As part of a recent class, a group of students at Imperial College Business School in London was broken into teams to put together a rocket and launch it without hitting any of the fancy cars parked nearby. Usually at least one or two groups fail.
This time, though, every team succeeded. This time, the students were all victims of human trafficking who have been forced into sweatshop work and other involuntary labor. They were all looking to start a new life, and the program at Imperial, a two-week certificate program in entrepreneurship, was designed specifically to help them do that.
“Not everything is rocket science,” says “Jane,” now a senior manager at a retail flagship who finished the program in 2009, who spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek on condition of anonymity. “You can become someone if you put your mind to it. We all got the message.”
The program is offered every summer by Imperial and Her Equality, Rights and Autonomy (HERA), an London-based organization that encourages entrepreneurship among women like Jane as a way to fight trafficking. HERA and Imperial recently committed to continue their partnership for the next five years.
“Some of these women will go out and do amazing things,” says Lynellyn D. Long, chair of trustees and co-founder of HERA. “The business school will be happy it supported them.”
About 25 women per year—a total of about 130 so far—have participated in the program since its inception in 2008. Some have gone on to build small businesses, among them a hair salon, a home-cleaning business, and a bakery. During the program, business school professors teach participants how to identify their strengths and weaknesses, finance their ideas, and create business plans. Two weeks after the women complete the program, they return to Imperial College for two days to present their ideas.
Participants also benefit from mentorship all year long. The goal is to build a culture of networking that will help them—and even their mentors—accomplish their goals, say organizers.
“I’ve learned as much as I’ve taught,” says Pamina Bou, a HERA trustee and a mentor.
MBA students at Imperial have also had the chance to mentor participants in the course. They help organize and deliver portions of the program, such as events and guest speakers. Some MBA students help teach key skills, such as using IT resources and social media in your startup. It benefits the MBA students as well as the women in the entrepreneurship program, says Hamza Siddiq, MBA program manager at Imperial. “We’re committed to the cause and to helping our students get a bigger picture beyond the bottom line,” he says.
Jane, who came from Moldova in Eastern Europe, says she learned how to be professional, shake hands with colleagues, and communicate her ideas. Ultimately, she credits the program with giving her the confidence to land her current job and to contemplate starting a business of her own.
“There were so many little things that made such a difference,” says Jane. “You’d come home at the end of the day, and you’d be so proud of yourself.”