More Than Survival: FreeFrom Helps Domestic Violence Survivors Become Entrepreneurs

By Linda Childers

When Donna fled her abusive marriage with her two toddlers in tow, she left with nothing but dreams for a better life.

Finding refuge at a domestic violence shelter, Donna—who agreed to be interviewed under a pseudonym—learned about FreeFrom, a non-profit startup founded by UC Berkeley School of Law graduate Sonya Passi, that helps domestic violence survivors become entrepreneurs.

Passi has seen firsthand how many women remain in abusive relationships because they can’t afford to leave their partner. A longtime advocate for domestic violence survivors, Passi served as a law clerk in the domestic violence unit of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and chaired the Berkeley Law Stop Domestic Violence Group, all while attending law school.

In 2012, during her second year of law school, Passi founded the Oakland-based Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP), the only nonprofit in California dedicated to helping domestic violence survivors and their children by appealing dangerous trial court decisions on their behalf, at no charge to families. Although FVAP is a success—the organization reports it has overturned 71 percent of the cases it has appealed, compared to the state average of 20 percent—Passi still wanted to do more to help domestic violence survivors.

No one should have to stay in a violent relationship because they don’t have a way to support themselves,” Passi says. “Without financial independence, it’s impossible for these women to secure housing, buy food, pay bills, and afford childcare.

“I wanted to do something that would help survivors to rebuild their lives and to help close this gap in the system,” Passi says. “Not having financial security is the number one women reason domestic violence survivors don’t leave their abusers and the number one reason they return to a life of abuse.”

And so in November 2016 Passi launched FreeFrom.

For Donna, working with the grassroots organization meant the chance to learn how to turn her handmade greeting cards into a viable business.

“Getting a job as a single mom with two toddlers and no daycare is pretty much impossible,” Donna says. “I started making handmade greeting cards in the shelter and selling a few here and there, but I didn’t know how to grow from there, until I learned about FreeFrom.”

Last May, Donna joined 29 other women in a pilot entrepreneurship program launched first in Los Angeles, and the following month in San Francisco and Oakland. The cohort program took the women through every stage of starting their own business, from mentoring and marketing, to legal advice and creating a business logo and website.

“Out of the 30 women in the cohort program, 22 have launched their own business and 100 percent of the 22 woman have made a profit in their first month of business,” Passi says.

Guadalupe is one of FreeFrom’s success stories. A mother of two young daughters, she launched her own cleaning business for homes and offices and now makes an $800 profit monthly, working 25 hours a week.

“I’ve already started talking with women I’ve met at the shelter about working with me when I get busier.”

“I finally feel like I have a steady income that can help me give my kids a better life,” Guadalupe says. “I started my business 3 months ago and every month I have more work. I hope this will soon be my full-time job.”

Besides working to secure her own financial future, Guadalupe also hopes to pay it forward by hiring other domestic violence survivors. She believes the lessons she’s learned through FreeFrom will also help other women break free from domestic abuse.

“I’ve already started talking with women I’ve met at the shelter about working with me when I get busier,” Guadalupe says.

FreeFrom also helps survivors to win compensation for the abuse they have suffered, through small claims court, victims of crime funding, and the like. Beyond the financial aspect, FreeForm provides valuable mentoring to the women, including information on how to build, or re-build, a credit rating.

“I’ve learned how to write a professional email to a potential new client and how to access my bank account online and ways to charge my clients from my phone,” Guadalupe says. “My children are good with technology so it’s nice to feel as if I’m finally catching up with them.”

Next year, FreeFrom plans to serve 60 aspiring entrepreneurs in each of the three California cities and to expand their outreach to other Bay Area counties. The New York City Mayor’s Office has asked FreeFrom to bring the program to New York in 2018.

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