Addressing human trafficking in your own backyard
From a podcast by Faith Driven Entrepreneur
David Batstone is a venture capitalist and a business professor in entrepreneurship at the University of San Francisco. He also has a Ph.D. in theology.
He discovered that his favourite Indian restaurant had trafficked over 500 young girls from the ages of 14 to 19 into the San Francisco Bay Area for the purpose of forced labour. First in this restaurant, they were being forced to work against their will and then they'd be taken out to the brothels and fruit and vegetable fields in California.
So what did David do?
The trafficker kept 15-20 young girls in an apartment and there was a natural gas leak that killed one girl and injured others. And when the police showed up, the girls were not so concerned about the gas but told officers they were more worried about him and pointed to the trafficker. When I read about the discovery on the front page of my newspaper, although I'd been going to this place for years, it was like, how could I not see this? How could have been blind to it?
We often say we pray that God would give us some wisdom or teach us a path or open a door. I think God is always putting things in front of us. It's how we respond to those things. That's how it builds our character, the way we respond to things that God puts in front of us. It's not like we need to somehow go out and find it. It's there. And I can't tell you why but that was a defining moment of my life. I had to do something about it. For me, it was a calling. I had to respond to it.
I spoke to friends and heard lots of stories, like a sewing factory in Los Angeles where 112 girls from Thailand were imprisoned and forced to sew clothes every day. And they would then be locked into rooms in the same facility where they were sewing clothes. In Texas, there are bars or cantinas where young girls would be lined up with a numbers printed on their chest and a man would come to get a beer and then point to number 30 who he wanted to buy for a night.
I felt I needed to really understand the trade. So I took a leave of absence from my university and my venture capital bank. And I went around the world for a year, following the money. I went from San Francisco to Bangalore and went from Los Angeles to Thailand. I went from Houston and Dallas to Peru and Guatemala.
It's funny how we have an accepted paradigm of how you approach a concern, if it's social or environmental. And I'm sure everyone has something that they really care about, whether it's malaria or global warming or extreme poverty. Many of us, when we attempt to address these problems, we open our heart and we shut down our brain. At least that's what I did, because here I was a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, confronted with this problem of forced bondage or slavery. What I did initially is start a bad business model called a non-profit, a charity. And now I do want to clarify, I don't think charities are all bad or wrong or they're foolish, but they are not sustainable and they're not scalable. And if you really want to address a problem of the magnitude we're talking about, you need to develop a business model that has the scalability to it to actually solve the problem. So what I did is I set up a non-profit and we would go to churches and rotary clubs and schools and, you know, we get donations and then we build a shelter. And I mean, we were good at it. It was fine but it was small and it was very difficult to build something that would actually, I believe, solve the problem.
As an entreprenuer, I started to look at the fact that in Silicon Valley, if I wanted to build an enterprise, what I do is I'd find the best capital, the best talent and cutting edge technology. And I would build a company based on that that would be profitable and would reach internationally. And so I said, well, what if I took those same skills, that same kind of formula, and I applied it to human trafficking?
The first thing to do is bring together the best talent, so I got 50 people, the smartest people I knew, the most successful - the founder of Twitter was one of them. And I said, look, help me come up with a business model or a business plan for a very specific situation. And this situation is in the Amazon of Peru, young kids from indigenous communities in the Amazon are being trafficked into Lima. Help us come up with a business model. So we had a 24 hour period where we brainstormed and had a competition.
The winning idea was to start a company that would source the wonderful assets or ingredients that come out of the Amazon. These super herbs suddenly pay a fair wage, create an economic platform that would provide long term security for the native communities, put into a beverage, sell it in mainstream grocery stores and return profits back to those communities. It's a wonderful, beautiful idea.
I knew nothing about beverage. And so, again, I thought, OK, what would I do if I was in Silicon Valley now? Well, I go and find the best beverage maker in the world who could use these herbs and put them into the beverage and make a wonderful product. And that's what I did. I just found the best beverage maker in the world, hired him and paid him what Coca-Cola would have paid him. I didn't pay him a non-profit salary. And, you know, fast forward six years, we are now the number one health beverage in America - Rebbl with a cause. We have now returned over a million dollars back to those communities through our profit sharing.
We're sourcing ingredients in three countries now and we choose the ingredient based on the most impact, not the cheapest ingredient. But where will we have the most impact on poor communities? So over 30,000 families, 120,000 people, more or less, are being empowered in poor, rural, exploited communities. So to me, this was like a revelation. It's taking the same principles and mission that I had a non-profit, but embedding the DNA into a enterprise, a for-profit enterprise.
Rebbl is the name of the first company we started. We now have 10 companies. To be a rebel is to hear a different voice, to follow a different path. And that requires us to have a strong spiritual grounding that we realize that where the world is going and what is named as what is valuable, what will make me a success may not be what's true for my character. And so I think the art of being a rebel is about choosing a path that you're going to follow, regardless of what the rest of the world tells you.
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