A business trip to India changed the life of one social entrepreneur, and now he’s proving your gym habit can a life-changer for enslaved women.
When Ryan and April Berg first pitched investors on their business plan for a new athleisure brand, the response wasn’t exactly encouraging. The big idea? A brand that would provide sustainable employment and holistic care for women rescued from sexual slavery in India.
Despite the cool investor response, the Bergs never wavered in their objective. The Aruna Project finally launched its website in January 2014 after five years of meticulous research and planning,.
“Creating a consumer brand is one layer of challenge and difficulty,” said Ryan. “Doing it internationally is another layer. Doing it ethically and sustainably is another. And then, you’re layering in a workforce that has undergone exceptional trauma.”
Business as (Un)Usual
The first step on this long and winding road was a 2008 work trip to India. “I had seen a little news ticker line on TV one day about 12 children that had been rescued from a brothel. I looked more into it and was floored when I realized it was where I was going for business,” Ryan said.
He decided it was something he had to see for himself.
“I went into this brothel. I remember the smell of stale urine. It was the middle of the afternoon and it was pitch black inside, so my eyes were adjusting, but as they were, I could see rats moving everywhere. And I could hear the sound of abuse before I even went up the stairs.” Ryan was only in the brothel for a few minutes, but he remembers it with utter clarity. “I had never seen slavery face-to-face like that.”
Shortly after Ryan returned to the U.S. from that trip, the Bergs went back to India as a family, determined to not just do something about the devastation sex trafficking had wrought on women in that community, but figure out how to do it sustainably.
“We became embedded in the area for a number of months, trying to figure out ‘what are the systemic issues that have led to this?’” Ryan said. “We met with every organization we could to understand who was doing what, if it was effective, and if not, why not—just trying to figure out if we could bring any sort of solution.”
From Bondage to Hope
One statistic reported by counter-trafficking agencies was especially troubling: In some areas, as many as 8 out of 10 women freed from the sex trade eventually find themselves back in the brothel system. For Aruna to be effective, the Bergs knew they’d have to account for the social and economic forces that pulled women into the brothel system to begin with, and often pulled them back in after being freed.
“Sustainable employment was one of the most significant issues,” Ryan said. “There was no landing place once a woman was freed [and finished with] after-care.”
That’s where the Aruna business model kicks in. Through a series of sponsored runs and other events in the US, Aruna’s nonprofit arm supports year-round operations at the Aruna Training Center in the heart of Mumbai’s red light area. There, women are provided with hot meals, trauma-focused counseling, and financially incentivized Skill and Trade development.
The incentive to learn the textile trade is critical. From the start, Ryan and April recognized it would be important that Aruna not buy young women out of the brothel system because that would entail participating in the system that has reduced women to property for purchase.
Instead, women who transition to employment with Aruna discover dignity and the power of choice as well as community with others who’ve also made the journey out of sexual slavery to stable work and income.
Those artisans then create functional luxury athleisure accessories, including bags and headbands. As business grows, Aruna expands the incentivized skills training and creates new employment opportunities for women yet to be freed — creating a virtuous cycle of work, freedom, and hope.
Ethical by Design
Aruna’s holistic care model—which includes transitional housing, a living wage well above the industry and regional average, benefits like retirement and healthcare, and individualized counseling—is built into the business. That would be impressive enough, but the Bergs extended their focus to the cultural side of the business model, too.
“We wanted to make sure that we’re not importing Western culture,” Ryan said. “We tried to ask, ‘What is just? What is right? What is good?’ that maybe transcends culture. One of the key things we’ve done is that all of our management-level team members in India are indigenous staff—they’re all Indian. That has taken years for us to develop those relationships and the right skill mix. It helps so that they can push back and help us know if we’re trying to import something that is not good.”
Early in the process of ensuring their business model was comprehensive and ethical, Ryan admits they learned a lot. As an example, to uphold Aruna’s commitment to valuing people over process, product, and profit, Ryan discovered they would need to own the manufacturing unit rather than the cheaper option of outsourcing.
“I’m 100% aware of the fact that if the person doing the brand on this side of the world visits the operations abroad, that manufacturing unit can shift things for that one person making that one trip.”
In other words, by owning the manufacturing facilities, Aruna can ensure consistent quality for its products, and more importantly, consistent quality of life for its artisans.
What’s in a Name?
Those women are a key part of the Aruna brand, and the Artisan Stories published regularly on the website can be vivid, haunting, and inspiring all at once. But the Bergs try to handle this storytelling with extreme care. As a rule, they won’t use a woman’s name, photo, likeness, or story unless they’ve been given explicit permission.
Priya, Nazma, Shareefa—these are just some of the women building a safe and secure future with the help of Aruna. The names can help to personalize an issue that seems impersonal in its vast scale, and they also connect maker to buyer as the artisans sew their names into the lining of each product they create.
The names can be aspirational, too. According to Ryan, folks who’ve raised money for enslaved women by name through past Aruna Runs will start to see the names of those same women inside upcoming products, as some have since been freed and are now among Aruna’s artisans.
The Bergs do have their sights set on carefully growing the Aruna model to employ more women. The hope has always been that building a successful model in India—a country with a pronounced poverty and modern slavery landscape—will help prepare Aruna to replicate and shift to also work in other places, including the Bergs’ own tri-state area surrounding Cincinnati.
Spend for Good: Aruna’s Indian artisans create a variety of functional, durable, and sharp-looking headbands and bags made of eco-friendly materials—all of which can be found in Aruna’s online store and ship for free. Asked what Aruna’s best-seller is, Ryan didn’t hesitate to point to the Sonu Backpack.