AnnieCannons is Helping Human Trafficking Survivors Become Tech Experts

AnnieCannons Cofounder Laura Hackney teaching
AnnieCannons Cofounder Laura Hackney teaching

AnnieCannons, Inc. is a non-governmental organization whose mission is to help trafficking survivors obtain a sustainable income through coding. Coding boot camps are not novel, but it is to use them to help survivors learn skills that will significantly decrease their vulnerability. The NGO does not just provide a training program, it also provides long-lasting employment and in-house childcare, allowing survivors the consistency and flexibility they need to succeed.

Jessica Hubley, AnnieCannons cofounder and CEO, was operating a solo technology law practice when she teamed up with Laura Hackney, senior researcher at Stanford University's Anti-Trafficking Project in the Mekong Sub-Region. Hackney invited Hubley on the team's next research trip to Myanmar so that Hubley could interview trafficking survivors. In addition to her day job as an attorney, Hubley was writing a book on human trafficking, specifically how technology in the Bay Area could be applied to address the global human trafficking crisis.

While interviewing trafficking survivors, Hubley quickly realized that the vast majority of trafficking stories, regardless if the person was in Myanmar or California, came down to a particular formula:

  1. The person's vulnerability was outside of his or her control.
  2. The person was desperately seeking work.
  3. Someone convinced the person to trust a false offer of opportunity.
  4. The trafficker controlled the person’s movements and exploited him or her.

Hubley and Hackney remarked how every survivor they knew would have been less vulnerable to human trafficking had the person been employed or had valuable skill training. This is when the two women brainstormed and came up with the idea for a coding boot camp for human trafficking survivors. "We thought if survivors had the benefit of a coding boot camp, like we have in San Francisco—a short, focused vocational training, they could obtain the economic power necessary to avoid exploitation." They also believed economic stability would help survivors become politically empowered to change the driving forces behind what made them vulnerable in the first place.

Economic Sustainability

Most shelters around the world, including in the United States, tend to offer skill training classes for trafficking survivors that are highly-gendered and do not give much opportunity for sustainable income. These include jewelry or pottery making. Hubley said these classes do not teach skills that a person could use to reasonably make a living, much less allow him or her to become economically or politically empowered.

Hubley examined the background and skillset people would need to graduate from coding boot camp. In doing so, she looked at her client roster and realized that software developers often make six-figure incomes not because they are great salespeople but because they have in-demand software skills. The challenge, she said, was figuring out how to provide survivors—many of whom lived in temporary or long-term shelters—with skills that allow them the same stability and income opportunities.

"Laura and I spent over a year planning and developing our complex model, and preparing to deploy the strategy that has now successfully connected survivors with those skills and incomes."

Eliminating Challenges

Hubley and Hackney, AnnieCannons cofounder and Executive Director, developed a unique method that weaves training, earning, and building technology over a six-month period—four days per week and four hours per day. The design considers specific hurdles survivors face that would likely hinder attendance adherence. These include interest, housing, childcare, and long-term employment.

Hubley said her team relies on shelters and case managers already working in the local trafficking landscape to identify candidates among their residents that fit the criteria and who seem to have the drive to build a new career. She said that not everyone likes coding and some people have a preconceived notion of how well they would do at it. What is interesting though, Hubley said, is that many people are better at it and like it more than they expect.

Each candidate goes through an evaluation and screening at orientation to get finances, kids’ schedules, and health matters in order so that he or she can consistently attend class. According to Hubley, not everyone clicks with the software, so while the NGO accepts all students who commit to the application program, they participate in either the more advanced development-focused track or the slower-moving data track. This is determined, Hubley said, through a series of logic games that are mostly education-agnostic to evaluate whether the candidate works well with the software.

Housing, said Hubley, is the number one barrier to students' success. "If you don't know where your next meal comes from or where you are sleeping at night, it's basically impossible to learn."

Childcare, said Hubley, is also essential to an equal workplace. Most AnnieCannons students have children they are raising alone. Without childcare, they would not be able to work or study. That is why the NGO offers free childcare during class, on site. Hubley is also applying for grants to have free all-day childcare that graduates can use while they work on client projects. In the meantime, graduates can bring their children to the office where there is a play area filled with toys, and the entire team keeps an eye on the kids. Once established, free childcare will be a permanent core benefit for subcontractors of the NGO's impact outsourcing business.

AnnieCannons’ furry office friend, Coach Eric Taylor. “We often use him to activate pictures of our classroom since we don&#3
AnnieCannons’ furry office friend, Coach Eric Taylor. “We often use him to activate pictures of our classroom since we don't photograph students,” said Jessica Hubley.

Continued Opportunity

Unlike most coding boot camps, AnnieCannons offers graduates immediate employment, making the experience particularly sustainable. Meaning, graduates gain immediate and long-term benefits. In fact, most participants start taking paid client projects during training, after they have passed a qualification—which includes a written test, skills assessment, and project deliverables. Over time, participants can take on progressively more complex client assignments. For example, as they get into web development, projects may require multiple specialists such as a developer, designer, and tester. AnnieCannons' staff breaks projects down into these categories and offers graduates any pieces for which they qualify. Hubley said students can always take it or leave it, but once class concludes the NGO tries to source 40 hours a week of work for them if they want it.

Graduates become the NGO's coding boot camp teachers and subcontractors for the impact outsourcing business. AnnieCannons has numerous clients, including small businesses that need web development, private foundations paying for complex software platforms, and well-known technology companies outsourcing data entry. Hubley said what clients get is high-quality work and in turn this allows subcontractors to get faster, learn more complex skills, build their portfolio, and earn more.

The NGO does offer to help students apply for technology jobs, and will prepare them for interviews. So far, though, Hubley said trainees turn subcontractors want to stay in the AnnieCannons ecosystem indefinitely. She believes this is because the NGO provides necessary supports like childcare, flexible schedules, and no judgment when parents need to be with their kids. Another reason is that the NGO creates a safe space and community for human trafficking survivors.

"We know the importance of having a community and support, not only in healing but also in life. We want our school and our business to be anchored with such a community—where employees, students, graduates, and founders all constantly learn from and support one another as family."

Community

Unsurprisingly, a core tenet of the program is the belief that continual learning is an investment in the individual and community's future. Hubley and Hackney request that participants take pleasure in challenges and recognize that return depends on how much the person invests. This seems on par with most learning programs, but what is unique is the organization’s emphasis on pride, letting go of shame, combating injustice, and countering what most parents experience in the United States workforce—employers who treat parenthood as a hindrance to company success. Instead, the AnnieCannons founders call it a strength.

Hubley says the core community principles underlying the AnnieCannons ecosystem sprout from Dinos Christianopoulos' quote, “They thought they buried us. They didn’t realize we were seeds.” The idea is to create an entirely supportive environment for workers, one that eliminates structural hurdles that commonly prevent women from reaching their full potential. AnnieCannons works against imposter syndrome and the shame people may carry from past experiences and trauma.

It is critical to Hubley that AnnieCannons partners with shelters and social service providers along the entire care continuum to make sure students and subcontractors are getting what they need, such as housing, legal aid, and therapy. She says integration is essential to a successful training installation. Even so, there are gaps the NGO must fill like helping students identify if they need glasses.

Growing Impact

AnnieCannons is targeted to train 70 Bay Area subcontractors in the next three years, with each freelancer working roughly 40 hours per week. In that same timeframe, the organization hopes to create a technology residence in a different city—perhaps New Orleans, Atlanta, D.C., Los Angeles, or New York. "These are vibrant locations that have all the ingredients to become a technology hub," Hubley said. The location would hold trained developers, emerging companies, NGOs, and students in a live-work environment that functions as an incubator of the Silicon Valley model. Unlike an incubator, AnnieCannons plans to have visiting technology talent from the Bay Area give guest lectures or work on specific social projects. The goal, Hubley said, is to plant technology and diversity seeds in new markets.

To be self-sustaining, the NGO retains a 10 percent average commission, though it varies per project. For example, the company earns 0-2 percent commission on data entry, 10 percent of website project commissions, and up to 25 percent on multi-platform projects. The amount AnnieCannons subcontractors earn varies by type and how much staff supervision and organization is required. Graduates typically make just over $60,000, which is why Hubley believes New Orleans would be an ideal location for a technology residence. "$60,000 would go farther in New Orleans than the Bay Area," Hubley said. It would allow graduates, if they so desire, to have the time and resources to get involved in city government initiatives and anti-trafficking work. The organization also has global ambitions but, for now, is focused on expanding to other U.S. cities.

"Expanding to any new market means carefully assessing the local circumstances so that we can tailor our solution to the trafficking landscape in partnership with local organizations that already understand the issues and challenges. We'll take our time, and make sure that we're forging the critical connection with local government and NGOs wherever we're adding a new training."

Case Study

Jasmine* is a woman of color whose parents were in prison during her childhood. In adulthood, she had trouble finding a job until a person falsely offered her steady, high wage employment. She accepted, but instead of financial independence, the person forced her into commercial sexual exploitation. Police arrested her multiple times and allowed her trafficker to pick her up from jail. On a few occasions, police referred Jasmine to a shelter, but the trafficker found her there as well. Neither interaction with police nor shelter staff allowed her to escape. Instead, her trafficker found her and reinforced what she already believed, that she was not worthy of a different life.

Eventually, a shelter referred Jasmine to AnnieCannons where she quickly digested training information. She was bright and capable but highly skeptical that her life could change. Jasmine learned JavaScript and discovered that she excelled at front-end web development. She is now a freelance software engineer using her new skills to help women who are trafficking survivors. She hopes to one day "build a better human trafficking shelter for women who want to leave the life." In the meantime, she has developed an app that collects anonymous rape data, http://survivors.io.

*Jasmine is not the person's real name

Informal Peer Support

AnnieCannons does not provide formal peer support, but the classroom is a support community. In fact, a portion of each class focuses on group sharing and checking-in. Additionally, informal groups often gather outside of class. While the NGO does facilitate out-of-class peer support, it does not try to constrain or direct it. "Students do form relationships with one another, but this is not something we oversee or control."

Teacher assistants are graduates from previous classes who consistently share their past experiences with the class. Assistants will incorporate this in the learning process and suggest techniques that helped them overcome struggles in class. They also will periodically conduct one-on-one interviews with students to identify student concerns and measure comfort and progress.

Hubley said it often takes three to four weeks in class to loosen the initial barriers between students and for people to share more openly. The more people who share, the more others feel comfortable doing so. "This process is somewhat organic. Different people reach a comfort with sharing at different times, and open up with stories from the past or their challenges at varying rates."

In class, during general check-in, is when people may share their experiences. It is at this point that other students may chime in, echoing what the speaker said or sharing similar challenges. By the end of a class cycle, students report that they found the sharing opportunity therapeutic and that they miss it when class ends. Hubley said graduates often mention that they gained a community, a feeling of belonging and support, from the class. "This helps to anchor fixed commitment," Hubley said. "They want to come to a place where they are welcome and wanted."

This post was originally published on the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) website.

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