Based in Oakland, California, AnnieCannons is on a mission to help women break the cycle of exploitation by providing skills training, hands-on work experience, income opportunities, and a supportive work environment. AnnieCannons is named after American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, who led a group of women in the early 20th century in making discoveries about astronomy and astrophysics. The scientific community did not initially acknowledge these women, despite the incredible innovations and contributions they were making, just as the talents and potential of survivors of human trafficking remain overlooked and under-appreciated.
AnnieCannons’ co-founders, Jessica Hubley and Laura Hackney, met at Stanford while independently researching trafficking survivors’ stories. Jessica and Laura wanted to help individuals who have survived human trafficking to build their economic power through high-skills, high income earning potential training ─ something that hadn’t been done before. They founded AnnieCannons in 2015, with the aim of making it a financially sustainable enterprise for social change.
“AnnieCannons has a proven model that empowers survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence to be champions of their future. At Cisco, we are committed to supporting innovative non-profits organizations that enable all people to achieve their full potential, and are proud to partner with AnnieCannons,” said Charu Adesnik, deputy director of the Cisco Foundation, and manager of the economic empowerment investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.
We recently sat down with CEO and co-founder Jessica to learn more about how AnnieCannons has adapted to the pandemic, how they are reaching their goals earlier than expected, and creating more opportunities for their students and instructors.
How has AnnieCannons adapted its operations and responded to the pandemic?
The first thing we did was deliver our class remotely, which presented a challenge for some students who did not have connectivity or the tools they needed. To increase access, we set people up with mobile WiFi units and mobile connectivity if they didn’t have it, checked computers out to students, and set up a video class. We have been quite pleasantly surprised by how well that’s worked. Ultimately, we still want to have our classes at least partly in person, though. We know that survivors have overwhelmingly had the impression that they don’t matter. Having somebody on a teaching team look them in the eye and ask how they are doing is fundamental. The bond that gets created, from in-person contact during the first few weeks of class, and hearing from peers who have been through something similar and are experiencing the same insecurities, gives survivors the confidence to learn to code.
One unexpected thing that has happened during the quarantine is that our students seem more interested in continuing learning and maintaining connections through digital spaces. With in-person instruction, students typically check-out when class is over. Now, we have found that students voluntarily watch videos and do more learning on their own. We’ve had the highest attendance scores of any cohort with the remote class, which we attribute, in large part, to a kind of yearning for greater connection. Our graduate instructors, teaching for their first time have had the fastest progress of any class so far, with a hundred percent success rate at each of the touchpoints when we do formal assessments.
Can you explain how Annie Cannons works?
AnnieCannons has three parts. The training program is the boot camp, the agency is where we source and manage client projects that our graduates work on, and the incubator is where we build technologies ideated by our students. We were already partially remote at the agency, so that transition has been seamless.
We typically match our contractors with client projects based on their skills and availability, and from there, they manage the work that needs to get done. We support the client relationship and work quality, but our aim is to give our graduates full project ownership without them having to worry about any distractions or disruptions. One of the newest clients we are excited to work with is the United Nations University, whose mission is to resolve the most pressing global problems through research and education. Our graduates are building data visualizations for their site to create a global knowledge platform to fight trafficking. The potential impact this work has and the direct role that AnnieCannons’ graduates are playing is truly incredible. We’ve also worked with universities, nonprofits and companies, like Enigma, to build websites, databases, and other custom software. Over time, our graduates have worked on projects for more than 76 external clients.
What unexpected benefits have you experienced from this transition?
Since March, the organizational revenue we generate from client projects rebounded very quickly, which was an unexpected and much welcomed surprise. And now, that revenue is growing. June was our highest gross revenue month in the agency ever, followed by the second-highest in May. That shows the corresponding increase in economic power that we can deliver so our people have more money to support their families. Seeing the agency revenue grow like this, with no interruption in our lead volume and 100 percent client retention, was unexpected. We anticipate there might be some more calls for people to bring their business online, which means more opportunities for AnnieCannons to help and our graduates to work.
Our goal was always to be self-sustaining: to have the agency revenue to cover the cost of operating the agency, the nonprofit’s overhead, and at least part of the training program. As a result of this unexpected spike in revenue, our timeline to self-sustainability is happening more quickly than we thought. We are now pushing the gas pedal harder on our incubator technologies, most of which have some application to allow survivors of trafficking and abuse to get help, justice, and the care they need more quickly and efficiently by leveraging technology.
When we do get grant funding to build these impact technologies they become training projects for survivors who are growing their skills. There are a lot of touchpoints we can address with technology that all come from ideas that survivors have had about what would help them the most. The top three of those projects could mean that our team of thirty people can impact thirty million lives in two years. That is the kind of magnification that I think the incubator always targeted, and I’m excited to pursue it.
Can you share any new developments with us that have emerged from your response?
Our priority is to help the people we train advance quickly. We are continuing our instructor training process, so we have two instructors and two TAs whose salaries are funded by Cisco’s grant. They are co-teaching right now, and they will solo teach next. Co-teaching is something that gives a little bit of extra support as they’re experiencing their first time being an instructor.
Now that you are virtual, how are you continuing to support survivors of human trafficking?
We are trying to provide for the survivors who are moms. We’ve sent desks, toys, and diapers to our students through different donors, and tablets so their kids can watch videos while they learn. We also used to get meals delivered to our office by Replate, and now they are bringing free meals directly to students at their homes.
We feel like there’s plenty that we can do to help our people, and I don’t think there’s any such thing as too much mental health care. We’ve hosted a couple of wellness workshops, just teaching people mindfulness techniques and different ways of managing panic and anxiety flareups. We are also introducing more virtual opportunities for people to get peer support or support from licensed professionals in dealing with our new reality and their traumatic past.
In terms of mental health, I think that everyone in the world is experiencing a certain kind of trauma right now. But the members of our community have managed feelings that come from being confined or restricted in their past. And they have had to fight through that to be alive.
What have you learned that may change how you deliver services and support your community in the future?
Overall, the organization is in what I call chrysalis mode. I want to take our team of staff, contractors, and students and upskill them. We want to accelerate how they’re learning advanced, full-stack technologies.
The next thing we’re going to do is decouple our ramp-up program, which is the phase between the boot camp and when people work at the agency for clients. We will provide structured projects that pay stipends, in which students can demonstrate their grasp of the skills and how efficient they are, and learn what went well in the projects. This will give people the practical experience that we know is necessary, but in a controlled environment.
We are also thinking about making websites for other nonprofit organizations, free of charge. It would be a way for some smaller nonprofits to get a website out into the world and also a way for our developers to learn.
Are you interested in learning more about AnnieCannons and its mission to help trafficking survivors obtain a sustainable income through coding? Visit anniecannons.org to find out how you can get involved.