Featured case:
Made by Survivors: Business Solutions for a Social Problem

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The case

Who – the protagonists

Sarah Symons, a musician, and her husband, investment banker, John Berger, founders of Made by Survivors.

What

Made by Survivors (MBS) is a for-profit company fully owned by the non-profit TENS Charities (The Emancipation Network). John called this organisational arrangement a hybrid-model social enterprise.

It was set up to help survivors of trafficking – girls and women transported from Nepal, Bangladesh, and rural areas in India across national and state borders to be sold in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune and other large Indian cities.

MBS originally raised funds in the US by selling a range of handicrafts made by survivors in Nepal. Opening a store or selling online were originally rejected as too costly in favour of home-party networks – an idea that began in the 1950s with Tupperware parties, and was reinvigorated in the early new millennium with jewellery, beauty, and other companies catering to women.

Why

Sarah was at the Tribeca Film Festival in connection with her musical career and watched a screening of the film, The Day My God Died. She was deeply moved and inspired by the film’s message of empowerment and hope. ‘I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I just knew that I was going to do something,’ she said.

When

Sarah first saw the film that changed her life in 2003. She visited Nepal in 2004 and made her first purchasing trip to the country for the newly created MBS company in 2005. By 2006, John had decided to give up his banking career to work for MBS fulltime.

Where

Sarah and John lived near Boston, Massachusetts, but later relocated to Florida where it was less costly to run the business. Its jewellery outlet now sells exquisite handcrafted items online.

Key quote

‘I met John for lunch after the movie and said, “I just saw this movie and it’s going to change my life”, and I didn’t say, “and yours”, which I should I have, because it did in the end change both our lives.’ – Sarah Symons

What next?

By 2012, Sarah’s ambition was to multiply MBS sales to millions of dollars, enabling the employment of thousands of survivors. Would it be possible? Should the issue of sex trafficking and the stories of survivors remain part of the marketing? ‘It got us from zero to $200,000 in sales,’ said Sarah, ‘but can it get us from there to a million dollars?'

 
The protagonists

The insiders’ view

Sarah Symons and John Berger, founders of Made by Survivors, explain the benefits of taking part in a case.

Triumphs and mistakes

We learned a huge amount from participating in the case. For us, it was an opportunity to look at our triumphs as well as our mistakes and failures. We were able to review them with the objective perspective of the academics, helping us to remove the emotion from the analysis, and to perceive what happened in a cool, distanced way. When you lay it all out as a road map, or when the academics do, you can see the logic of your choices and the progress flowing from that. It is both a humbling and a deeply encouraging process. 

Pivot points, not failures

Kiril Alexandrov

We’d like students who study this case and want to run any kind of business to understand that they must flex with the circumstances and be willing to have big pivot points.  Without them we’d still be doing home parties on Cape Cod. You’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to accept when ideas that seem brilliant aren’t working. Those are extremely uncomfortable moments, to be sure, but they should not be seen as a big deal or as a personal failure, but rather as pivot points that are part of any organisation’s growth plan.

Sarah has written a book about her experiences of working with survivors. called This Is No Ordinary Joy.
The authors
Authors

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg and Gaurab Bhardwaj

Elizabeth and Gaurab describe the emotional impact of this case and why any business can draw key lessons from it. Elizabeth currently serves as Chair of the Board of Made By Survivors (MBS).

Difficult decisions

Made by SurvivorsTime after time, MBS has faced decisions that are made much more difficult because of the clients it serves.  It had to make hard decisions about not expanding programmes, for instance, or not taking on new projects that would serve more survivors; these were business decisions that were for the good of the whole (and that, in some cases, were necessary for the survival of the business) but that were extremely difficult in terms of the social impact. 

Emotional impact

The life stories of the survivors create a deep emotional impact, both on students in addressing the case, and for the principals in the business. But recognition of their dignity has guided all of our business decisions, from our refusal to sensationalise their stories to raise funds, to our emphasis on training them in high-status, high-wage employment.

Inspirational for any business

Sarah and John’s story is inspiring for any business. Not only their achievements against all the odds, but in particular their entrepreneurial thinking both in devising a business solution to a social problem, but then in their ongoing nimbleness and flexibility in pivoting whenever a business decision did not seem to be leading to the desired outcome. 

Tremendous story

Indian studentWe wanted to highlight Sarah’s tremendous story to help students imagine how they would react to an issue or problem that deeply moves them, but also to show how someone who was ‘all business’ (John, the investment banker) could be moved to apply those skills to a serious social problem – and really make a difference in doing so.

Multi-disciplinary perspectives

This case can be taught from both business and social science perspectives as a study in management and entrepreneurship, or of the social problem of human trafficking and a rare approach to intervention beyond legal, criminal justice, or sociological perspectives.

The case allows students to access the foundational moment of an individual’s passion for solving a problem, and to unpack, step by step, how that passion can be transformed into concrete, effective, ethical action by an ‘ordinary person’ trying to make a difference.  Isn’t this the goal of so many students?

The accompanying video material provides context, enabling faculty to piece together a variety of narratives relating to issues of management or the contexts in which human trafficking and responses to it occur. This offers flexibility to enable learning from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

About the authors

Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg is Professor of English, Chair of Arts and Humanities Division at Babson College.   
egoldberg@babson.edu

Gaurab Bhardwaj is Associate Professor, Louis J. Lavigne, Jr. Family Endowed Term Chair in Strategy & Planning at Babson College
gbhardwaj@babson.edu

 
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Made by Survivors: Business Solutions for a Social Problem
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