This startup is helping domestic abuse survivors launch businesses

Solving sexual harassment in tech: Ask these female CEOs
Solving sexual harassment in tech: Ask these female CEOs

Before Christine signed a new two-bedroom apartment lease, the 30-something mother of four called a shelter for domestic violence victims a temporary "home."

At the shelter, she was introduced to FreeFrom, a startup that's piloting entrepreneurship programs for domestic violence survivors. Christine is one of 30 women, from ages 25 to 55, participating in FreeForm's programs across Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

Since enrolling in the program in May, Christine -- who spoke to CNN under a pseudonym -- now runs an essential oil business made of natural products for mothers and children. She's already paid off $1,500 of debt and improved her credit score by 40 points.

FreeFrom helped her identify clients, set goals, and design a logo and business cards. It also provided advice on how to grow a company and get personal finances in order.

Many of the women enrolled in the program come in with small business ideas, which range from catering to jewelry making. The organization also helps identify what they're good at and how to turn it into an opportunity.

Christine credits her transformation to FreeFrom for helping boost her self confidence. "Before, no one asked me [what I'm good at]," she told CNN Tech. "That changed my life."

Sonya Passi, founder of the nonprofit, says the organization helps survivors address one of the biggest obstacles women face in escaping abusive situations: financial insecurity.

Christine's situation isn't unusual. One of out of every four women -- and one out of every seven men -- experiences domestic violence.

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In an overwhelming majority of domestic violence cases, financial abuse occurs. It ranges from abusers who prevent survivors from working to piling up credit card debt as a means of asserting control.

By helping survivors start businesses, they can earn their own incomes and achieve financial stability independent of a partner. Program participants can meet with FreeForm's team once a week for up to 90 minutes. The free service runs for a six-month period.

"We want them to build safe futures," said Passi.

In addition to its entrepreneur programs, FreeFrom has a compensation program to help survivors get money back from abusers for the harm they've suffered. It supports the women in other ways, too. It has set up Amazon Wishlists so donors can purchase items to support the businesses and provide basic needs for their new homes.

Passi, who is based on Los Angeles, is also behind the Family Violence Appellate Project, which offers free legal services to survivors. She founded that organization while attending University of California -- Berkeley's School of Law in 2012. FreeFrom builds on this work.

For some, leaving abusive partners goes beyond finances: It can be a matter of life or death. About 55% of female homicides are tied to domestic abuse, according to a new report from the CDC.

According to Passi, the early results of the program are positive. The New York City Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence said it will welcome FreeFrom at NYC Family Justice Centers starting next spring.

And about 90% of FreeFrom's entrepreneurs have achieved a profit in the first month of their businesses being operational, she said.

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Like Christine, Erica -- who also used a pseudonym -- is among those earning money with the help of the nonprofit. She fled Central America and is currently living in a shelter.

Since joining FreeForm, she's now a seamstress building her own brand. She is earning close to $2,000 a month off her business. Just two months ago, she was just living off welfare and food stamps.

"Most of my company's profit comes from making custom accessories, bags and flip flops. I just got an order of 600 tote bags," she said. "My biggest dream is to buy a house for my children."

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