March 12, 2004
graduate student uses business savvy
Jennifer Van Vleet isn't one to let fear of the unknown keep her from pursuing life-changing opportunities, even if it means traveling solo to India to meet a man she knows only by first name who can teach her about his business in Calcutta that spares women from the horror of prostitution.
For her graduate project in Whitworth's Master of International Management Program, Van Vleet spent three days in Calcutta -- known in India as Kolkata -- where she met with Kerry, a native of New Zealand who lives with his family in the city's red-light district, and studied the business he operates, Freeset Bags. The business employs 30 women, formerly enslaved in prostitution, who now make Freeset Bags of jute, a vegetable-based fiber that is woven into a canvas-like material.
The bags, which can be silk screened and come in varieties including wine-bottle bags, and totes used for conferences and as gift bags, are currently being sold in New Zealand, Australia and some European countries. Van Vleet's mission is to help Freeset Bags gain market penetration in the United States.
"The more successful Freeset Bags is, the more women Kerry will be able to help," says Van Vleet, who will graduate in May. "Our goal is to harness the forces of capitalism to empower and uplift these women."
Van Vleet, who is employed full time as a marketing and business-development manager at Coffman Engineers, Inc., in Spokane, is working to develop relationships with wholesale retailers and distributors who will sell the bags in the United States. She is already achieving success: Coffman Engineers has purchased 1,000 bags to use as giveaways at its open-house parties, and Van Vleet and her work with Freeset Bags was recently the topic of a feature story, "Marketing Miracle," on KXLY News 4.
Kolkata, one of the largest cities in the world with a 2001 census population of 4.59 million, is the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal and serves as the commercial and industrial hub of eastern India.
Van Vleet traveled to Kolkata at the conclusion of a month-long Whitworth study program in Thailand, where she and other Master of International Management students studied the Thai economy and business environment, as well as the business culture of South East Asia. MIM students are required to complete a graduate project, and Dean of the School of Global Commerce and Management Kyle Usrey helped Van Vleet connect with Freeset Bags for her project.
"For my graduate project, I wanted to do something that really mattered and not just write a paper and get my degree," Van Vleet says. "I plan to help Freeset Bags beyond my degree requirements. I think that, if given the opportunity, we should use our education for good and to do something that counts."
As Freeset Bags' market base continues to grow, Kerry will be able to employ more women in addition to the 30 who already work for the company. He has been working for two years to purchase a larger building that has space for 300 women. Kerry estimates that 8,000 women work as prostitutes in the district in which Freeset Bags is located.
Freeset Bags employees helped renovate and clean their current building, which is small by U.S. standards but is an excellent facility in Kolkata, Van Vleet says. Twice a week Kerry's wife leads classes in which she teaches the women how to read and write in their native dialect.
Van Vleet, who has traveled in developing countries before, found her experience in India to be incomparable to other travels she's undertaken. She discovered that it is very difficult to conduct a business honestly in the midst of corruption, and saw first-hand the destructive effects the lucrative sex trade and human trafficking have on countries and their populaces.
"I was reminded that we who live in the U.S. or in a developed nation are really living several steps removed from what so much of the world population deals with daily: basic survival," Van Vleet says. "It was hard for me to sit a few feet away from a woman working at Freeset Bags and think about the atrocities that she has been through and know that she had to service men as a prostitute in order to live.
"I couldn't fathom her as anything less than a beautiful human creation, a child of God, and yet I knew that most of her life she was treated as nothing but an object. I don't think I could ever come close to understanding her experience."
Van Vleet once heard a friend say that his circle of tears - the people and issues he felt responsible to hurt for and help -- could only extend to his immediate environment. Van Vleet returned from India with a new take on that philosophy.
"Once you know what's out there, you lose that innocence of ignorance and you have a social responsibility to act," Van Vleet says. "I can't change the world, but I can try to do something about this particular issue, even if it's just making other people aware of the problem. My circle of tears needs to be boundless."
To learn more about Freeset Bags or to place an order, please visit www.freesetbags.com or contact email@example.com. You can also contact Jennifer Van Vleet at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (509) 328-2994.
The Master of International Management Program is part of Whitworth's School of Global Commerce and Management, and is designed for recent college graduates as well as for professionals seeking advanced skills in global management and international service. The MIM degree combines the business and management training of the best MBA programs with the specialized cross-cultural, linguistic, legal and ethical tools to meet the needs of progressive, globally oriented organizations.
Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private, liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The college enrolls 2,200 students in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.
Jennifer Van Vleet, Master of International Management student, Whitworth College, (509) 328-2994 or email@example.com.
Julie Riddle, public information specialist, Whitworth College, (509) 777-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.