, one of my professors included, were shocked to read a newspaper article about a major case of modern-day slavery in Berkeley, California. I didn't realize then that this would have such an influence on the trajectory of my life.

It was difficult to believe that human trafficking could be so close to home, but that's how forced labor works. It's pervasive. It preys on a community's vulnerabilities and blind spots. Perhaps most troubling, it afflicts the economically vulnerable.

In the years following the Chronicle's article, my aforementioned professor, David Batstone, wrote Not For Sale, chronicling the modern-day slave trade. And, in 2007, we launched a non-profit organization of the same name. Our goal was relatively simple: raise donations to assist programs that help survivors to rebuild their lives.

Starting a non-profit felt like a natural inclination in the face of injustice. However, after nearly a decade in the anti-human trafficking space, I now believe that this predisposition toward nonprofit-based solutions deserves to be challenged.

Despite the hard work of many non-profits, slavery still exists on a massive scale, with annual profits totaling over $150 billion. There are 35.8 million slaves today, more than at any point in history. This galling reality has served as our true wake-up call. The task at hand is clearly beyond what non-profits, garnering perhaps $100 million collectively, can tackle on their own. In light of this we must challenge our traditionally accepted ways of addressing social problems.

We have come to believe that the modern abolitionist movement requires a business solution. After all, this is a crime perpetrated by money-above-all-else business people, and it needs to be confronted by immensely talented entrepreneurs. Migrating talent and capital to address the world's greatest challenges such as slavery is key to this movement's long-term success.

To that end, Batstone and I scaled up Just Business, an incubator that develops and supports competitive social enterprises by helping them find investors, management teams and other services. Not For Sale's first four years focused solely on supporting people only after they had been trafficked, and we continue this important work, having helped nearly 4,500 people in 2014. However, to truly end trafficking we must also address the problem at its origin, assisting at-risk people. In this way, Not For Sale also serves as a research and development program, seeking out scalable business opportunities that exist within vulnerable communities.

With these goals in mind, Not For Sale and Just Business host the Montara Circle, a design-to-action session, to mobilize business entrepreneurs around economic opportunities in disenfranchised regions. Not For Sale identifies at-risk communities through data collected via its work with beneficiaries, and conducts research to identify business opportunities. This analysis informs the Montara Circle participants as they set out to help create an enterprise-related intervention. Just Business then takes on the bulk of responsibility for growing the enterprises that are birthed out of the Montara Circle. Presently, there are 10 businesses in the Just Business incubator, which we call the Invention Hub. Six of them are focused on anti-slavery-related issues.

Our first business endeavor birthed from a February 2011 Montara Circle was REBBL, a fair trade, organic herbal tonic that sources some of its ingredients from Peru. We integrated our cultural and political goals at every level of the planning process. When it came to choosing a location for economic development, Not For Sale targeted a specific region of the Peruvian Amazon that was known to be a source community for trafficking. We also designed REBBL to be a force for change in the area: by fairly sourcing ingredients from its indigenous people, we sought to arrest their economic vulnerabilities.

Today nearly 130,000 tons of certified fair trade and organic Brazilian nuts are sold annually into the American and European marketplace by communities we set out to assist in 2011. Not For Sale helped secure the certifications and linked the communities to exporters.

Ultimately, our goal is to create a self-sustaining economic system, powered by our enterprises, that will support Not For Sale's social programming. This could be reality sooner than later: Whole Foods is currently stocking REBBL, and the beverage will be selling in most U.S. states by year-end.

By professionalizing our efforts, we've been able to draw top business talent. Palo Hawken, an award-winning drink developer, is REBBL's CEO. Rather than donating his time and talents, Palo is financially incentivized to develop a great product that creates the avenues for further community and environmental enhancement.

As part of our strategy to further shed light on modern slavery and generate revenue for Not For Sale, in 2014 more than 1.1 million products were sold in the U.S., European, Japanese and Australian marketplaces that help amplify Not For Sale's story. These co-branded products, such as REBBL, highlight Not For Sale on their packaging, which defrays marketing costs from the non-profit's economic bottom-line.

In return for its contribution to early-stage business development, Not For Sale receives 2.5 percent gross returns, 5 percent founding equity and a board seat to help maintain a social orientation of the company. The companies also have a supply chain transparency commitment built into their by-laws, and when applicable, preferential treatment for employment opportunities for Not For Sale beneficiaries. Constructed with Not For Sale's global law firm Latham & Watkins, this serves as the baseline model for our anti-slavery focused enterprises.

We are still in the early days of this hybrid approach, and have much to improve, solidify and grow into. But we are already seeing success in attracting talented people and substantial investment dollars into social enterprises, which can attain large scale social impact, and sustain our non-profit endeavors. Unfortunately, what we do is still very rare, but the hope is that it becomes a more accepted and mainstream approach.

By fighting slavery, I've learned one clear lesson: It's not enough to work hard within a system that perpetuates the problem you want to solve. To find a solution, we must also step outside our old, traditional structures and create new models of social change.

Mark Wexler is the co-founder of Not For Sale, Just Business, & the Invention Hub. He lives in Berkeley, California. Twitter: @Mark_Wexler, @NFS, @JustBusiness, @Invention_Hub

This blog post is part of the Plan B for Business series produced by The Huffington Post and The B Team community to help articulate a Plan B for Business. To see other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The B Team, click here.

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