This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
“Why should I tell you anything about my story? People like you exploit us for our story, which makes you no different than the people who exploit us for our bodies!”
Those were the words that set Dr. Vanessa Bouché on a new path. A professor at Texas Christian University, she had brought her students to India in the summer of 2017 to study human trafficking and hear firsthand from survivors.
So when one survivor lashed out unexpectedly, Vanessa invited her to elaborate.
“We need dignified employment to get out of this dirty business,” the woman said, voicing the frustration of so many other survivors. In the sprawling Indian sex trade, girls are sometimes sold into brothels as young as 5 years old, and by the time they are rescued as adults, they have no real concept of home, freedom, or future.
Immediately and instinctively, Vanessa offered to help. What the survivors needed was a “new dawn” or a “new beginning” – savhera, in Hindi. Little did Vanessa know, that conversation would mark a new beginning for her, as well.
A Virtuous Cycle of Wellness
Nine months after the conversation in Delhi, Vanessa began making good on her promise with the launch of Savhera, a premium social impact brand that sells organic aromatherapy products and supports employment for survivors of sex trafficking.
But starting the company wasn’t her original plan. Vanessa recalls spending six months looking for an existing organization to support this woman exiting the brothel, but nothing checked all the necessary boxes.
What she wanted was a self-sustaining enterprise capable of supporting the full humanity of its employees, including their physical, intellectual, economic, and spiritual needs.
Usri Roy, a fellow researcher in sex trafficking originally from Kolkata, India, urged her not to get discouraged. “Vanessa, we need to start something,” she said. “If it doesn’t exist in Delhi, we need to build it from the ground up.”
And so, even without a specific product in mind, Vanessa and Usri began to lay out the criteria for their social impact business. It would need to:
- Honor Indian culture and heritage;
- Be consumable;
- Occupy a market niche with good growth potential; and
- Occupy a market niche that lacked a social impact brand option.
Vanessa says she also wanted a product that would “promote wellness, not only for our employees, but also for our customers and the planet. We call it a Virtuous Cycle of Wellness that begins with the earth and then cycles throughout.”
After months of research, only one product emerged to meet all the criteria: essential oils.
Since launching in September 2019, Savhera has carved out a unique position among essential oil brands. In an industry known for multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes that drive up retail prices, Savhera strives to be a reasonably-priced alternative for premium organic oils.
“Our pricing is a reflection of our values,” Vanessa says. “When you buy Savhera oils, you’re genuinely getting the ‘crème de la crème’ of essential oils” — for about half the cost of the big MLM brands.
Not only are Savhera oils certified USDA organic, but every batch is also third-party tested by an independent lab to ensure 100% purity. Testing includes gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and results are published online for added transparency.
Clearly Savhera is serious about self-care – but always with the added imperative of caring for others.
Every online order includes a personalized note from Ava, the fulfillment specialist in the U.S., reminding customers that they are making a direct impact on the lives of survivors like herself who face significant barriers to professional employment.
That impact is based on “dignified work” — the request that started it all. Team members in India earn double the local living wage for a regular, 40-hour week with paid time off, health insurance, maternity leave, and other “professional” perks.
Thinking Inside the Box
It’s about more than just production. Each workday, 90 minutes of their time is devoted to personal and professional development, whether that means learning how to budget and save or how to care for their physical health.
After a lifetime of extreme poverty and exploitation, many of these women have never picked up a book or ventured beyond the brothel district, so their daily training includes everything from learning how to read and write to learning how to use public transportation.
As they learn to meet their individual needs, the training gets broader, with a focus on family and community. From litter to public safety, the women learn to use their voice and their experience to create positive change for themselves and for others.
For the first time in their lives, these women are getting a clear message that they matter: “We tell them every single day that this is their company. Our team members have so many gifts that they have been forced to hide or never knew they had. Savhera is helping to bring those gifts to light.
“What’s more, they are the most resilient people I have ever known. Their grit and determination is unsurpassed. With this combination of gifts and grit, they will change the world!”
Within the Savhera family, experienced women become teachers for newcomers, passing along skills like math, literacy, and self-care that were once foreign to them.
To Vanessa, something as simple as a box — so often overlooked and taken for granted — is the perfect example of the difference that Savhera is making in the lives of survivors.
Savhera’s starter kits are little hexagonal works of art designed and crafted by women who only recently learned “how to measure and use a ruler and do basic math for the first time in their lives.” Vanessa can simply specify the number of bottles in a set, and the team will come up with dimensions, closure options, and other design features.
The women have become “box-making masters,” Vanessa marvels, and their handiwork has become a testament to Savhera’s model of hope and healing. Stamped into the underside of each lid is the following message:
“This box was handcrafted by a survivor of sexual exploitation. The paper was handmade by economically marginalized women. Everything about this box represents dignity + restoration.
“The box may not be perfect. It might have blemishes. These symbolize resilience and hope. From a scarred past to a new beginning. A Savhera.”
Spend for good: Visit the online store to shop Savhera’s full range of 100% pure, USDA certified organic essential oils including lavender, tea tree, frankincense, and many more. You’ll also find gift sets, diffusers, and the book Diffusing Dignity, featuring daily meditations on values such as integrity, equality, and excellence.
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