A “High Return on Investment”

I didn’t actually expect to enjoy a conference on business. I recently attended a BAM (Business as Missions) conference where 530 people from 41 nations came together to listen, ask questions, and learn about the potential and impact of BAM businesses (business as mission) in transforming society. The attendees were from a broad spectrum of professionals to the curious and speculating. It was for the most part down to earth (there were only a few times I wished for a glossary of business terms!) and it was even a spiritual experience. I spoke on a panel for freedom businesses and shared in a break out session on NightLight’s freedom business for women coming out of prostitution. I hadn’t expected to enjoy the conference but I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged.

I am the CEO and Founder of a freedom business. NightLight Design is a registered Thai company, which offers alternative employment to women coming out of or at risk of exploitation in the sex industry. I didn’t come into this with a business background and honestly if I had known in advance what I was really getting into I probably would have been too intimidated to continue. While extremely rewarding (other than financially) it has been an uphill struggle against all odds.

As a freedom business, we hire those who are rarely qualified by skill or expertise. Most have not completed high school and have no references. These women have been exploited by traffickers, pimps, men, their families, their religion, and their governments. They come to us in survival mode. While we aim to make a profit as a business, our primary goal is to offer jobs of dignity to women and to see their personal and family lives transformed. It’s a costly venture, with a lot of overhead in staff and programs for personal development. We have assisted over 160 women out of prostitution, but we struggle to make a profit.

The funding session at the conference got my attention. I would love to see the company thrive and grow so that we can hire many more women. There are an estimated 15,000 women in prostitution in our area, most of whom would love to be offered an alternative. People think it is hard to get women out of prostitution but if they have a good alternative, it isn’t hard. So, I was hopeful that I would hear good news at the funding session. Instead what I heard was not the views of the BAM movement and was quite disappointing. Investors are looking for low risk opportunities with a high return on investments. That pretty much rules out most freedom businesses.

Human trafficking is in second place for illegal global crime reaping profits for the traffickers of around $7 billion a year. I doubt that even takes into account the profits from prostitution globally. What human traffickers have discovered is that the highest return on their investment is in the buying and selling of human beings. It is greed that drives traffickers to seek a high return on their investment at any cost, including the exploitation, abuse, and destruction of vulnerable human beings. The women we encounter on the streets and in the bars have been broken down to believe that their lives are only as valuable as the financial gain they can make for their exploiters and dependents.

As a freedom business we aim to combat these lies and abuses through holistic life-empowering jobs and after care.  We do not want to perpetuate these lies by hiring them with the underlying goal of making a profit off of them. We try to help these women believe that their lives are valuable and that they are not commodities to be bought and sold, or exploited for monetary gain. We believe that by our investing in them we will see their lives transformed. When their lives are transformed it impacts their families and then society. There is a financial gain that takes place for the woman, and then for her family, and ultimately for society, but to see that happen it often comes at a sacrifice to the degree of company profit. As a business, we do aim to make a profit so that we can invest in creating more jobs and seeing more life transformation. As a freedom business the value we place on transformation in the lives of these women is so high that we are willing to sacrifice a high financial return on investment for what we believe is a greater return.

At the heart of the BAM movement is the intent and desire to do business in a way that impacts the kingdom and glorifies God. The quadruple bottom line for BAM is economic, social, environmental, and spiritual. An emphasis on economic gain while neglecting the other three areas, has contributed significantly to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, which has in turn contributed to the vulnerability of humans to trafficking. Maybe it’s time to swing the pendulum to the other side and to begin to invest with less of a focus on financial profit and more on quality of life for employees, families, and communities. Discussions among the BAM community are taking place on these very issues and that is encouraging. Still, my challenge to the business world and to the investors is to consider that when it comes to freedom businesses, the high return may not reap a profit for the pocket but will be seen through the freedom of women from the sex trade and the compounded impact that has on society. Maybe it is time to redefine “high return”.

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