This is the first article in a series of blog posts that describe how Cisco enables nonprofits to maximize technology for greater scale and impact. Our introduction to the series is available here. To read more articles in the series, click here. Stay tuned for next week’s post on how a nonprofit uses technology to address access to education.

From Being Coerced into Sex Work to Finding Opportunities to Grow

According to the UN’s International Labor Organization, more than 40 million individuals are victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Many survivors of human trafficking find themselves in a cycle of exploitation. Despite an increase in the awareness of human trafficking, many survivors struggle to find long-term employment with a living wage and therefore are at higher risk of returning to their trafficker or being re-exploited.  “We see a pattern where many survivors are stuck in a cycle of exploitation, where they return to their trafficker or are re-exploited because they don’t have the economic means and support structures to permanently break that cycle of exploitation,” said Charu Adesnik, deputy director of the Cisco Foundation, and manager of the economic empowerment investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.

Catie HartCatie Hart, now 40, was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. She moved to San Francisco to spend a year with AmeriCorp before starting college. Catie was only 18 when she was coerced into sex work by a man who tricked her into thinking he was her boyfriend. In reality, her trafficker was posing as a boyfriend to build trust. He exploited her for seven years. Catie’s trafficker forced her to work in a strip club that also functioned as a brothel. Sleep deprivation was an effective way to control her, and Catie’s trafficker brainwashed her into working 100 hours per week. “In the fifth year, I started to sleep in a closet. I was able to think more clearly, and that is when things started to get better,” Catie said.

She was able to escape after a woman let her sleep on her couch. Eventually, Catie was able to rent an extra room, and she began trauma therapy. Catie started community college when she was 29, but she still struggled with trauma and anxiety. “It was a re-socialization process. I got accepted into UC Berkeley and did an internship at the San Francisco police department. I heard the pimps and saw they all sounded alike, and I started to get upset because it happens because of the abusers, not because of the victims.” Catie earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Berkeley. Afterward, she built a consultancy training child welfare and law enforcement for the state of California. “Even though I did everything right, I felt like I could not create an identity beyond ‘survivor,’” Catie said.

While at a networking event, Catie met the co-founders of AnnieCannons. Based in Oakland, California, AnnieCannons is a nonprofit whose mission is 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 making discoveries about astronomy and astrophysics. The scientific community did not acknowledge these women, and they faced feelings of invisibility, just as the survivors of human trafficking experience similar feelings.

AnnieCannons co-founders Jessica Hubley and Laura Hackney met at Stanford while working on a project that highlights the stories of trafficking survivors. Jessica and Laura wanted to focus on the idea of creating economic opportunities for individuals who survived human trafficking. They founded AnnieCannons in 2015, intending to make it a financially sustainable enterprise for social change by 2022. After working in their office space and spending more time there, Catie realized she wanted to be a student.

“It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” she explained.  I feel like I finally have a space in this world where the past doesn’t define me. I have challenges and options and so much growth opportunity. It doesn’t reinforce the victim’s identity, and trauma doesn’t mean you have to exist in your past.”

The support that Cisco provides to AnnieCannons goes directly to their training program and instructional staff. By supporting organizational growth, Cisco has helped AnnieCannons reach more people and deepen their impact, while their business model strengthens their financial sustainability.  At AnnieCannons, training starts in the coding boot camp. During boot camp, students learn in-demand tech skills. Students quickly transition to earning income through subcontracted project work from outside companies. The leadership team at AnnieCannons handles all client sourcing, business development, and quality control so survivors can focus 100% on project-based learning and client work.

Charu recognizes that what sets AnnieCannons apart from other organizations that train or retrain survivors of human trafficking is their holistic approach. They provide a supportive and safe atmosphere and combine that with high-skilled technical training and connections to employment. AnnieCannons provides meals, and covers the cost of transportation, as well as childcare services for mothers. They also offer all of the computer equipment for free so students can study. “They address all aspects of what survivors need – technical skills training, coaching and mentoring, hands-on project experience and income generating opportunities, and supportive services.  At the same time, AnnieCannons offers high quality services to paying clients, enabling them to run an efficient and financially viable business,” said Charu.

In addition to the skills training, each cohort has an opportunity to build a product that fights human trafficking or gender-based violence. Students have the first-hand experience of the needs of individuals who are in the cycle of human trafficking and are better able to create a meaningful user experience. “The problem with software is that it isn’t helping people when it is designed by those who lack knowledge about the user experience. We want to do a lot more with projects made start-to-finish by people who have first-hand experience,” explained Jessica.

Over 90 percent of the students in the last two AnnieCannons classes have found work in tech either for AnnieCannons or for an outside company. For those who work for AnnieCannons, they’ve seen incomes increase each quarter – and the top monthly income for a student in 2019 was $9,198.  After going through the program in 2018, Catie became a teacher’s assistant and lecturer at AnnieCannons. Catie describes the impact that AnnieCannons has had on her life.

“It has been an incredible journey. When I first got away from the trafficker, there weren’t the advocates and services like there are now. I engaged with dozens of them and haven’t seen anything close to AnnieCannons. Being a survivor of long-term complex trauma takes a lot of resources. It is challenging to put into words how important it is, and how every single being needs to feel like they have a purpose. Companies and careers, in general, are not built for people with PTSD. I want people to understand that survivors of abuse are the hardest workers. We will keep hacking life until it runs more smoothly.”

Want more? Here are the other pieces in this series: 


Stacey Faucett

Manager, Sustainability Communications Governance and Compliance

Chief Sustainability Office