A Surprising Path Out of Domestic Abuse: Entrepreneurship

For some women who have suffered physical, emotional and financial abuse by their partners, entrepreneurship offers an effective path to economic independence, safety and healing.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

Survivors at GreenHouse17 grow and sell flowers and floral arrangements with the help of Jessica Ballard (pictured), the organization’s farm and family advocate. (All photos credited to: GreenHouse17)

Today, Kellie Fitzgerald writes books and runs IbbiLane Press, a 4-year-old publishing company in Pearce, Ariz., with 11 authors and 13 titles, and more in the works. She’s also a life coach and Reiki healer.

It’s fair to say that she has come an awfully long way. Fitzgerald, who was born to an unwed mother and a deep sense of that stigma, grew up in Texas in a home with an alcoholic stepfather who made a habit of watching her shower. At age 17, she ran away with a high school boyfriend and got pregnant. Soon, she realized her new husband was a drug user and violent. For years, he abused her physically, mentally and emotionally, she says.

He was big and tall, and she was tiny. “His favorite thing to do was to pick me up by my neck until I passed out, and then he would drop me,” she says. “I thought that was normal, because that’s how I grew up.”

Fitzgerald’s husband wouldn’t work, so she was the breadwinner, she says. She worked a data-entry job during the day and, in her first entrepreneurial endeavor at age 20, typed documents for lawyers at night. But that hard work didn’t buy freedom. “When I went home with a paycheck, he got the paycheck,” she says. “I didn’t have my own bank account… My first name wasn’t on our checks.”

Fitzgerald hankered for that freedom, though. “We were together 6 years. During that time, I left him five times, but I had nowhere to go,” she says. “I couldn’t even get my own place to live,” because landlords wanted her husband’s signature on the paperwork. It seemed as if “I couldn’t do anything without him. It took a long time for me to realize that wasn’t true at all.”

Economic insecurity is the No. 1 reason women stay in violent relationships or return to them. And “financial abuse” is a standard tool of control for batterers. Indeed, efforts to limit a partner’s access to money and financial assets occurs in a staggering 98 percent of domestic violence cases, according to the National Network of to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).

The flip side, of course, is that breaking free financially can be the key to permanent freedom from an abusive relationship.

Fitzgerald did finally manage to leave — a friend gave her and her daughter a place to stay. But then, she says, her mother both engineered her divorce and wrested away custody of her daughter. Still struggling to escape her ex-husband, Fitzgerald decided to move to California, where she was able to get a job, start another side business, and gather the money to hire a lawyer to get her daughter back.

“I am absolute proof that no matter what situation you’re in, you can improve it,” Fitzgerald says, conceding she has indefatigable drive and determination. “Someone told me recently that’s called the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Freedom from Want

Gaining financial independence is one of the most effective ways for women to break the long-term hold of domestic abuse and violence on their lives. When women control their access to fundamentals like food, clothing and shelter, they control their circumstances, futures and fate. They are more able to leave and more able to stay out of abusive relationships, ensure the wellbeing of their children and break multi-generational cycles of abuse, experts say.

Less recognized, however, is the role that entrepreneurship can play in women gaining that financial freedom. While groups like NNEDV and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) do have programs to help survivors with financial challenges, most focus on teaching personal finance skills and helping women get bank accounts and repair bad credit. Some partner with job-training groups or pursue money from abusers in court. But new programs are cropping up to help women attain self-sufficiency through small business ownership, and they may be creating an important new way to help domestic violence survivors reclaim their lives.

Why aren’t entrepreneurship programs more common? Sonya Passi, the founder and CEO of FreeFrom, a Los Angeles organization that pursues economic justice for domestic violence survivors, says advocacy groups are typically cash-strapped and overwhelmed with demand, and so focus on immediate life-and-death safety issues.

“Resources are in no way in proportion to the size of the problem” of domestic violence, she says, which will afflict an astonishing one in three women in their lifetimes. “The movement hasn’t had the luxury of stepping back and thinking: How about long term? How about innovative ways of addressing this problem?”

FreeFrom, a legal advocacy launched in November 2016, also runs a business incubator that aims to address survivors’ long-term need to “build wealth, financial security, financial independence and income, so you are financially secure enough to never go back,” Passi says. Through a campaign called 500Founders, it crowdsources professional women to both fund the program and work with participants as volunteer mentors and expert advisors. (It has also received $70,000 from the Allstate Foundation, a major partner with NNEDV on economic justice programs as well.)

At the end of December, FreeFrom kicked off its first entrepreneur class in L.A. with six participants, where it intends to add another nine participants in mid April. The current group includes a woman with a makeup business, a bracelet maker, a seamstress and a physical trainer and nutrition coach. Workshops for 15 participants in both San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., start in late April. Passi intends to expand to New York and Chicago in 2018.

The program involves weekly workshops that tackle everything from confidence-building and self-care to budgeting basics and business planning to pitching clients and investors. “Everyone’s at a different stage,” Passi says, so the program will be lengthy and offer a lot of one-on-one coaching, in the “understanding you’re working with people who have all the raw skill, but don’t have the support system.”

Entrepreneurship vs. Employment

Entrepreneurship can’t be called an easy way to make a living. Half of all small businesses fail within the first 5 years. And women who have been subjected to financial abuse have extra challenges. For instance, though often resilient and resourceful, they may be short on business and financial know-how. They may lack the cash savings and relationships with friends and family that many entrepreneurs tap to bootstrap a startup. And landing a loan or investor may be out of reach, too.

“Many of them have already ruined credit, so it’s hard for somebody to take a chance on them,” says Kim Pentico, director of the economic justice program at NNEDV. “For survivors, trauma can last a while. So giving them space and time to heal and also grow something can be a challenge.”

Nevertheless, business ownership can be a more viable path than conventional employment, Passi says. Financial abuse often leaves women with spotty employment records that can get in the way of landing a job. For instance, many women have lost jobs or received bad reviews because of absences caused by injuries or interference by their abusers. Many find it hard to hold on to 9-to-5 jobs if they are the sole caretaker of children and have no help from extended families, whom abusers have often driven away.

Being one’s own boss can allow women to sidestep some of these challenges. And if given space and time, it can also offer an opportunity to heal, too. Entrepreneurship can help restore a survivor’s sense of self and mend a broken self-confidence after years of being beaten down physically and emotionally, Fitzgerald says, while also providing decent income.

Entrepreneurship is “an awesome recovery tool,” she says. “It lets you know who you are.”

Fitzgerald’s personal healing, she says, began with sharing her story and what she learned. She offered workshops at women’s shelters, and then wrote a self-help book, “When on the Road to Enlightenment, Don’t Forget to Take out the Trash.” But recovery was truly forged in the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship.

Fitzgerald has operated close to three dozen different, mostly part-time businesses, she says, from typing to pet sitting to real estate sales. “I had limited education. I had limited opportunities,” she says. So to pay the bills, “it became: What can I do to make extra money?”

She did earn more, but chasing dollars wasn’t the only reason for the rapid shifts from one business to another. “I would get to a point where it was right on the verge of success, and I would sabotage myself,” she says. When a friend helped her see this, she went into counseling and spent 3 years tackling a nagging lack of self-worth. Fitzgerald also got to work creating what she considers to be a powerful trifecta — business, coaching and healing — for a stable and healthy life.

A Recovery Tool

Handmade by Survivors products

GreenHouse17 residents make and sell products branded as Handmade by Survivors.

Women who have been abused have healing to do before they can wholeheartedly take on business ownership, but entrepreneurship can play a role in that healing, says Darlene Thomas, executive director of GreenHouse17, a Lexington, Ky., agency and shelter.

GreenHouse17, which serves survivors of intimate-partner violence in 17 Kentucky counties, is located on a 40-acre farm where it grows much of its own food. With a $1.8 million annual budget, it offers traditional services like counseling and legal advocacy as well as yoga, spaces for sewing and making art, and horses. It also offers microloans, a program that matches savings for things like eyeglasses, school books or a car as well as opportunities to participate in microenterprises.

“Most survivors are here not just because they’re abused, but because they’re homeless and economically not able to survive,” Thomas says. “The crisis is in that whole person who’s coming to us.”

In addition to food, the farm grows flowers, which it sells locally. Residents may choose to work in the flower business or in a separate enterprise that sells handmade products, such as candles, lip balms, salves and soaps, via an Etsy shop. Participants earn a small stipend and get an opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship.

The 5-year-old microenterprise program earned about $40,000 last year, enough to its cover expenses and the stipends, which earn participants up to $600 over about 6 weeks. They work only about 10 hours a week, including 2 hours for reflection through journaling or art.

Some participants are also beginning to dream up their own ventures, she says. GreenHouse17 recently helped one woman, a single mom with two jobs, think through a business plan for a future venture making piñatas, a craft that runs in her family.

“We talk about ‘added value’” as a business term, and “we try to use that same idea regarding our families,” Thomas says. “They bring value, not only to themselves and their families, but to this community,” she explains. “They are much more than their victimization.”

Posted: March 28, 2017

Riva RichmondA Surprising Path Out of Domestic Abuse: Entrepreneurship