This Entrepreneurship Program Helps Survivors of Domestic Violence Rebuild Their Lives

Left: Ana Zimmermann; Right: GIFTED employees | Photo: Courtesy of FreeFrom; Design: Mia Coleman
Left: Ana Zimmermann; Right: GIFTED employees | Photo: Courtesy of FreeFrom; Design: Mia Coleman

Relationship abuse — a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to gain or maintain control over a partner — occurs more often than many of us realize. This can happen in many ways including emotional abuse, physical abuse, and financial abuse. Typically multiple types of abuse occur within an abusive relationship. According to a report from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four women and one in 10 men experience severe physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. When stay-at-home orders were in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate at which these occurrences happened increased by eight percent in what has become known as the shadow pandemic.

Even when survivors find a way to leave these dangerous situations, they often have little to no money and nowhere to live. That was the case for Ana Zimmermann, director of GIFTED, the online store of FreeFrom, an organization that helps survivors of gender-based domestic violence start over through an entrepreneurship program. After she moved from El Salvador to Los Angeles in 2009, she found a job in customer service at a retail store, where she met her children's father. "It was the typical relationship where you get into everything so fast," she says. Within three months of meeting, Zimmermann was pregnant with their first child. The two decided to move in together — having their second child two years later — but their relationship quickly started to take a turn.

In 2016, after years of abuse from her partner, Zimmermann decided to leave. "I feared for my life and my kids' lives," she says. Zimmermann and her two daughters lived in a shelter in Los Angeles where residents would create thank you cards and letters for donors of the shelter. However, Zimmermann found making cards more than a duty; it became a part of her therapeutic and healing practice. Eventually others caught on to her natural talents and encouraged her to use her gifts to start a business. "I remember people at the shelter used to tell me, 'You should start selling your cards or thinking about selling your cards.'"

In nothing short of divine timing, in 2017, Zimmermann learned about FreeFrom. Through the program, Zimmermann and other aspiring entrepreneurs were given the necessary financial tools, resources, and collective support to flourish in their own business and in life. "I didn't even know what entrepreneur meant," says Zimmermann. "I learned a lot about that, about business models, and setting goals through the program." The program was so successful that FreeFrom created their shop, GIFTED, in 2018 to allow survivors to sell their products, including Zimmermann's ELLI Greetings cards.

GIFTED offers a line of soaps, body butters and scrubs, oils, body soufflés, and candles. They also sell gift boxes with a mix of varying products that are aimed to provide aromatherapy, relaxation and peace of mind. A few of the products include Dead Sea Salt Soak, Relaxation Mist, Rose Body Soufflé, and a Love Potion Essential Oil Roll-On. They also carry a zodiac-inspired collection of candles, oils, and soaps that make perfect gifts for that special sign in your life. For the gift-giving holidays, there's also a seasonal collection where you can buy curated gift boxes and wholesome greeting cards for all of your loved ones.

GIFTED employee | Photo: Courtesy of FreeFrom; Design: Mia Coleman

GIFTED is not just an online shop of beautiful products (though checking out the Bath and Body section should be on everyone's holiday shopping to-do list): it's a doorway into a new life for survivors to find financial independence where institutional systems have failed them. The GIFTED program is a full circle enterprise, from the ethically-sourced products to the living wage of $38.46 per hour received by the workers who create, package, and ship the products to their customers.

"I can never finish telling everybody how working for FreeFrom has completely transformed and changed my life, my kids' lives," she says. "I got out of the shelter and I went to a Section 8 apartment, and little by little I stopped depending on government assistance to being 100 percent on my own with my kids. It was so life-changing."

Along with a loyal customer base, generous donations from supporters push the efforts of their mission so much further. One such donation comes from The Allstate Foundation, who is committed to supporting the financial empowerment of survivors through cash assistance, matching savings, and credit rebuilding programs, in addition to social entrepreneurship endeavors like GIFTED. With this in mind, this holiday season, The Allstate Foundation is contributing $250,000 to FreeFrom to further their goal of supporting survivors' financial security and long-term safety.

"The fact that the products support self-care and wellness makes them even more special," says Sharisse Kimbro, Program Officer at The Allstate Foundation. "We recently surprised 600 domestic violence advocates with GIFTED products alongside handwritten notes from Allstate employees to remind those who give so much to others to remember to give to themselves."

Zimmerman echoes this sentiment for the GIFTED employees. "Everything goes back to survivors. We pay the survivors that work there, we have more hours for survivors. We order more products, we have more sales, and everything that we do is kind of like a circle," Zimmermann says. The initial sales from her own GIFTED shop helped Zimmermann dig herself out of a financial hole as well. "I left my ex with like $10 in my pocket. I didn't have a bank account, because it was overdrafted, so they closed my account. I didn't have good credit. I didn't have a car. I didn't have a driver's license," she says.

Though the long-lasting financial benefits of the support from FreeFrom and GIFTED are substantial, it's the internal community that's built between the survivors that's truly remarkable. "We created this little community of survivor-entrepreneurs," Zimmermann says. "There's one entrepreneur that makes our body soufflés and our body sprays. She fractured both of her hands in the beginning of 2020 and she had to complete a lot of orders. I don't know how to make soufflés, but she was guiding us and teaching us how to do it."

Left: Ana Zimmermann and her children; Right: GIFTED employees | Photo: Courtesy of FreeFrom; Design: Mia Coleman

Zimmermann also notes how the survivors are able to "share space and hold each other's stories" in a way that feels safe and comforting, a benefit of working with others who share similar lived experiences. "Sometimes our lunch breaks are reminiscing about how our lives have changed in the past six or seven years," she says. "Sometimes, we even cry during lunch and it's so emotional, but it's kind of like therapy."

As FreeFrom and GIFTED continue to grow, Zimmermann is looking forward to creating more opportunities for survivors. "Right now, we have two full-time employees, and two part-time employees. I want to get to a place where the part-time employees become full-time employees," she says. "That's one of my biggest goals: keep growing GIFTED and hire more survivors and get more entrepreneurs."

For those who have loved ones who are dealing with domestic violence, Zimmermann says the best support you can give (outside of financial support) is a listening ear. "You don't judge, because whoever that person is is scared and is trying to figure out how to leave," she says. "You cannot force anybody. You cannot say it over and over again like, 'You should leave. You need to leave.' Because they already know that. They're just finding the right time and the right opportunity to do it."

For survivors, the best advice Zimmermann says she can give is to keep people who love you close and lean on community bonds. "It's probably one of the hardest things that you're going to go through, but it's important that they keep their community — that they surround themselves with people that will positively help them," Zimmermann says. "It's not an easy journey or road, but if they keep consistent and they surround themselves with their community, they can do it. I always tell them, 'If I made it, you can do it, too. You can do it.'"

The Allstate Foundation is committed to disrupting the cycle of relationship abuse. Join The Allstate Foundation in helping survivors make financial leaps by shopping GIFTED this holiday season.