Interviews & Profiles

AnnieCannons Founders Jessica Hubley and Laura Hackney

How to Take Your Food Startup to the Big Leagues

AnnieCannons trains human trafficking survivors in coding and other skills demanded by the tech industry, then helps them contract work on a project-by-project basis. We’re at the intersection of human rights activism, a coding bootcamp, and an outsourced software development business.

Jessica manages the preparations for AnnieCannons for-profit operations. An attorney and entrepreneur, she also serves as General Counsel and Director of Privacy and Security at a thriving software startup (Stride Health) after running a successful private practice and working in major law firms.

She has made a career advising web and software companies on matters including privacy issues, e-commerce, IP management, and distribution strategies and helping them implement privacy by design. Her experience helping contract developers manage their client intake and contracts helped generate the concept for AnnieCannons self-sustenance. She is currently represented by Trident Media Group for a narrative nonfiction proposal that highlights the stories of trafficking survivors from around the globe and how existing technology could have helped them.

Laura manages AnnieCannons not-for-profit services, including our pilot program training. Formerly Senior Research Associate for Stanford’s Anti-Trafficking Project in the Mekong Sub-Region and manager of the Program on Human Rights at Stanford, Laura now works at the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Policy Implementation Lab at Stanford.

She speaks Mandarin Chinese and has lived and studied in China to research on human trafficking in the Mekong region. Laura has spent years researching human trafficking around the world, specifically bride trafficking in Asia. Domestically, she works with the Human Trafficking Task Force within the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and supports the local Bay Area anti-trafficking groups. She has published on the topic of human trafficking in the Anti-Trafficking Review.

Names: Jessica Hubley and Laura Hackney
Location: San Francisco, CA
Company / Title: AnnieCannons, Inc. / Cofounders

Jessica got a Bachelor’s (summa cum laude) and Masters in History (minors in Italian and Studio Arts) in four years from Emory University, then got a JD from Stanford Law School (where she was President of Women of Stanford Law)

Laura received her M.A. in East Asian Studies from Stanford University. Her BA. from University of California-Berkeley was in Political Science and China Studies.

Have you had any previous experience of being an entrepreneur?

Jessica: My previous experience as an entrepreneur is really what led my cofounder and I to AnnieCannons. I have had a number of ideas – several of which other people said were “great ideas” – but I never had the connections to the funding I would need to get one-off the ground myself. I had joined nascent companies, but kept hitting the same kinds of ceilings: there was absolutely no intentional discrimination from the CEO in any of these cases, but there was an overwhelming presence of unconscious bias.

As a result, I found myself whispering my ideas to male interns and lower-level male employees to have them heard (and applauded, and acted upon). Over time I realized that I was playing a game with a stacked deck, and it was looking at how to change the deck itself that we got the vision for AnnieCannons.

Laura: I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. Instead, I found myself drawn to fieldwork and research on the subject of human trafficking (both in the US and abroad). However, after several years of work, I kept seeing survivors of human trafficking portrayed as ‘damsels in distress’ and this was affecting the anti-trafficking movement. Many survivors need immediate help, but, in this process, their own voices were being removed from questions around rehabilitation and service provision.

Anti-trafficking leaders wanted to rescue women and do the “flashy work”, but did not think or want to contribute to the idea that these women could create new and productive lives for themselves. I wanted to create an organization that prioritized empowering and listening to survivors, as well as giving them skills to truly succeed. I became an entrepreneur because hard, un-flashy work needs to be done.

What was your ah-ha moment, when you launched your company?

Jessica: Laura and I were doing research in Myanmar, interviewing human trafficking survivors at a shelter in Mandalay. We had already agreed that the international anti-trafficking community was focusing too heavily on law enforcement. We learned a lot that day, talking to survivors about what really happened to them but a few things stood out to me: every survivor we met was trafficked when trying really hard to get a job. They were trafficked after being tricked by someone they thought they could trust, or because they were offered an advance (usually of around $15) that they could give their families not because of a lack of intelligence. By then, I had spent years representing clients who charged $250-$500 per hour to develop software.

We thought, if we can put that kind of economic power into survivor’s hands, support the development of their own enterprises and give them reputational power in their communities, we could plug the human trafficking supply and start to expose that kind of fraud. Software knowledge and income delivered to a few women might transform a whole community. That is when we started planning for AnnieCannons central role in our lives. For me, the project is about helping to create exemplars from the least expected place in a way that helps all underestimated innovators.

Laura: When we went to these shelters, women were being trained in gendered tasks like jewelry-making, sewing, and cooking. I have respect and admiration for any organization trying to help reintegrate survivors, but I wanted to see skills that would eventually provide true economic independence for survivors.

I wanted to see skills that fostered creativity, pride, and intellect, and I did not want to settle for ‘all women can do is low-skilled work’. IT skills and software is a great fit. It opens doors, is lucrative, allows people to work in different environments, and can be learned in a relatively short period of time. As we all push for technology and Silicon Valley to be more inclusive, we can also push for better options for those who have suffered in slavery.

If you could go back five years, what advice would you give yourself?

Jessica: When the deck is stacked against you, do not waste time trying to figure out how you can still win the game. Go find a different game – maybe one where you put the deck together yourself. When everyone tells you there is only one game and everyone plays to win the same way, keep your vision. Every disruptive technology came from someone doing something the establishment thought would never fly, until it did.

What advice would you give women who are interested in working in your industry?

Laura: Partner, partner, partner. If you are starting a nonprofit, you have to do your research and see who else is out there and what is already being done. When you are 100% sure that you will be doing something that is filling a needed gap, then you need to look around and reach out to the people doing anything remotely similar.

Ask for advice, ask to partner, find ways that your organizations can help one another. Do not be stingy over data or best practices. Nonprofits have a tendency to put up walls because of the volatility of funding, but the best way to move forward is to keep the doors and lines open. Isolation won’t get you anywhere.

Jessica: Believe in your own abilities. Many more women get in their own way and inhibit their own success with self-doubt than have men thwart their advancement.

Being an entrepreneur is time-consuming; do you ever find yourself thinking about work at night while youre trying to sleep? What keeps you awake?

Jessica: I suspect most entrepreneurs think about how to get to their exit, but I stay up at night thinking about how we can move forward in a way that keeps us expanding perpetually. How we can put trainees back into management or teaching roles, how we can recycle revenues to fund meaningful expansion and how we can best leverage the success we have had to gain the ever-elusive credibility we need to secure investment to get us to the point where we sustain and grow from or own revenues?

Laura: I have seen a lot of organizations not listen to the people they are trying to help, and, subsequently, fail. I am kept up at night thinking about how our organization can expand and remain solid, but also remain nimble and always react appropriately to the most important people in this processthe survivors.

Tell us more about how you see your company evolving in five years?

Jessica: First and foremost, we run a pilot over the next 12 months that gives 26 survivors of human trafficking living in the Bay Area real life career skills ranging from reading to basic math to personal finance to literacy. Of those 26, based on aptitude and interest, we continue by teaching them IT support and data management, then web design skills, then, if they like, app development. We take our top three students and fund positions for them as teachers, which we try to do as often as possible.

However, even with only three teachers and about thirty students trained per year (and even where only a fraction do in fact become app developers) we have a force of workers with the skills to generate so much revenue from development that we become self-sustaining in less than five years on a 10-15% commission. To amplify the economic power we can deliver, we have already partnered with survivor aftercare shelters in countries like Romania. For us, years 3-10 will be spent funding a careful cultural translation in less developed countries that can deliver economic power where it is needed most and has the starkest impact.

Building a business needs a lot of planning, funding until its launched, what has been the biggest challenge throughout your company’s history?

Laura: Our biggest challenge has been the complexity and unlikelihood of our story. Unlike quick, for-profit presentations and pitches, our organization works on a huge and complicated social problem (human trafficking) and uses a new idea to solve it (technology training). Telling our story to organizations and funders and individuals has been a process of constant revision. We are often told to “focus on doing one thing” or “simplify!”.

In a VC pitch, doing one thing is a great strategy – but we want people who want to invest in global change, not a lone idea. And the change we are talking about will have vast amounts of components and considerations. We have also had to deal with people doubting the success of the survivors in our program and the success of our team to deliver on the sales of their work. We have been told to add more men on our board and have lower expectations. But over time, the work has been speaking for itself, and I plan for it to continue to do so.

Jessica: Our biggest challenge has been refining our elevator pitch to portray the first step of what we know is a very long roadmap to solve a multi-faceted problem in a way that’s still meaningful. We’re often told we should “focus on doing one thing.” It’s not bad advice – it’s just that we can’t solve the very big, very old problems we’re trying to solve by doing just one thing. In a VC pitch, doing one thing is a great strategy – but we’re pitching people who want to invest in global change, not a lone idea.

Tell us something interesting that happens behind the scenes in your company.

Jessica: One of our core operating principles is that everyone’s ideas should get a chance to be heard. So, for example, we have a sort of “wall” where we ask advisors, survivors, and others to jot down ideas for software that could fight trafficking or empower women. Ultimately, we will select software from among these ideas that our trainees can build as practice. We might even build the ideas wall into a software, too.

What kind of a business model do you have?

Jessica: We run a hybrid non-profit – we do not have stock or shareholders, and we are always working toward doing public good. However, we do ultimately want to generate revenue that is not a donation. To do that, we will retain only a modest commission on project fees for work we find, manage, and quality control for survivors who do the coding.

We have found that survivors we work with are actually happy to give something back to help others. In fact, we find survivors in the Bay Area spend more of their time fighting human trafficking and helping other survivors than any other group (including many career philanthropists).

In the process of creating your company, what things did you have to do that you hadnt accounted for?

Laura: I was not prepared to have a non-profit be treated so similarly to a for-profit. I believe in nonprofits being efficient, accountable, and transparent, but had not accounted for the profound emphasis on branding, pitching, and VC culture. I had assumed that our deep knowledge of the problem, our solid business plan, and our wealth of advisors and partners would speak for themselves, and donors would recognize the clear need for our organization. Instead, we bumped up against the “social entrepreneurship industry” that acts very similarly to the for-profit “start-up industry”.

There were buzzwords and celebrities and gatekeepers and competitive incubators, and I was left feeling like so much of the social import and necessity of our work was being downplayed or trivialized. We have created the decks and attended the pitch competitions and we will continue to do so as required, but I hope that our model will allow us to eventually step outside this wheelhouse.

Jessica: We thought any anti-trafficking philanthropist or foundation who heard about this panacea we’d envisioned for the trafficking problem – fighting discrimination, poverty, and vulnerability all at once – and who had funded other efforts would support us. It surprised me, though, how few people received the idea of letting survivors be their own heroes warmly. It was a serious learning experience for me to realize that, even in the non-profit space, I was still pitching my own ability to understand something complicated and make it work.

How did you to fund your business and how much money did you have to use? Was it your own, did you take a loan or were investors involved? Please tell us more about the whole process.

Jessica: We paid early expenses out of our own pockets and always to keep our cash demands at the absolute minimum. For our pilot’s cash needs, we have mostly focused on corporate foundations because few philanthropists are willing to fund the nascent phases of any organization.

What makes you proud of your company?

Jessica: We’ve turned our enemies methods against them, in some sense. Like the organized criminal syndicates that perpetrate the vast majority of human trafficking all over the globe, we build out products and services based on the makeup and capabilities of the vulnerable population that needs us for protection and support. Of course, we put the vast majority of revenue from that labor directly into the worker’s hands, unlike organized crime.

Most other software development companies start with one person or one idea and hire incrementally to take certain parts of the work off the CEO’s or CTOs plate. But our way guarantees that our personnel will always perfectly fit what we try to sell, and will always be the ones responsible for their own economic power. Because we have to fight stereotypes as well as competitors, giving our survivors credit for their accomplishments is paramount.

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