Picture this: a tech company deploying projects built and developed by survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence. It may seem like a long shot in a world where those individuals so often find themselves stuck in cycles of abuse and exploitation, but nonprofit tech incubator AnnieCannons has achieved a self-sustaining and scalable system of economic empowerment for survivors.
Hidden in plain sight, the United States has a grave human trafficking problem. The fact that the problem remains unmeasured doesn’t help: In 2016, the U.S. Department of State estimated that 57,700 individuals were being trafficked into the country each year, an estimate that doesn’t account for those trafficked within the nation’s borders.
California, where AnnieCannons is based, has a distinct need for services supporting survivors of human trafficking. The state’s Office of the Attorney General claims that California, being an immigrant-driven border state and the world’s fifth-largest economy, is a top destination for trafficked human beings. Yet the type of aid directed toward human trafficking survivors is too often focused on immediate intervention rather than long-term well being, Laura Hackney, chief technical officer and cofounder of AnnieCannons, told TriplePundit.
Without economic independence, many survivors of trafficking experience exploitation and abuse. The key question in diminishing human trafficking and unraveling vicious cycles, Hackney emphasized, is whether individuals have access to opportunities to support themselves and their families.
Hackney and cofounder Jessica Hubley found they can economically and emotionally empower survivors by training them for careers in tech, a sector that often supplies high-paying jobs, as well as opportunities to hone dormant skills. “We started this process of creating a curriculum and really workshopping it, making sure it was not only teaching the right skills for the current day’s technology, but that it was also trauma-informed,” Hackney told us.
Students learn by doing and are assessed after instruction to ensure they are ready to start working in the field. Even before their final test, they can enter a new program called Practicum, where they work on paid projects (supported by project managers) while taking advanced workshops, a chance to get their feet wet without the pressure of having real clients, Hackney said.
This model of generating earned revenue is one element that attracted support from Cisco through its social impact grants. “AnnieCannons addresses all aspects of what survivors need — technical skills training, coaching and mentoring, hands-on experience, and income generating opportunities, and supportive services,” said Charu Adesnik, deputy director of the Cisco Foundation and manager of the economic empowerment investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.“At the same time, they offer high-quality services to paying clients, enabling them to run an efficient and financially viable business that will sustainable for the long term.”
The tech sector is enriched by the skills and abilities of survivors. Hackney said many of the individuals that come into AnnieCannons’ bootcamp exhibit notable problem-solving abilities and grit — qualities advantageous to any industry, and tech is no exception.
Further, program participants seem inclined to leverage their abilities to solve social problems. In a program called Survivor Tech, where students are tasked with developing their own software ideas, many focus on solutions to the problems they experience in their own communities. One student, for example, created the idea for Survivors.io, a data and empowerment tool to help survivors of sexual assault tell their stories anonymously.
“We’re now in the process of seeking funding for those individual projects so the founder — the student who came up with the idea — can really move it forward and actually get it out into the marketplace,” Hackney told us. Some projects, such as EasyTRO (pictured above) — which helps guide people through filling out the Temporary Restraining Order form to seek protection from their abusers — are already live.
“Every industry gains from more diverse lived experiences of people who work there,” Hackney said — and there’s plenty of evidence to back her up.
A 2015 study from McKinsey & Co., for example, found that companies with greater ethnic and gender diversity outperform their competitors by a significant margin. The opposite is true for companies with a homogenous workforce. The World Economic Forum also recognizes that greater diversity in an organization comes with increased innovation, problem-solving and creativity, among other profitable advantages.
Despite the benefits of diversity, it remains difficult for those who don’t fit the standard mold to get ahead in the tech sector. In the early stages of the nonprofit, Hackney recalled, “We actually had someone say to us, ‘I love what you’re doing, but we really need to hire a real developer.’”
Amid the sustained coronavirus crisis and consequent economic slowdown, AnnieCannons has seen business in its for-profit arm grow. As remote and virtual work increased during a prolonged period of social distancing, companies and organizations sought more robust software solutions — and in this time of amplified digital communication, people want their web- and mobile-based systems to run more effectively, all of which creates more work for software developers, Hackney said.
AnnieCannons is also bringing itself into the digital realm with its first virtual training cohort, launching early this year. This will be the organization’s first step into a nationwide sphere. Once work returns to the office, the hope is to continue expanding physically and for program graduates to staff the organization as it grows, Hackney said, progress that increased profits during the pandemic have made possible. “Our hope is that … AnnieCannons is really run by the people who are building our products and going through our programs,” she said.
This article series is sponsored by Cisco and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credits: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash and Annie Cannons