In northern Kolkata lies the district of Sonagachi. Tonight in Sonagachi, 10,000 women will form a line that is almost 2 miles long.The women are there to sell their bodies for sex. Sonagachi is a red-light district (One of the largest in India).
|A glimpse into the streets of Sonagachi|
However, most of these women are not from Sonagachi. Many have been trafficked from Nepal, Bangladesh or from nearby villages. Sonali was 13 when she was kidnapped from her village, and was drugged her first night. Basanti was sold by her parents to pay off family debts. Debi was born in the brothels and remembers trying to study while her mother entertained clients in the same room. Often she was scared because these clients wanted to buy her as well.
These challenges the women face aren’t just social. Rather they are economic. The ever-present reality of starvation forces women back to the line every night, and many are effectively bonded slaves due to their families debt. The women are low skilled and socially ostracized, unable to find a livelihood outside the red-light district. In all likelihood, their children will same the same tragic fate.
In early 2013, Darden students had a chance to hear a short presentation from Kerry Hilton, the founder of Freeset. The soft-spoken Kiwi shared his own journey to India and how he and his wife found themselves as residents of Sonagachi almost 10 years ago.
A minister in a former life, Kerry moved to India in 1999 with his wife Annie. They were excited and naïve, and only after signing a lease did they realize they had selected an apartment in the red-light district. In the morning Kerry decided to start walking the streets to learn about his new neighbors.
After weeks of talking with lawyers, politicians, social workers, business owners and finally the women themselves, Kerry saw that this social problem needed an economic solution. He wanted to use his connections back home and so he decided he would try starting a business.
Freeset launched in 2001 with 20 brave women and supporters in the local community. It was hard work to teach the women to perform even basic tasks. Kerry likes to say that the women sewed a bag every wrong way before they got it right. Some had never used a pair of scissors before. The problem was finally solved with lots of training and lots of patience.
A decade later, Kerry is building a business that today manufactures 1,000 bags a day and sells t-shirts and apparel all over the globe. Most of his products are made by the women in Sonagachi. Today Freeset provides a new economic freedom to the women on the line, giving them gainful employment, training, healthcare and pay at a job they chose. Some have learned to use computers and do basic accounting, taking leadership positions in the company. Several have paid their debts and are able to support their children and family on this new income.
The journey isn’t easy. The firm still faces legal challenges from powerful brothel owners and local interests. The company is focused on empowering the women to own the business for themselves, a tricky challenge since most are illiterate and lack self-confidence. However, Kerry swears that the women inspire him by their resilience and compassion. The business is built on the force of will of women how are seeking a better life and fighting for a choice. Each dollar the business earns allows the company to grow and hire more women. Today 200 woman work daily at Freeset.
When Darden students respond
|FY Orientation Committee posing with Freeset Tees|
In fact, every member of the class of 2015 already had a brush with Freeset. The FY Orientation team decided early on that the entire order for the incoming class would be sourced from Freeset.
But Darden is doing more than buying t-shirts.
Students and faculty are already working on designing a consulting project where SY’s will apply their newly minted business skills in helping the company grow. The Darden Emerging Markets Club will be reaching out to the law school and undergrads to find opportunities for collaboration and raising awareness. Today sections and clubs can easily source t-shirts and swag from Freeset directly through MBA Portal (Student Resources > OSA > Club Resources > T-shirt Vendors)
In the spring of 2014, Kerry plans to come to Darden again. So much has happened since he last stood in Classroom 120 and shared his story with 40 Darden students. It’s amazing to think what might happen next.